Fascism's Firm Footprint in India


[from the September 30, 2002 issue]


Gujarat, the only major state in India with a

government headed by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP),

has for some years been the petri dish in which Hindu

fascism has been fomenting an elaborate political

experiment. In spring 2002, the initial results were

put on public display. 

It began within hours of the Godhra outrage--in which

fifty-eight Hindus were killed when a train returning

from the disputed site of Ayodhya on February 27 was

set alight as it pulled out of a station in Godhra, in

Gujarat. Even now, months later, nobody knows who was

responsible for the crime. The Forensic Department

report clearly says that the fire was started inside

the coach. This raises a huge question mark over the

theory that the train was set alight by a Muslim mob

that had gathered outside the train. However, the

then-Home Minister (now elevated to the post of Deputy

Prime Minister), L.K. Advani, immediately

announced--with no evidence to back his

statement--that the attack was a Pakistani plot. 

On the evening of February 27, Hindu nationalists in

the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP, the World Hindu

Council) and the Bajrang Dal movement put into motion

a meticulously planned pogrom against the Muslim

community. Press reports put the number of dead at

just over 800. Human rights organizations have said it

is closer to 2,000. As many as 100,000 people, driven

from their homes, now live in refugee camps. Women

were stripped and gang-raped, and parents were

bludgeoned to death in front of their children. In

Ahmedabad, the former capital of Gujarat and the

second-largest industrial city in the state, the tomb

of Wali Gujarati, the founder of the modern Urdu poem,

was demolished and paved over in the course of a

night. The tomb of the musician Ustad Faiyaz Khan was

desecrated. Arsonists burned and looted shops, homes,

hotels, textile mills, buses and cars. Hundreds of

thousands have lost their jobs. 

Across Gujarat, thousands of people made up the mobs.

They were armed with petrol bombs, guns, knives and

swords. Apart from the VHP and Bajrang Dal's usual

lumpen constituency, there were Dalits (untouchables)

and Adivasis (indigenous peoples), who were brought in

on buses and trucks. Middle-class people participated

in the looting. (On one memorable occasion, a family

arrived in a Mitsubishi Lancer.) The leaders of the

mob had computer-generated lists marking out Muslim

homes, shops and businesses. They used mobile phones

to coordinate the action. They had not just police

protection and police connivance, but also covering

fire. The cooking-gas cylinders they used to burn

Muslim homes and establishments had been hoarded weeks

in advance, causing a severe gas shortage in


While Gujarat burned, our prime minister, Atal Bihari

Vajpayee, was on MTV promoting his new poems. (Reports

say cassettes have sold 100,000 copies.) It took him

more than a month--and two vacations in the hills--to

make it to Gujarat. When he did, he gave a speech at

the Shah Alam refugee camp. His mouth moved, he tried

to express concern, but no real sound emerged except

the mocking of the wind whistling through a burned,

bloodied, broken world. Next we knew, he was bobbing

around in a golf cart, striking business deals in


One hundred and thirty million Muslims live in India.

Hindu fascists regard them as legitimate prey. The

lynch mob continues to be the arbiter of the routine

affairs of daily life: who can live where, who can say

what, who can meet whom and where and when. Its

mandate is expanding quickly. From religious affairs,

it now extends to property disputes, family

altercations, the planning and allocation of water

resources. Muslim businesses have been shut down.

Muslim people are not served in restaurants. Muslim

children are not welcome in schools. Muslim parents

live in dread that their infants might forget what

they've been told and give themselves away by saying

"Ammi!" or "Abba!" in public and invite sudden and

violent death. 

Notice has been given: This is just the beginning. 

No matter who they were, or how they were killed, each

person who died in Gujarat deserves to be mourned.

There have been hundreds of outraged letters to

journals and newspapers asking why the

"pseudo-secularists" do not condemn the burning of the

Sabarmati Express in Godhra with the same degree of

outrage with which they condemn the killings in the

rest of Gujarat. What they don't seem to understand is

that there is a fundamental difference between a

pogrom and the burning of the train in Godhra. We

still don't know who exactly was responsible for the

carnage in Godhra. But every independent report says

the pogrom against the Muslim community in Gujarat has

at best been conducted under the benign gaze of the

state and, at worst, with active state collusion.

Either way, the state is criminally culpable. 

While the parallels between contemporary India and

prewar Germany are chilling, they're not surprising.

