WHAT'S UP INDIA?

India is displaying classic signs that foreshadow fascism

Quartz india
Quartz india

India is in churn. To what end, it is too early to say. And as with everything else about the country, the process is neither uniform nor universal nor consistent. But in churn it is undoubtedly. Traditional social equations, religious identities, political activism, and nationalism are all in overhaul mode. So much so that the emerging country may, in a few years, seem unrecognizable.

Many observers recoil at the seeping of Hindutva (Hinduness) into the national consciousness. A provocatively titled piece in The New York Times by author Pankaj Mishra began thus, “Brexit, Erdogan, Putin and now Trump. Something is rotten in the state of democracy… The stink first became unmistakable in India in May 2014, when Narendra Modi, a member of an alt-right Hindu organisation inspired by fascists and Nazis, was elected prime minister.”  The emerging country may, in a few years, seem unrecognizable. 

Mishra was expectedly roasted for dubbing Modi as a disaster in the making for India. However, the Indian prime minister’s lifelong association with Hindu nationalist organisation Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) inevitably leaves him open to such charges. RSS, with its avowed goal of the Hindu rashtra, or Hindu nation, and of which Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is an offshoot, has always had a fascination for the likes of Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler. And with the BJP’s electoral triumph—in 2014, it formed India’s first full majority government in decades—the spectre of violent identity politics has once again raised its head.

So, is today’s transforming India steadily shedding values such as tolerance and its famed ecumenical identity even as it gains material prosperity? After all, everyday conversations, online chatboards, and social media upheavals are coercing behavioral change in even the country’s well-off segments. Or is this merely a passing phase that will give way to a deeper cosmopolitanism? The answers may be difficult to find or it may be too early to look for them.

Meanwhile, are there any markers that one can use to gauge the state of affairs in the country? There may be.

Umberto Eco, the Italian novelist and philosopher, had come up with one such list of features “that are typical of what I would like to call Ur-Fascism, or Eternal Fascism.” Spelling them out in 1995, Eco, the author of such books as The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum, wrote: “These features cannot be organised into a system; many of them contradict each other and are also typical of other kinds of despotism or fanaticism. But it is enough that one of them be present to allow fascism to coagulate around it.”

We could gather some understanding of contemporary India using the list created by Eco who himself spent the early part of his life in Mussolini’s Italy.

It must be made clear at the outset that this need not be about any one community or religion. Traces of these can be found in varying degrees in all Indian identity groups. However, with an overwhelming 78.35% of India’s 1.31 billion population being Hindu, it is inevitable that trends in this community become the national narrative.

The tradition cult

While deep and long-running undercurrents of tradition mark most aspects of Indian life, the recent past has witnessed a revivalist vibe. So we have conservative elements attempting to reinforce their worldview and impose it on the larger society. Everything important—great personalities, scientific advancement, and even monuments—are somehow sought to be connected to a glorious past, only to reinforce identities. Even the prime minister recently indulged in faux science to make a point: he cited mythology to claim that ancient Indians were well-versed in genetic science. Yet, paradoxically, some lesser traditions are also sought to be revisited if only to dilute sub-identities in favour of the larger majoritarian one. For instance, earlier this year, senior Hindutva leaders sought to shun the traditional narrative of the native festival of the south Indian state of Kerala, implanting in its place a legend more popular in northern India.

Modernity is depravity

A rapidly modernizing and tech-savvy India has a fetish for industrial growth and economic well-being and its metrics, such as purchasing power and per capita income. However, one also finds a creeping rejection of the values that modernity may imply. Cosmopolitanism is sought to be overshadowed by a rigidly standardising and forced national identity, tolerance and accommodation are giving way to xenophobia, sexual liberation and choice are dubbed depravity, democracy makes way for majoritarianism.

Action for action’s sake

This could easily be mistaken for one of Hinduism’s most cited and profound tenets: Karmanye vadhikaraste, ma phaleshou kada chana, which translates to “You have the right to act but do not expect the fruits of your action.” What Eco implies is the lack of reflection before acting and a “distrust of the intellectual world.” So, like in India today, universities must be purged of opposing voices and nuances are to be brushed aside, particularly if they deter the national project. A similar phenomenon swept India in the late 1970s around the time prime minister Indira Gandhi suspended democracy and declared a state of emergency. Today it looks like the Emergency was, after all, an unnecessary albatross. It’s much easier without it.

Dissent is treason

Anti-national” could easily be the most iconic word of the times in India. None other, apart from the name Modi itself, has been used as rampantly and indiscriminately in the political discourse of the past few years. Protesting students? Anti-nationals. Critics of government policy? Traitors, of course. Rationalists questioning superstition? Nitpicking cynics (sometimes the corollary being, it’s ok to shoot them dead).

