India in crisis as fascism festers

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at a press conference following a meeting with Kyrgyz President Sooronbay Jeenbekov (not seen) in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, 14 June 2019. EPA-EFE/IGOR KOVALENKO

Right-wing and, in some cases, explicitly fascist forms of politics are advancing across the planet. The free rein given to capital at the end of the Cold War has produced deep social crises that have, in turn, produced forms of right-wing and authoritarian politics that now threaten democracy.

The translation of economic crisis into political crisis is evident in the rise of the right in countries such as Australia, Hungary, Israel, Brazil, Poland, Turkey, the United Kingdom and the United States. In Bolivia, there were explicitly fascist elements in the coalition that seized power in the recent coup. In Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro is openly nostalgic for the dictatorship that ruled the country for more than 20 years. Bolsonaro has often been termed a fascist and is certainly a partisan of the extreme right.

But it is in India that an undeniably and explicitly fascist force has won control of the state. Narendra Modi joined the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) at the age of eight. The RSS, a Hindu nationalist paramilitary organisation, was founded in 1925 and was explicit about taking inspiration from European fascism, including Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. MS Golwalkar, a leading intellectual in the RSS openly admired Hitler’s “final solution”.

The RSS first came to global attention in 1948 when one of its militants assassinated Mohandas Gandhi. Today, the RSS continues to mobilise street violence against minorities and to promote an ideology that excludes non-Hindus from what used to be a broad and secular conception of Indian identity. Its intellectuals continue to take explicit inspiration from Hitler and visitors to India are often shocked to see copies of Hitler’s Mein Kampf on display on the streets. The RSS is widely understood to have birthed and to continue to control the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is now the ruling party in India.

Right-wing Hindu nationalism began its rise to power in 1992 after a frenzied mob of right-wing Hindu militants attacked and destroyed the 16th-century Babri Mosque in the city of Ayodhya, in Uttar Pradesh. Modi’s personal rise to power was also rooted in mob violence. In 2002, Modi, then the chief minister of the state of Gujarat, was widely implicated in an anti-Muslim pogrom during which at least 2,000 children, women and men were murdered, and a further 200,000 people displaced. As a result, the United Kingdom and the United States implemented a travel ban on Modi between 2005 and 2014.

Since then, mob violence, often fatal and often incited and circulated via WhatsApp, has become a routine feature of Indian life. Fascism is always grounded in an alliance between the mob and the state, and the BJP is now actively bringing the logic of the mob into the state, and the law.

On 11 December 2019 the Citizenship Amendment Act, which amended the Citizenship Act of 1955, was passed in parliament. It means that for the first time in post-colonial India the criteria for citizenship will effectively be based on religious affiliation. This effectively changes the status of India from a secular society to a Hindu state. The new act has been widely compared to Hitler’s Nuremberg laws, enacted in 1935, which sought to exclude Jewish, Romani and black people from German citizenship.

Across India, cities and universities have erupted in protest in response to the new laws. The state has responded with sustained brutality and shut down internet access. There have been a number of deaths and thousands of people are currently being detained by the police. The protests are the largest since Modi’s rise to power and have united disparate forces in an anti-fascist bloc. Modi’s government is now under significant popular pressure.

There is also a growing realisation that Modi’s mixture of authoritarian nationalism and hyper-capitalism, under the Trumpian slogan of “India First”, is having a devastating impact on the majority. Along with the rise in communal violence, the overt suppression of the judicial system and the systematic closing down of intellectual spaces there have also been major economic setbacks.

Unemployment under Modi is the highest it has been since the 1970s at 6.1%. By the end of 2019 the GDP of the Indian economy had slowed down significantly, leading to a recession, something not experienced in India since 1979. In addition, there has been a suicide epidemic of farmers in India, with close to an average of 33 farmers committing suicide every day as a result of heavy debt. India is now rated the fourth-worst polluting country in the world and 15 of the 20 most polluted cities in the world are in India.

It is a big business and the billionaire class has benefited from Modi’s rule. The Ambanis are one such family. Hailing from Modi’s home state of Gujarat, this family has prospered under the Modi regime, first in Gujarat itself and later nationally. They are consistently in the top 10 richest families in the world. With the backing of families such as the Ambanis, who have major controlling interests in the media, Bollywood and cricket, Modi is able to put a glamorous spin on fascist violence.

The Ambanis and their handmaidens in the form of Bollywood celebrities such as Amitabh Bachchan, Salman Khan and Priyanka Chopra, and cricketers such as Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Virat Kohli, provide legitimacy for the illegal occupation of Kashmir, everyday misogyny, mob and state violence and now the Citizenship Amendment Act.

Modi’s fascist politics is also a toxic presence on the global stage. He is strongly supportive of Benjamin Netanyahu and Israel, as well as Bolsonaro, Trump and Johnson. Together these men are building a right-wing international that ties chauvinism and authoritarianism to hyper-capitalism. This international right-wing alliance constrains political possibilities in less powerful countries such as South Africa, and was an important factor in enabling the recent coup in Bolivia.

South African Hindus, like Hindus elsewhere in the world, need to reflect deeply on their moral responsibilities in a time when fascist violence is being carried out in the name of Hinduism. As in the US and the United Kingdom, some South African Hindus have been directly complicit with the rise of fascism in India.

In July 2016 Modi was enthusiastically received in South Africa by our government. He was received with equal enthusiasm by many in the South African Indian community. A group terming itself the South Africa welcomes Modi committee arranged a grand welcome for a fascist with blood on his hands. During Modi’s visit, Ashwin Trikamjee of the Hindu Mahasaba, a man with general verbal diarrhoea in all matters to do with Hinduism, had very little to say when questioned by Kerushun Pillay about Modi and Hindu fascism.

Trikamjee’s silence should not be read as innocent. He is the president of the Hindu Mahasaba of South Africa, an organisation that is popularly and academically understood to be deeply linked with the RSS which, as noted above, is an undeniably fascist organisation. This link has been convincingly demonstrated by academics such Namrata R Ganneri, or TCA Raghavan, and is also evident in various documents produced by the early and later leaders of both the RSS and the Hindu Mahasaba and now available in archives.

Across the planet, an increasingly rapacious form of capitalism is working to sustain popular support by mobilising forms of chauvinism to turn people against one another. In many countries, electorates are choosing right-wing demagogues over a politics of solidarity. But the situation in India, where the ruling party is a vehicle for an openly fascist project, is particularly disturbing.

It is vital that we in South Africa take a clear position against Modi, against Hindu fascism, and in solidarity with the many thousands of people in India who are currently protesting, often at the real risk of arrest, assault and even murder, for a democratic and inclusive society.

Since the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s the slogan “No pasarán!” — They shall not pass! — has been used by anti-fascists around the world. We need to make it clear to Modi and his local enablers and appeasers that we shall not let their fascism pass. DM

Dr Vashna Jagarnath is a director of both Pan Africa Today and Friends of the Workers. She is also Deputy General Secretary of the Socialists Revolutionary Workers’ Party and Senior Research Associate at the Centre for Social Change at the University of Johannesburg.