(The founders of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh

[RSS], the National Volunteer Force that is the moral

and cultural guild of the BJP, have in their writings

been frank in their admiration for Hitler and his

methods.) One difference is that here in India we

don't have a Hitler. We have instead the hydra-headed,

many-armed Sangh Parivar--the "joint family" of Hindu

political and cultural organizations, with the BJP,

the RSS, the VHP and the Bajrang Dal each playing a

different instrument. Its utter genius lies in its

apparent ability to be all things to all people at all


The Sangh Parivar speaks in as many tongues. It can

say several contradictory things simultaneously. While

one of its heads (the VHP) exhorts millions of its

cadres to prepare for the Final Solution, its titular

head (the prime minister) assures the nation that all

citizens, regardless of their religion, will be

treated equally. It can ban books and films and burn

paintings for "insulting Indian culture."

Simultaneously, it can mortgage the equivalent of 60

percent of the entire country's rural development

budget as profit to Enron. But underneath all the

clamor and the noise, a single heart beats. And an

unforgiving mind with saffron-saturated tunnel vision

works overtime. 

Whipping up communal hatred is part of the mandate of

the Sangh Parivar. It has been planned for years.

Hundreds of RSS shakhas across the country (shakha

literally means "branch," and RSS shakhas are

"educational" cells) have been indoctrinating

thousands of children and young people, stunting their

minds with religious hatred and falsified history,

including unfactual or wildly exaggerated accounts of

the rape and pillaging of Hindu women and Hindu

temples by Muslim rulers in the precolonial period. In

states like Gujarat, the police, the administration

and the political cadres at every level have been

systematically penetrated. It has huge popular appeal,

which it would be foolish to underestimate or

misunderstand. The whole enterprise has a formidable

religious, ideological, political and administrative

underpinning. This kind of power, this kind of reach,

can only be achieved with state backing. 

Under this relentless pressure, what will most likely

happen is that the majority of the Muslim community

will resign itself to living in ghettos as

second-class citizens, in constant fear, with no civil

rights and no recourse to justice. What will daily

life be like for them? Any little thing, an

altercation at a cinema or a fracas at a traffic

light, could turn lethal. So they will learn to keep

very quiet, to accept their lot, to creep around the

edges of the society in which they live. Their fear

will transmit itself to other minorities. Many,

particularly the young, will probably turn to

militancy. They will do terrible things. Civil society

will be called upon to condemn them. Then President

Bush's canon will come back to us: "You're either with

us or with the terrorists." 

Those words hang frozen in time like icicles. For

years to come, butchers and genocidists will fit their

grisly mouths around them ("lip-sync," filmmakers call

it) to justify their butchery. 

Bal Thackeray, the leader of the Shiv Sena--the

right-wing Hindu fundamentalist political party in the

state of Maharashtra, responsible for a pogrom in

which hundreds of Muslims were massacred in the city

of Bombay in 1992-93--has the lasting solution. He's

called for civil war. Isn't that just perfect? Then

Pakistan won't need to bomb us, we can bomb ourselves.

Let's turn all of India into Kashmir. When all our

farmlands are mined, our buildings destroyed, our

infrastructure reduced to rubble, our children

physically maimed and mentally wrecked, maybe we can

appeal to the Americans to help us out. Airdropped

airline meals, anyone? 

Fascism's firm footprint has appeared in India. Let's

mark the date. 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. The

massed energy of bloodthirsty patriotism became openly

acceptable political currency after India's nuclear

tests in 1998. The "weapons of peace" have trapped

India and Pakistan in a spiral of brinkmanship--threat

and counterthreat, taunt and countertaunt. 

Fascism is 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 does not mean

asking for RSS shakhas and madrassahs that are overtly

communal to be banned. It means working toward 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 that are speaking about real

issues--about mining, about bonded labor, marital

rape, sexual preferences, women's wages, uranium

dumping, weavers' woes, farmers' worries. It means

fighting displacement and dispossession and the

relentless, everyday violence of abject poverty. 

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 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. 

Historically, fascist movements have been fueled by

feelings of national disillusionment. Fascism has come

to India after the dreams that fueled 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 hundreds of thousands who

died during Partition. For more than half a century

now, that heritage of hatred and mutual distrust has

been exacerbated, toyed with and never allowed to heal

by politicians. 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. And now corporate

globalization is being relentlessly and arbitrarily

imposed on India, ripping it apart culturally and


There is very real grievance here. 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 mobilized 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, but something they just

happen to be. Or, more accurately, something they

happen not to be. 

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, 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

recognize 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 didn't do. For the shame of what we allowed to



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