Fascism's Firm Footprint in India
by ARUNDHATI ROY
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 Ahmedabad.
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
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 times.
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,
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
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 happen.