Excerpts from an article from 2002 which is all the more relevant today.
Fascism’s firm footprint has appeared in India. Let’s mark the date: Spring, 2002. While we can thank the American President and the Coalition Against Terror for creating a congenial international atmosphere for its ghastly debut, we cannot credit them for the years it has been brewing in our public and private lives.
It breezed in in the wake of the Pokhran nuclear tests in 1998. From then onwards, the massed energy of bloodthirsty patriotism became openly acceptable political currency. The ‘weapons of peace’ trapped India and Pakistan in a spiral of brinkmanship—threat and counter-threat, taunt and counter-taunt. And now, one war and hundreds of dead later, more than a million soldiers from both armies are massed at the border, eyeball to eyeball, locked in a pointless nuclear standoff. The escalating belligerence against Pakistan has ricocheted off the border and entered our own body politic, like a sharp blade slicing through the vestiges of communal harmony and tolerance between the Hindu and Muslim communities. In no time at all, the godsquadders from hell have colonised the public imagination. And we allowed them in.
Each time the hostility between India and Pakistan is cranked up, within India there’s a corresponding increase in the hostility towards the Muslims. With each battle cry against Pakistan, we inflict a wound on ourselves, on our way of life, on our spectacularly diverse and ancient civilisation, on everything that makes India different from Pakistan. Increasingly, Indian Nationalism has come to mean Hindu Nationalism, which defines itself not through a respect or regard for itself, but through a hatred of the Other. And the Other, for the moment, is not just Pakistan, it’s Muslim. It’s disturbing to see how neatly nationalism dovetails into fascism. While we must not allow the fascists to define what the nation is, or who it belongs to, it’s worth keeping in mind that nationalism, in all its many avatars—socialist, capitalist and fascist—has been at the root of almost all the genocides of the twentieth century. On the issue of nationalism, it’s wise to proceed with caution.
Can we not find it in ourselves to belong to an ancient civilisation instead of to just a recent nation? To love a land instead of just patrolling a territory? The Sangh Parivar understands nothing of what civilisation means. It seeks to limit, reduce, define, dismember and desecrate the memory of what we were, our understanding of what we are, and our dreams of who we want to be. What kind of India do they want? A limbless, headless, soulless torso, left bleeding under the butchers’ cleaver with a flag driven deep into her mutilated heart? Can we let that happen? Have we let it happen?
The incipient, creeping fascism of the past few years has been groomed by many of our ‘democratic’ institutions. Everyone has flirted with it—Parliament, the press, the police, the administration, the public. Even ‘secularists’ have been guilty of helping to create the right climate. Each time you defend the right of an institution, any institution (including the Supreme Court), to exercise unfettered, unaccountable powers that must never be challenged, you move towards fascism. To be fair, perhaps not everyone recognised the early signs for what they were.
The national press has been startlingly courageous in its denunciation of the events of the last few weeks. Many of the BJP’s fellow travellers who have journeyed with it to the brink are now looking down the abyss into the hell that was once Gujarat, and turning away in genuine dismay. But how hard and for how long will they fight? This is not going to be like a publicity campaign for an upcoming cricket season. And there will not always be spectacular carnage to report on.
Fascism is also about the slow, steady infiltration of all the instruments of State power. It’s about the slow erosion of civil liberties, about unspectacular day-to-day injustices. Fighting it means fighting to win back the minds and hearts of people. Fighting it does not mean asking for RSS shakhas and the madrassas to be banned, it means working towards the day when they’re voluntarily abandoned as bad ideas. It means keeping an eagle eye on public institutions and demanding accountability. It means putting your ear to the ground and listening to the whispering of the truly powerless. It means giving a forum to the myriad voices from the hundreds of resistance movements across the country who are speaking about real things—about bonded labour, marital rape, sexual preferences, women’s wages, uranium dumping, unsustainable mining, weavers’ woes, farmers’ worries. It means fighting displacement and dispossession and the relentless, everyday violence of abject poverty. Fighting it also means not allowing your newspaper columns and prime-time TV spots to be hijacked by their spurious passions and their staged theatrics, which are designed to divert attention from everything else.
While most people in India have been horrified by what happened in Gujarat, many thousands of the indoctrinated are preparing to journey deeper into the heart of the horror. Look around you and you’ll see in little parks, in big maidans, in empty lots, in village commons, the RSS is marching, hoisting its saffron flag. Suddenly they’re everywhere, grown men in khaki shorts marching, marching, marching. To where? For what? Their disregard for history shields them from the knowledge that fascism will thrive for a short while and then self-annihilate because of its inherent stupidity. But unfortunately, like the radioactive fallout of a nuclear strike, it has a half-life that will cripple generations to come.
These levels of rage and hatred cannot be contained, cannot be expected to subside, with public censure and denunciation. Hymns of brotherhood and love are great, but not enough.
Historically, fascist movements have been fuelled by feelings of national disillusionment. Fascism has come to India after the dreams that fuelled the Freedom Struggle have been frittered away like so much loose change.
