The Spectre Of Fascism
By Rohini Hensman
23 April, 2012
Godse's Children: Hindutva Terror in India by Subhash Gatade (New Delhi: Pharos Media and Publishing), 2011; pp. 400, Rs 360.
The Saffron Condition: Politics of Repression and Exclusion in Neoliberal India by Subhash Gatade (Gurgaon: Three Essays Collective), 2011; pp. 475, Rs 500
If the message of both these books had to be summed up in one sentence, it would be this: The spectre of fascism is haunting India. Godse's Children (hereafter GC) concentrates on the phenomenon of Hindutva terrorism, while The Saffron Condition (hereafter TSC) is divided into three sections: Saffronization and the Neoliberal State, Logic of Caste in New India, and State and Human Rights. There is thus an area of overlap between the two, with Hindutva terror also appearing in TSC, but treated in far greater detail in GC.
'What could be said to be the first act of terrorism in independent India?' asks Gatade, and replies, 'Everybody would agree that the killing of Mahatma Gandhi on 30 January 1948 by a Hindu fanatic called Nathuram Godse constitutes the first terrorist act in independent India' (GC 41). If 'terrorism' is defined as violence or threats of violence against civilians in pursuit of a political goal, then the assassination of Gandhi could indeed be seen as a terrorist act. The point being made here is that terrorism is not something new for the Hindutva agenda of creating a 'Hindu Rashtra' in India: it was always part of it. The author outlines the conspiracy between members of the Hindu Mahasabha, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and V.D.Savarkar to eliminate Gandhi. An interesting fact that emerges is that the successful assassination was only the last of at least five attempts starting in 1934. This lays to rest the idea that it was Gandhi's support for Partition that motivated the killing. Gandhi was a devout Hindu and fairly conservative socially; what made Hindu nationalists hate him so much that they made repeated attempts to kill him and finally succeeded? 'In fact, the idea of people's amity cutting across boundaries of race, religion, sex, etc., which Gandhi upheld all his life was..anathema to the exclusivist, Hindu supremacist world view of the members of RSS and Hindu Mahasabha. And, while "nation" was a racial/religious construct in the imagination of the Hindutva forces, for Gandhi and the rest of the nationalists it was a territorial construct or a bounded territory comprising of different communities' (GC 44).
The assassination of Gandhi could not prevent India from adopting a predominantly secular, democratic constitution. Another way of working for a Hindu nation was to launch periodical massacres of Muslims and, more rarely, other minorities, including the Nellie massacre of 1983 in which an estimated 3,300 Muslim men, women and children were killed. These have in popular parlance been called 'riots', but this is a misnomer since it suggests a spontaneous outbreak of violence, whereas all investigations show these events to be carefully planned and executed; 'pogroms' would be a more accurate description. As Gatade points out, one of the most disturbing aspects of these pogroms is that the ringleaders and all but a very few of the lower-level perpetrators have never been punished. Furthermore, 'the same citizenry which is categorically opposed to terrorism would exhibit a strange sense of ambivalence towards such indiscriminate violence and arson' (GC 62). Where the victims of terror are minorities or Dalits, impunity has been the rule.
