Fascism: Making it in India

[Comments by NDMLP International Affairs Study Group]

The Indian corporate media holds the Hindu fascist fringe comprising the RSS, VHP, Bajrang Dal and some in the BJP responsible for hate speech and whipping up of communal frenzy which are deflecting Modi regime’s focus on development. They seek to establish that the Modi regime and the Hindu fascist fringe are separate entities. The truth is far from it.

Modi owes his position on the one hand to the Hindu fascists, both fringe and core, and on the other to the pro-West media who crave close ties with the US, based entirely on big capitalist interests. The print and electronic media were rallying points for the urban middle classes who imagined that they will have a stake in the new economic order of unlimited privatization and opening up of national resources to imperialist plunder, with a section of that class even willing to accommodate the Hindutva agenda of the BJP. They also expected ‘clean and efficient government’, and Modi seemed to start with a bang. But endemic incompetence and corruption got the better of him. Soon he could not even pretend to run a clean or efficient government.

The Anti-Muslim Agenda

The fascist agenda did not, however, lose direction, and proceeded independently of the plans of the Modi regime for the Indian economy. The Modi regime knowingly yielded to the Hindutva agenda and let state governments with the BJP and its Hindutva allies in control have a free hand in imposing the Hindutva agenda as well as turn a blind eye to anti-Muslim violence provoked and sustained by the Hindu fascist fringe. There was, as a result, an overall rise in anti-Muslim violence. Hindutva forces in positions of power acted to undermine the nominally secular nature of the Indian state. None of these, including attacks on Christian churches and communities, affected imperialist interests in India because imperialism ― despite its anti-Islamist agenda, partly a consequence of its colonial past and partly of its mischievous use of Islam to serve its global political ends ― has turned a blind eye to religious fascism in Asia as long as the fascist agenda did not hurt imperialist economic interests.

The RSS has again stirred up the issue of introducing a uniform Civil Code for all citizens irrespective of religion or ethnicity, as already in practice in BJP-ruled Goa. The proposed uniform Civil Code was aimed at the Muslims and designed to build the impression that existing laws allow Muslims to be a nation within a nation, which is unacceptable.

At a national executive meeting of the RSS at Kochi in October 2013, Joint Secretary Hosabale called on Hindus to have more children. The RSS stirs the fear that Hindus will be a minority in India in the not-too-distant future. The purpose is purely to pander to existing anti-Muslim prejudices feeding on the paranoid anti-Muslim campaign which gained momentum, following the decline of the Congress to the advantage of the BJP.

The question of cow slaughter ― an issue which rose and fell some decades ago ― was revived as part of the anti-Muslim agenda, in ways similar to the anti-beef and anti-halal-labelling issues in Sri Lanka a few years ago. While there is restriction on cow slaughter across most of India, ban on beef is a recent move, designed to target Muslims more politically than economically in states where the BJP took power. While Christians, Dalits and some of the tribal (Adivasi) population have no inhibitions about beef consumption as do a rising number of urban ‘upper caste Hindus’. Since Modi took office, hard-line Hindus have been trying to force a national ban on beef sales – a key industry for many within India’s poor, minority Muslim community. This drew public attention following the Dadri Lynching of 28th September 2015, where a BJP mob bludgeoned to death Mohammad Akhlaq, a Muslim after forcibly entering his house. It also seriously injured his son.

BJP’s arrogant attitude was such that, following a national furore, government and BJP personalities offered callous utterances like “this is just an accident” (Mahesh Sharma, Minister of Culture); “it is not the Hindu community’s responsibility to maintain peace” (BJP MP Tarun Vijay); the lynch mob comprised “children barely 10-15 years old” (local BJP leader Nawab Singh Nagar); the police should take “legal action against those people, who are engaged in cow slaughter” (local BJP leader Vichitra Tomar); the police did not take action and “some people got agitated” (BJP district president Thakur Harish Singh);  “This happens every day. When we hurt people’s sentiments, such clashes take place.” (Shrichand Sharma, vice-president, western UP unit of BJP). (For more details see: http://www.huffingtonpost.in/2015/10/01/bjp-leaders-dadri-murder_n_8225574.html?1443711117&utm_hp_ref=india).  BJP’s Manohar Lal Khattar, Chief Minister, Haryana, who wanted Muslims to stop eating beef out of respect for the sentiments of Hindus, beat a retreat ― after his words received global publicity ― to plead that his words “have been misconstrued and twisted” (http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/Haryana-CM-denies-saying-Muslims-have-to-give-up-beef/articleshow/49402529.cms). But the damage was done.