Fear of difference

“The first appeal of a fascist or prematurely fascist movement is an appeal against the intruders,” Eco wrote. For long, Hindutva has labelled India’s religious minorities—particularly the semitic segments—as rank outsiders who brutalised Hindus to usurp land, wealth, and other resources. Muslims especially have been a perennial favourite for the “intruder/invader” tag. Even BJP parliamentarians today are given to openly asking them to “go to Pakistan” as an alternative to being subjected to the “final solution” here.

Appeal to social frustration

Playing on the insecurities and frustrations of religious and linguistic communities is second nature to almost all political parties and leaders in India. Some have built their entire philosophical edifices and careers on them.

The obsession with a plot

In the Indian context, it’s a plot to annihilate entire communities—either violently or in a war of attrition through religious conversions. The origins of these plots could vary from the Vatican to the local madrassas that use Muslim youth to woo and trap Hindu girls and convert them. This latter allegation has also been given a label, love jihad—a potent mix of genuine and fake cases that have often resulted in violent turmoil across India. “The followers must feel besieged,” as Eco put it. The followers must feel besieged. 

The enemy is strong as well as weak

Hindus are weak.” “We are not united.” “Imagine what we can do to them if all of India’s Hindus unite.” These are recurring motifs in almost every other public conversation on political religion in India. Almost always, these are held as counterpoints to the “others,” the supposedly stronger communities. Yet, the virtues of one’s own religion and its supposed superiority, too, are held as axioms.

Armageddon complex

Mahatma Gandhi is a much-hated figure in Hindutva circles, as is evident in his murder by a religious extremist in 1948. He was derided for his alleged pacificism. This (mis)understanding stems from the notion that there is an ultimate war for religion approaching the community, which can be won only by aggressive posturing and preparation and not by tolerance and accommodation—effete traits to have in these times.

Elitism

This is one area where India may have displayed relatively more contradictory and confounding trends. India’s caste system is based on an interlocking hierarchy that places each caste above another. This makes every caste loath to give up its position even if it’s ill-treated by the castes higher than itself because this system still affords relative superiority over all the castes below. Naturally, the system has endured for millennia. Yet, on another level, a distinct antipathy for the “entitled class” was on display in 2014 when Narendra Modi, who positioned himself as the non-elite or the outsider, swept to power. The anti-establishment mood reflected by Modi’s mandate has been spoken about often.

Craves heroic death

“This cult of heroism is strictly linked with the cult of death,” Eco says. This may not yet be true for India even though fidayeens—suicide attackers—have gripped the world’s attention for many years now.

Machismo and weaponry

The Indian scenario with regards to this is, again, complex. Acute conservatism has for years left Indian women suppressed and lagging in many areas: literacy, employment, health, child mortality, and sexual violence. Yet, in other ways, their status has been improving, even if slowly. Meanwhile, “condemnation of nonstandard sexual habits, from chastity to homosexuality,” as Eco puts it, is the norm. However, his idea of weapons as phallic symbols may not have gained ground beyond a few pockets in the country.

Selective populism

“Thus, the people is only a theatrical fiction,” says Eco. On Nov. 23, prime minister Modi conducted an online survey through a specially-designed app to gauge the support for his move to demonetise two of India’s most used currency denominations. Obviously designed in favourable terms for Modi, the survey showed that an overwhelming 93% Indians supported the move, though only around 500,000 took the survey. In the meantime, the Indian parliament has come to a standstill with the opposition demanding that the PM clarify and explain the demonetisation exercise, considering its massive implications on the country. Modi hasn’t obliged till now, like at many other moments of national importance in the recent past. “There is in our future a TV or Internet populism, in which the emotional response of a selected group of citizens can be presented and accepted as the voice of the people… Because of its qualitative populism Ur-Fascism must be against ‘rotten’ parliamentary governments,” Eco says. In India, that future is now.

Orwellian Newspeak

This refers to the contraction of public vocabulary “to limit the instruments for complex and critical reasoning.” In other words, no shades of grey, only black and white and “us vs them.” In India, it often translates to the aforementioned “go to Pakistan” rant.

In conclusion, one can only quote Eco again. “We must keep alert, so that the sense of these words will not be forgotten again. Ur-Fascism is still around us, sometimes in plainclothes… (it) can come back under the most innocent of disguises. Our duty is to uncover it and to point our finger at any of its new instances—every day, in every part of the world,” he wrote in 1995.

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