Independence itself came to us as what Gandhi famously called a ‘wooden loaf’—a notional freedom tainted by the blood of the thousands who died during Partition. For more than half a century now, the hatred and mutual distrust has been exacerbated, toyed with and never allowed to heal by politicians, led from the front by Mrs Indira Gandhi. Every political party has tilled the marrow of our secular parliamentary democracy, mining it for electoral advantage. Like termites excavating a mound, they’ve made tunnels and underground passages, undermining the meaning of ‘secular’, until it has just become an empty shell that’s about to implode. Their tilling has weakened the foundations of the structure that connects the Constitution, Parliament and the courts of law—the configuration of checks and balances that forms the backbone of a parliamentary democracy. Under the circumstances, it’s futile to go on blaming politicians and demanding from them a morality they’re incapable of. There’s something pitiable about a people that constantly bemoans its leaders. If they’ve let us down, it’s only because we’ve allowed them to. It could be argued that civil society has failed its leaders as much as leaders have failed civil society. We have to accept that there is a dangerous, systemic flaw in our parliamentary democracy that politicians will exploit. And that’s what results in the kind of conflagration that we have witnessed in Gujarat. There’s fire in the ducts. We have to address this issue and come up with a systemic solution.
But politicians’ exploitation of communal divides is by no means the only reason that fascism has arrived on our shores.
Over the past fifty years, ordinary citizens’ modest hopes for lives of dignity, security and relief from abject poverty have been systematically snuffed out. Every ‘democratic’ institution in this country has shown itself to be unaccountable, inaccessible to the ordinary citizen, and either unwilling, or incapable of acting, in the interests of genuine social justice. Every strategy for real social change—land reform, education, public health, the equitable distribution of natural resources, the implementation of positive discrimination—has been cleverly, cunningly and consistently scuttled and rendered ineffectual by those castes and that class of people who have a stranglehold on the political process. And now corporate globalisation is being relentlessly and arbitrarily imposed on an essentially feudal society, tearing through its complex, tiered, social fabric, ripping it apart culturally and economically.
There is very real grievance here. And the fascists didn’t create it. But they have seized upon it, upturned it and forged from it a hideous, bogus sense of pride. They have mobilised human beings using the lowest common denominator—religion. People who have lost control over their lives, people who have been uprooted from their homes and communities who have lost their culture and their language, are being made to feel proud of something. Not something they have striven for and achieved, not something they can count as a personal accomplishment, but something they just happen to be. Or, more accurately, something they happen not to be. And the falseness, the emptiness of that pride, is fuelling a gladiatorial anger that is then directed towards a simulated target that has been wheeled into the amphitheatre.
How else can you explain the project of trying to disenfranchise, drive out or exterminate the second-poorest community in this country, using as your footsoldiers the very poorest (Dalits and Adivasis)? How else can you explain why Dalits in Gujarat, who have been despised, oppressed and treated worse than refuse by the upper castes for thousands of years, have joined hands with their oppressors to turn on those who are only marginally less unfortunate than they themselves? Are they just wage slaves, mercenaries for hire? Is it all right to patronise them and absolve them of responsibility for their own actions? Or am I being obtuse? Perhaps it’s common practice for the unfortunate to vent their rage and hatred on the next most unfortunate, because their real adversaries are inaccessible, seemingly invincible and completely out of range? Because their own leaders have cut loose and are feasting at the high table, leaving them to wander rudderless in the wilderness, spouting nonsense about returning to the Hindu fold. (The first step, presumably, towards founding a Global Hindu Empire, as realistic a goal as Fascism’s previously failed projects—the restoration of Roman Glory, the purification of the German race or the establishment of an Islamic Sultanate.)
One hundred and thirty million Muslims live in India. Hindu fascists regard them as legitimate prey. Do people like Modi and Bal Thackeray think that the world will stand by and watch while they’re liquidated in a ‘civil war?’ Press reports say that the European Union and several other countries have condemned what happened in Gujarat and likened it to Nazi rule. The Indian government’s portentous response is that foreigners should not use the Indian media to comment on what is an ‘internal matter’ (like the chilling goings-on in Kashmir?). What next? Censorship? Closing down the Internet? Blocking international calls? Killing the wrong ‘terrorists’ and fudging the dna samples? There is no terrorism like State terrorism.
But who will take them on? Their fascist cant can perhaps be dented by some blood and thunder from the Opposition. So far only Laloo Yadav of Bihar has shown himself to be truly passionate: “Kaun mai ka lal kehta hai ki yeh Hindu rashtra hai? Usko yahan bhej do, chhati phad doonga!” (Which mother’s son says this is a Hindu Nation? Send him here, I’ll tear his chest open.)
Unfortunately there’s no quick fix. Fascism itself can only be turned away if all those who are outraged by it show a commitment to social justice that equals the intensity of their indignation.
Are we ready to get off our starting blocks? Are we ready, many millions of us, to rally not just on the streets, but at work and in schools and in our homes, in every decision we take, and every choice we make?
Or not just yet…
If not, then years from now, when the rest of the world has shunned us (as it should), like the ordinary citizens of Hitler’s Germany, we too will learn to recognise revulsion in the gaze of our fellow human beings. We too will find ourselves unable to look our own children in the eye, for the shame of what we did and did not do. For the shame of what we allowed to happen.
This is us. In India. Heaven help us make it through the night.