Modi broke his silence on 8th October, avoiding condemning the murder (The Hindu, 9th October 2015). That encouraged Hindutva goons. On 16th October in Haryana a village mob beat a Muslim man to death with sticks and injured four others, but the police arrested the four surviving victims of attack for alleged animal cruelty, not the attackers.

The ban on beef used for lynching Muslims was hypocritical since, despite BJP’s long campaign for a complete ban on cow slaughter, India is now the world’s largest exporter of beef. Also, Sangeet Som, BJP MLA for Meerut ― an accused in the Muzzafarnagar Riot of August–September 2013, that killed at least 62 including 42 Muslims and 20 Hindus, injured 93, and displaced more than 50,000, mostly Muslims ― who brazenly justified the murder of Akhlaq and demanded the release of the arrested, claiming that they were “innocent”. Sangeet Som, interestingly, was the director of the Meat Processing Plant ‘Al Dua’ which, according to Alibaba, a major e-commerce website, exports beef and buffalo meat. (http://cpim.org/views/myth-hindutva-fringe). Such is Hindutva hypocrisy.

The Anti-Secular Agenda

The BJP regime’s march towards fascism has another priority in its agenda, namely suppression of secular thought. This has manifested at different levels. The project to saffronize text books started in earnest early this century. The RSS gave importance to rewriting of history as a major strategy, and adopted a two-pronged approach.

In 2002, the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government sought to change school textbooks published though the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) by using a new National Curriculum Framework, which aimed to highlight the profile of Hindu cultural norms, views and historical personalities in school textbooks as well as a distorted picture of Indian history and Indian culture (for example, “Vedic science”). The Congress-led United Peoples’ Alliance that came to power in 2004 reversed the process and pledged to “de-saffronize” textbooks and curricula nationwide to restore the secular character of education with new NCERT textbooks, based on the texts used before the controversial 2002 updates. Following the return of the BJP in 2014 with a massive parliamentary majority, BJP’s old agenda is back on track.

Senior RSS leaders had instructed ministers from the BJP to lay emphasis on education, ensuring that textbooks reflect the ‘real’ history and to find a place for Sanskrit in the school curriculum. With the new government education policy set to be announced in early 2015, right wing bodies and ideologues, especially the RSS have been on overdrive to demand changes to rectify ‘the flawed history narrative taught to students across the country’. In November 2014, the NDA government controversially decided to replace German with Sanskrit as the third language in Kendriya Vidyalaya schools (source: Hindustan Times, Nagpur, Internet edition, updated: Dec 18, 2014).

The more important attack on secularism, however, lay outside textbooks. Publication of textbooks takes time and serious historians and credible authors of textbooks mostly lie outside the reach of the BJP. The electronic media and the entertainment industry have proven to be more effective in popularizing the Hindutva myth. Using great Indian classics the Ramayana and Mahabharata, their subtexts and Hindu mythology as entertainment is not new. But the recent trend of tampering with the text to modify the source beyond recognition has added a new dimension. ‘Ancient-science fiction’ could be an appropriate term to describe them. These as well as children’s books on Indian history designed to propagate Hindu arrogance in the name of cultural pride have an even stronger impact on young minds than school text books do.

Tampering with history has been necessary not only to brainwash the young Hindu minds about the ‘glorious Hindu past’ which was lain barren by Muslim conquerors but also to justify acts of vandalism like the demolition of the Babar Masjid on pretext that it was located near the birth place of the mythological Hindu god Rama, and the sectarian project to erect a temple for Rama in its place (Censorship: A World Encyclopaedia, ed. Derek Jones, Routledge, 2001, p. 154). Secular thinkers are obstacles to any sectarian agenda and need to be weeded out by any means possible. Among many instances are the resignation, under political pressure, by Ram Reddy as editor of the highly regarded Economic and Political Weekly in December 2015 well before his expected retirement date of 31st March 2016, and before a successor was found.
The resignation led to a strong protest by 101 globally acclaimed academics and contributors. (http://indianexpress.com/article/india/india-news-india/epw-editors-exit-101-academics-write-dreze-quits-board/).