This is the background against which Hindutva terror in the narrower sense emerges. The incidents mentioned in GC (including those where the terrorists killed themselves by accident, training was imparted to would-be terrorists, and blasts were designed to frame Muslims) are numerous. Including instances quoted from S.M. Mushrif's book Who Killed Karkare? the list would go something like this: training camp in the use of gelatin sticks (Pune, Maharashtra, 2000); training camp in handling weapons and making bombs (Bhonsala Military School, Nasik, Maharashtra, 2001); a series of bomb attacks on mosques and madrasas (Saharanpur, U.P., 2002); firearms training camp (Bhopal, M.P., 2002); bombs planted at a Muslim gathering (Bhopal, 2002); manufacture and use of bombs in the Gujarat carnage (2002); weapons training camp for women (Kanpur, U.P., 2003); bombing of mosque (Parbhani, Maharashtra, 2003); bombing of madrasa and mosque (Purna, Maharashtra, 2004); bombing of mosque (Jalna, Maharashtra, 2004); accidental blast while handling explosives (Nanded, Maharashtra, 2006); deadly bombing of a Muslim festival (Malegaon, Maharashtra, 2006); deadly bombing of the India-Pakistan Samjhauta Express (Haryana, 2007); Mecca Masjid blast (Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh, 2007); Ajmer Sharif blast (Ajmer, Rajasthan, 2007); detonators delivered to Muslim merchants (Wardha, Maharashtra, 2007); another accidental blast (Nanded 2007); bomb planted outside mosque (Pen Highway, Maharashtra, 2007); explosion at New Bus Stand (Tenkasi, Tamil Nadu, 2008); bomb attack on RSS office (Tenkasi, 2008); explosion at auditorium (Thane, Maharashtra, 2008); bomb discovered and defused at auditorium (Vashi, Maharashtra, 2008); bomb at cinema (Panvel, Maharashtra, 2008); accidental explosion (Kanpur, 2008); live bomb recovered from Belgaum-Hubli road (Karnataka, 2008); bomb blast at court (Hubli, Karnataka, 2008); bombing of marketplace (Malegoan 2008); bomb blast in marketplace (Modasa, Gujarat, 2008); low-intensity blast (Kanpur, 2008); bombing of church (Lalitpur, Nepal, 2009); explosion at Margao (Goa, 2009); live bomb defused (Sancole, Goa, 2009); bomb blast at primary health centre (Kanpur, 2010).
For anyone who has not been following the news about Hindutva terrorist attacks, the sheer number and wide geographical distribution of these attacks is astonishing, and indicates, as the author suggests, a turn from communal pogroms to terror attacks as the favoured strategy for 'the reactionary political project of building fascism' (GC 320-21). It is apparent that at least in the 21 st century, Hindutva terror has been far more active in India than Islamist terror. Why, then, has this fact not been appreciated more widely? The answer to this question is extremely disturbing, and opens up the possibility that other terrorist attacks too that have been attributed to Muslims have actually been perpetrated by Hindutva terrorists.
In the overwhelming majority of these cases, Muslims were the first to be blamed for the terror attacks. Here is one instance of the Kafkaesque manner in which innocent Muslims have been framed by the police: 'The prosecution had claimed that the accused were arrested following a gunfight near Gurgaon-Delhi road on 1 July 2005. Delhi police had informed the court that the four accused in the car had tried to flee when they were asked to stop. It was also claimed that the accused opened fire on the police team. After the encounter, which lasted for a few minutes, the team was arrested by the police and an army combat uniform, fake currency of Rs 50,000 and a sketch of Palam Air Force Station were "recovered" from their possession. The judge discovered to his utter surprise that there was no such encounter on the intervening night of 1-2 July 2005, and an absolutely fake encounter story had been manufactured sitting in the office of the Special Staff led by Sub-inspector Ravindra Tyagi' (GC 276). Similar stories are repeated in case after case: police personnel, often acting in collusion with intelligence agencies, arrest, incarcerate and torture innocent Muslims. (Appendix VI, GC 359, is an account of what was done to one of these victims.) Years later, when their cases finally come to trial, they are acquitted, but not before their lives have been ruined and their families devastated. Meanwhile, the real culprits are left free to kill again.
The honorouble exception to this rule was Hemant Karkare, chief of the Maharashtra Anti-Terrorist Squad from January 2008. Meticulously following the clues in a spate of terrorist attacks, including especially the 2008 terror attack in Malegoan, Karkare began to unearth evidence against and arrest members of a Hindutva terrorist network comprising sadhvis and swamis, former and current military personnel, and other right-wing activists. One would think that he would be honoured for helping to make Maharashtra safe by putting terrorists behind bars, and there were indeed some who treated his work with the greatest respect and admiration. But leaders of the BJP, RSS, VHP and Shiv Sena called him a traitor, demanded that he be dismissed as ATS chief, and issued him with death threats (GC 141-44, 148-49).
