Viewpoint: Rightwing Fascism and Intellectual Apologia in India

Viewpoint: Rightwing Fascism and Intellectual Apologia in India

Dibyesh Anand, University of Westminster

As India faces the prospect of voting into power in May 2014 of a Hindu majoritarian rightwing Bharatiya Janata Party led by a political leader Narendra Modi, (in)famous for presiding over the massacre of several hundreds of Muslim minorities in his state of Gujarat in 2002, India related scholars face an interesting dilemma. Should scholars remain neutral observers and researchers, documenting and commenting, but never critiquing? Or should they adopt an ethics of responsibility toward the marginalised, minoritised and suppressed and highlight the violence of this phenomenon? Is neutrality desirable or even possible in these fractured times when Indian democracy that is supposed to be secular is likely to have a Prime Minister who came onto the world stage years ago with a nickname ‘butcher of Gujarat’?

Many Indian and India related scholars and academics in the USA and UK for instance have expressed their disquiet with the prospect of Modi becoming the Prime Minister. There has been a heap of criticism, abuse and even threats against them from rightwing trolls on twitter and other social networks. Trolls have called the critics ‘sepoys’, slaves of a Western framework, not analytical enough because of their predominantly humanities and social sciences background, and so on. This cyber bullying and abuse is higher against women.

Those who do not know much about India often fail to appreciate how Modi’s possible victory is a continuity as well as break from the past.Indian nationalism has had its dark side and massacres of religious minorities, adivasis (tribals) and Dalits and the use of violence, including sexual violence, as tool of dominance has been disturbingly frequent and systemic. The Right, the Centre and the Left have all been complicit in various ways with this violent nation-statism.

What makes the BJP and its majoritarian Hindu nationalism much worse is that bigotry is not political opportunism but fundamental to its ideology. The RSS, the militant quasi-fascist movement, that is the parent body of most Hindu rightwing outfits including the BJP and the extremist Bajrang Dal, considers the transformation of the entire Indian state into a Hindu state as its primary goal. For them, the democratic system is a threat but they seek to make use of it through social mobilisation, cultural consolidation and political transformation. They want to convert pluralist and internally contradictory Indian reality into a ‘neat’ new India where a Hindu majority is recognised as having exclusive purchase over the nation, where 175 million plus Muslims have the option of being disenfranchised or expulsion or extermination (‘Pakistan ya Qabirstan’ – ‘expulsion to Pakistan or death’ as the slogan goes), where Christians would be disempowered too (Hindu rightwingers often say this casually ‘pehle kasai, phir isai – ‘first the butchers/Muslims, then the Christians’). They want to take away minority rights and the right to dissent without fear and thus convert democracy into a majoritarian-dominated system.

Narendra Modi is intimately associated with the RSS and his campaign is often run at the grassroots level by their activists. What makes him even more lethal is the bourgeois respectability he has acquired. This is because of his massive corporate backing resulting in the mainstream media, especially the television, acting as his propaganda tool. This also reflects the authoritarian fantasies of the bourgeoisie who see him as efficient and decisive, and as someone who will make India stronger. They conveniently ignore the fact that a Chief Minister who failed to prevent the massacre of around, at least, a thousand people in his State (assuming for a moment that he was not directly or indirectly responsible for fanning the violence) cannot be an efficient or able administrator. This conversion of Modi from the one who presided over a massacre to one who was not directly responsible and then to one who brought rapid development and is the only able, decisive and pro-growth leader in India has been supported by multi-million dollar PR campaigns.

Is it surprising, then, that a few prominent Indian as well as diasporic liberal scholars and intellectuals including Lord Meghnad Desai from LSE and Ashutosh Varshney of Brown University have also started speaking in a different tune? They have expressed their disquiet with overseas critics of Modi, asked us to ‘respect the wishes of Indian electorate’, remember that no Court so far has indicted Modi for ‘Gujarat 2002’, counseled that the violence then was a ‘riot’ (as if there were two sides) and not a ‘pogrom’ and then asserted that Modi in his current avatar is not divisive but someone who has shifted from identity politics to a politics of development.

What makes this change of heart of Desai and Varshney disturbing is that it is based on a forgetting of their own position critical of the Hindu Right in the past. One could easily see in their political shift an opportunist approach toward secularism – defend secularism as integral to the idea of India when Modi is being criticised everywhere and it is easy to do so, but jump ship when Modi is close to power and sing to a different tune. Unless intellectuals rejecting the Modi critics acknowledge that they were themselves wrong in their assessment of him in 2002, that their research or ideas have changed over time, there is no credibility in their arguments today. Defence of secular democracy cannot simply be a convenient skin to wear or shed depending on the political climate. It is difficult to see a public intellectual calling for a forgetting of massacres of hundreds of people under the watch of a political leader and then ‘moving on’ as anything other than an apologist for authoritarianism and its injustices.


Dibyesh Anand is the Head of Department of Politics and International Relations and Reader (Associate Professor) in International Relations at the University of Westminster and the author of Hindu Nationalism in India and the Politics of Fear

6 Comment responses

  1. Avatar
    May 07, 2014

    “Rightwing (sic) fascism,” eh? How fortunate we are that it isn’t of the left-wing, Mussolini variety! As Orwell pointed out in Tribune as far back as 1944, the term is a meaningless slogan: .


  2. Avatar
    May 08, 2014

    A good piece. To see just how far some Modi apologists have moved from their original positions, consider this quote from Lord Meghnad Desai before he became a Modi-supporter: “The RSS is like a fascist youth movement like black shirts or something like that but perhaps with deeper roots because the RSS has been there for 75 years plus…”


  3. Avatar
    May 08, 2014

    A very insightful piece which highlights how Hindutva’s electoral campaign in its unflinching attempt to throne Modi is utilising the tools of social media (supposedly “democratic” forces) to viciously silence its critics. The Hindutva trolls present a new force to contend with and academics will need to step out of the ivory tower in order to organise collective voices. Unfortunately, we are not a collective bunch. Our profession encourages us to embark on a project of the Self from the onset so that we are flustered and ill-equipped when we are picked out individually through targeted emails, character assaults on twitter, and other means of discrediting us. The list of academics who signed the Independent letter have already been identified and have no doubt been blacklisted if/once Modi comes into power. It seems a good time to strategise the counter-assault against Desai and Varshney’s Modi-sympathising voices and against the lurching Hindutva’s trolls.


  4. Avatar
    May 09, 2014

    There is nothing that can be described as leftwing or middle of the road fascism. If you use the term rightwing, fascism can only be described as rightwing. In fact you dont need to add rightwing to fascism. Everybody understands fascism is rightwing.

    But that description apart, what we are faced with is the danger of a Fuehrer emerging. In Gujarat, you really do not know who comprise the council of ministers or who is number two in Modi’s absence. The Media in India is only Modicentric without realising that one man dictatorship will sound deathknell to our democracy. If Modi emerges with a massive mandate, he will care two hoots for any democratic norm, either within his party or otherwise.


  5. Avatar
    May 13, 2014

    A very insightful analysis. What is disturbing about Modi taking over the reign of a secular and democratic country is that it will be a transitioning of power into the most violent group of people through peaceful means. History has a tendency to repeat itself. What is scary is that the second most populous country on Earth is being handed out to violent extremists. I am afraid that the nightmare of Gujarat will turn out to be only a trailer for the horror movie that is about to start.

    Why have we degenerated as a human race to allow such massacres to happen and not prevent them? There is still time for the peace lovers of the world to prevent such a disaster. Still time for those in power in India to arrest Modi and persecute him for inciting violence. Indian army must defend India’s constitution and prevent the fascist take over of the country.