More violent means comprised physical attack and murder in the name of defending Hinduism to silence prominent secular activists. It started with Dr Narendra Dabholkar (20th August 2013), and was followed by communist and trade union activist Govind Pansare (attacked 16th February 2015, died 20th February) and Prof MM Kalburgi (30th August 2015) . However, it was the beef lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq that triggered the returning of Sahitya Academy, national and state awards in quick succession.  The BJP’s efforts to attribute sectarian political motives to this strong response of leading literary the impact served only to dent the credibility of the BJP regime, both nationally and internationally. (http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/oct/14/indian-writers-return-awards-in-protest-against-climate-of-intolerance)
Hindu fascism was not easily deterred, the campaign of intimidation of public personalities persisted. Sudheendra Kulkarni, chairman of the Observer Research Foundation, suffered an ink attack on 12th October 2015 in Bombay, ahead of the launch of “Neither a Hawk Nor a Dove: An Insider’s Account of Pakistan’s Foreign Relations” by Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri, former foreign minister of Pakistan. The attack was by the BJP’s ally Shiv Sena which, according to Kulkarni, had opposed the event and threatened to disrupt it.

Anti-Intellectual Attacks

Fascist fear of free opinion found explicit expression in the withdrawal of recognition in May 2015 to the Ambedkar-Periyar Study Circle (APSC) by IIT-Madras which lets several right-wing organisations, ranging from RSS groups to bodies like the Vivekananda Study Circle function unhindered. The APSC was given ‘notice of de-recognition’ within an year of its founding, following a complaint by RSS students to the Ministry of Human Resource Development which took up with IIT-Madras “the distribution of controversial posters and pamphlets in the campus” and “creating an atmosphere of hatred among students by one student group” as well as sowing disaffection against the Prime Minister and Hindus. It took a sustained nationwide campaign for IIT-Madras to relent.

That was barely the tip of the iceberg. Worse followed in 2016. On 16th January, Rohith Vemula, a Dalit student, committed suicide following disciplinary action by the Hyderabad Central University (HCU). He was a member of the Ambedkar Students’ Association (ASA) at the HCU, which ran afoul of the Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), an RSS affiliated student outfit, because it organized a prayer meeting on 30th July 2015 for Yakub Memon following his execution by the Indian government for his alleged role in the 1993 Bombay blasts. (Memon’s trial and sentencing, like Afzal Guru’s, was controversial, and even intelligence officials questioned the fairness of the verdict and the decision to execute.) The ABVP, with BJP’s backing, ran a campaign of harassment against the ASA, and compelled the HCU through the Ministry of Human Resource Development to suspend Vemula and four others. The punishment was later amended in December 2015 to expulsion from hostel and debarring from student political work. Vemula committed suicide soon after, leaving behind a deeply poignant suicide note that read in part: “The value of a man was reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility. To a vote. To a number. To a thing. Never was a man treated as a mind.” (http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/dalit-scholar-rohith-vemulas-suicide-letter-clarity-of-a-suicide-note/article8130703.ece) The death provoked weeks of public discussion and protest about the continuation of caste oppression in India. His suicide note was a serious indictment of the institutions of higher education in India which sustain discrimination against depressed communities, some overtly and others covertly.

The ABVP waited its turn, which arrived when the students of the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) held an event titled “The Country Without a Post Office” on 9th February 2016 campus, attended by representatives from most of JNU’s political outfits. The event, organised in solidarity with the struggle of the Kashmiri people for their democratic right to self-determination and, among other things, to protest the ‘judicial killing’ of Afzal Guru, too place despite the JNU administration cancelling permission following a complaint by ABVP members, who called the activity as anti-national. A scuffle between the ABVP and the Left organisations followed the event. It is true that there was provocative sloganeering by some at the fringes of a gathering but not from the meeting itself. The JNU administration erred in letting the police enter the campus without provocation, when there was room for dialogue. (See: http://sanhati.com/articles/16181/#sthash.ll4Hg42S.dpuf). The build-up to the crisis was rapid, and there is reason to believe that it was carefully orchestrated.

Maheish Giri, BJP MP from East Delhi, on 11th February lodged an FIR against ‘anti-national’ students of Jawaharlal Nehru University who opposed the death penalty to parliament attack convict Afzal Guru. On 12th February, Home Minister Rajnath Singh warned of “strongest possible” action against those involved in raising anti-India slogans the JNU campus; and SAR Geelani former Lecturer in Arabic at Delhi University was arrested for sedition (and later released) in connection with an event at Press Club of India, where a group shouted slogans hailing Afzal Guru. Kanhaiya Kumar, president of the Jawaharlal Nehru University Students Union (JNUSU) was arrested in a case of sedition and criminal conspiracy by the Delhi police acting in connivance with ABVP to target the “entire Left”. The JNU debarred eight students from academic activities, pending disciplinary enquiry. The whole episode was scripted and staged to punish the left-dominated student’s union and subdue the JHU with a reputation for left and secular thinking. (Read more at: http://www.oneindia.com/feature/jnu-timeline-protest-over-afzal-guru-hangingsedition-row-who-said-what-explained-2014876.html).