Karkare was killed during the 26 November 2008 terror attacks in Bombay, and evidence uncovered by his widow Kavita, Vinita Kamte (the widow of Ashok Kamte, another police officer killed along with him) and S.M.Mushrif revealed that the official account of his death was completely unreliable, fuelling speculation that he had been assassinated by Hindutva activists. Gatade quotes from an article in Hardnews which emphasises that the bullets which killed Karkare were never identified, and their trajectory – from the top of the shoulder downwards rather than from the front, back or side – suggests that they were fired by one of the police personnel inside the vehicle with him rather than by any terrorist outside (GC 152-53). He concludes that it is crucial there should be a separate commission of enquiry into the death of Karkare and the other police officers killed with him, a demand that has been echoed by others.
Thus there is abundant evidence that the police and intelligence agencies are heavily infiltrated by accomplices in Hindutva terror. But the rot goes higher. The author points out that many bomb blasts (e.g. the Samjhauta Express blasts) are timed to sabotage India-Pakistan talks, the timing of which would not be known to lower-level functionaries; these planners and masterminds would be much higher in the state apparatus. He also observes that in BJP-ruled states, the trail of Hindutva terror inevitably goes cold even when policemen pick it up, demonstrating political involvement of the Hindutva forces at the highest levels. Among ' disguised terrorists ' the author includes elements in the media who 'take the handouts of intelligence agencies as gospel truth' instead of pointing out the 'inconsistencies and loopholes galore in them'. 'Honourable exceptions apart, the dominant media is hugely biased in favour of Hindutva ' (GC 336-37). Bar associations too have engaged in the unethical practice of refusing to represent Muslims accused of terrorism, even when these cases have been patently false. Gatade mentions two courageous lawyers who challenged this ban and faced physical violence as a consequence (GC 169-70), but strangely leaves out Shahid Azmi, who was shot dead in Bombay in 2010 after he had proved to the satisfaction of the court that his client, Fahim Ansari, had been framed by the police in the November 26 terror attacks.
Supposedly secular political parties have not taken up the challenge either. The only senior Congress Party leaders who have spoken out openly against Hindutva terror – Digvijay Singh and P.Chidambaram – were not supported by others in the party, supposedly in order not to antagonise ordinary Hindus (GC 325-26, 329-30). But it is hard to believe that the party is unaware of the distinction between the religion, Hinduism, and the political ideology of Hindutva. The result of Congress softness on Hindutva terror is that in Congress-ruled states too, innocent Muslims have been incacerated and tortured for terrorist acts they did not commit, while the perpetrators have been free to kill again. 'The most disturbing aspect of this phenomenon,' writes the author, 'is that even the Left, especially its mainstream version, failed to rise to the occasion' (GC 24).
There is a striking resemblance between this situation and pre-Nazi Germany as described by Arthur Rosenburg in his essay 'Fascism as a Mass Movement' (translated by Jairus Banaji in Historical Materialism20(1), 2012). Here it is pointed out that the fascist ideology which was later exploited by Hitler and the Nazis was widely prevalent decades earlier. In the case of India, the corresponding ideology is communalism. Unless Gatade's urgent call for 'an uncompromising struggle against communalism' (GC 342) is heeded, India could be heading in the same direction.
The resemblance with Nazism is even more striking in Gujarat under Narendra Modi, as the author points out in chapters entitled 'Auschwitz of Our Times' (TSC 42) and 'Modi's Gujarat' (TSC 52). The horrific gang rapes and mass murders of Muslims in 2002, accompanied by arson attacks on everything owned by them or associated with them including places of worship, would qualify the statewide pogrom as a crime against humanity if not genocide as defined in the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. The continuing ghettoisation and persecution of Muslims, the impunity enjoyed by the perpetrators (which is being challenged in court by courageous survivors and their supporters), and 'the absence of remorse among people of the state' (TSC 59) are all indicators of fascism as a mass movement. The indocrination of children by means of falsified history text-books (including the glorification of Hitler) (TSC 109-111) constitutes an attempt to pass on this ideology to a new generation. The inevitable destruction of the rule of law is exemplified by the failure of the authorities to intervene when a young dalit woman student was gang-raped repeatedly by six of her teachers at a government teacher training college (TSC 60-65). We might add that prominent industrialists hailing Modi as a future prime minister and Bollywood actor Amitabh Bachchan acting as brand ambassador for Modi's Gujarat indicates that certain sections of the elite favour fascism.
The author repeatedly makes the point that while fully-fledged fascism might be the preserve of the Sangh Parivar, the soft communalism of other parties including Congress (the hostility of some members to religious conversions, for example) provides fertile soil for extremism to grow. Almost universal acceptance of a society hierarchically structured by caste is another factor facilitating this growth. Systematic discrimination against Dalits, forcing them to engage in demeaning occupations like manual scavenging, and frequent gang-rapes, mass murder and arson attacks, indicate that the evils of untouchability and caste oppression are far from being eradicated. But what could the remedies be? The section on the logic of caste (TSC 207-324) examines this question.
The author also asks why, despite facing very similar oppression, Dalits and Muslims have failed to unite. On the contrary, Dalits and Adivasis have in some cases been recruited as storm-troopers in communal pogroms (e.g. in Gujarat), although others have acted in solidarity with Muslims. Dalit intellectual Kancha Illiah has blamed this on Muslim intellectuals who have been indifferent to the issues of caste and untouchability, but Gatade correctly observes this cannot explain how the same Dalits who had been the targets of casteist Hindutva violence since the anti-reservation riots of the early 1980s could find common cause with their oppressors (TSC 223). He suggests this is a classic case of the submergence of the Dalit identity within the 'larger canopy' of Hindu identity, and points out the parallel with the large-scale participation of Hindu women in the pogroms following the demolition of the Babri Mosque, despite the fact that Hindutva is similarly oppressive towards women. Dalits, he explains, have only two paths to social mobility: either to reject the religious edifice that sanctifies the caste system and seek an alternative identity, or to climb the social hierarchy by imitating the dominant castes. Their absorption within the 'Brahminical-Fascist project of the Parivar' (TSC 230) is an example of the latter.
Gatade examines the experiment of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in a particularly nuanced and illuminating way, showing that it has genuinely improved the position of Dalits in UP, and yet, by forming alliances with the BJP, soft-pedalling the activities of the Sangh Parivar, and Mayawati's endorsement of Modi, has also served the Hindutva agenda. The conclusion seems to be that although state power can indeed be used to advance the interests of Dalits, the drive to capture it at any cost leads to adjustments that in the end undermine the cause of Dalit empowerment. The transition from a 'Bahujan' to a 'Sarva Jan' identity exemplifies the way in which electoral politics have affected the party's agenda.
The continued prevalence of atrocities against Dalits and the ways in which the Protection of Civil Rights Act (1955) and the Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act (1989) are routinely subverted are eerily reminiscent of the ways in which those who rape and kill Muslims manage to get away with it. And in this case too, the role of 'civil society' is not edifying: 'Civil society…is complicit in perpetuating caste based inequalities, indignities and violence against SCs'. The author comments that so long as 'caste inequality is accepted both in theory and practice, a legal constitution has no bearing on the ethical foundation of caste-based societies' (TSC 270). It seems to follow that abolition of caste is the only solution, and reservations as a form of affirmative action were instituted in this belief. Yet sixty years later, not only do Dalits still suffer discrimination and violence, but they are themselves split along caste lines and caste remains all-pervasive. A weakness of the book is that it does not discuss possible alternative strategies such as a campaign for equal opportunities legislation, which would also have the merit of bringing together Dalits, Adivasis and Muslims.
The last section of TSC deals with a variety of ways in which the state attacks human rights: through legislation like the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), which allows the armed forces to violate human rights with impunity, extra-judicial killings, torture, clamping down on social protests, incarcerating human rights defenders and so on. The struggles of Irom Sharmila, on hunger strike against AFSPA for over a decade, and Binayak Sen, a human rights defender and doctor serving the poor, are described.
Gatade belongs to the small section of left-wing writers and activists who take the task of combating the growth of fascism in India seriously. These important books should be read widely. However, a detailed index with sub-sections would have been helpful in both, since they are collections of articles, and pursuing a theme becomes difficult if the researcher has to go through several items in order to find a particular one. Hopefully this will be remedied in future editions.
Rohini Hensman is a writer and researcher active in workers' rights, women's rights, anti-communal and anti-war movements. Rohini can be reached at: email@example.com