In their push for overkill, the Hindutva conspirators, with support from a section of the police, doctored a video of the address by Kanhaiya Kumar to ensure prolonged detention. But that attempt misfired following the exposure of doctoring of the video, which expedited Kanhaiya Kumar‘s release on bail and dented the credibility of the Delhi Police.  His arrest and the organisation of “anti-JNU” demonstrations in Delhi by the BJP and by Hindu organisations on 12th February were political moves to assert and violently protect a conservative social morality. The aggressive identification of an enemy of the nation, specifically within universities, briefly distracted attention from the demands for social change provoked by Vemula’s death. (https://www.jacobinmag.com/2016/03/india-students-jnu-protest-narendra-modi-bjp/)
In both the HCU and JNU, Hindutva fascists manipulated the death penalty issue to mobilize popular sentiment and foment Islamophobia. In the HCU, ABVP’s attack on Dalit students laid bare the pretence of Hindu nationalism which has for long tried to court Dalits to pit them against Muslims in the name of a single Hindu majoritarian identity. But their deeply entrenched casteism came to the fore in the hostile response of Hindu nationalism to the radical Dalit movement, demanding the annihilation of caste amid devastating critiques of Hinduism.

The Way Forward

A positive outcome of the two events is the bonding between HCU and JNU students. One of the suspended HCU students attending a rally at JNU underlined the similarities between both instances of right-wing repression. On 23rd February, many JNU students marched alongside HCU students and Dalit activists in Delhi to protest injustices faced by Vemula and demand the introduction of a law to end caste discrimination in educational institutions. In a speech on the JNU campus, Umar Khalid, a JNU Marxist Leninist student activist cited Vemula’s suicide note, saying that he had never considered himself a Muslim until the media reduced him to this identity, and that students would fight together to ensure the tragedy of Vemula’s death would not be repeated.

Further, these are not the only solidarities being forged at the moment. As the JNU saga unfolded, workers at a Honda factory just south of Delhi went on strike, the latest instance of labour militancy in this restive industrial belt. Several of the striking workers came to the JNU campus and spoke of their movement, their support of the JNU students, and the need to build stronger connections between workers and students. (https://www.jacobinmag.com/2016/03/india-students-jnu-protest-narendra-modi-bjp/)

Historically, the relationship between Dalit movements and the left has been uneasy, especially since Dalit entry into parliamentary politics in which the Old Left has fully immersed itself. Dalit activists, including Vemula, have rightly criticized the Old Left’s habit of dismissing caste issues in the name of class analysis, and the domination of the two main left parties by the upper castes. The Revolutionary Left, however, locates struggles against caste and national oppression within the framework of class struggle while, in given contexts, even placing them on par, with class struggle.

These are positive developments on which the anti-fascist movement should build. There is, however, the need to bring together various left, progressive and democratic forces under one anti-fascist, anti-imperialist umbrella, as the link between fascism and imperialism is strong and hence the anti-fascist and anti-imperialist cannot be isolated.

The anti-fascist agenda should not be oversimplified as secularism, although it is an important or even an integral part of it. It has to accommodate seemingly centrifugal tendencies based on identity issue without denouncing such tendencies a sectarian. Thus to develop a broad-based anti-fascist mass movement there is a need to have a general programme for the whole of India which will accommodate sector-wise programmes to address issues specific to different regions and communities.

As a first step, the Marxist Leninist left which is the most qualified to politically lead and organizationally mobilize the Indian masses as an anti-fascist, anti-imperialist mass movement for the liberation of the India from the clutches of imperialism and its fascist accomplices backed by big business, should free itself of some of its old ailments.

The concept of a broad-based mass movement needs to be reactivated among left movements and sectarianism raising its head in the name of ideological purity should be firmly resisted. Ideological purity is of no use in isolation from the masses and is as bad as populist opportunist policies which lack principle. The Marxist Leninist left should have confidence in its political line to the point that it does not feel threatened by working with organizations with ideological differences, but are even potentially ant-imperialist and anti-fascist.

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