Bill Crane reviews The Rise of Hindu Authoritarianism, written by Achin Vanaik as a critical response to the political developments in India following the election of the Bharatiya Janata Party to power in 2014, as well as the consequences and future travails for the Indian left. The Rise of Hindu Authoritarianism is published by Verso Books and is available now.
The rise of Hindu nationalism in India was first noted internationally in the 1990s, especially after the Bharatiya Janata Party (Indian People’s Party, BJP) came to power in the elections of 1997. It generated confusion then which has not dissipated. This confusion extends to the Western left, which is odd for at least two reasons. First, India is hardly an obscure traditional society and political developments there can be followed closely in its massive English-language media. Secondly, the left in the developed world, especially the tradition out of which rs21 comes, has developed a quite compelling and comprehensive Marxist understanding of political Islam, a phenomenon that shares with Hindu nationalism its origins in a certain constellation of class forces in the global South.
Hindu and Muslim fundamentalists compete over the same territory in South Asia, and reinforce each other’s rise. Yet no one from this background has tried to extend our understanding of political Islam to political Hinduism.
In India, where Marxism is still a lively if deeply ambiguous and compromised intellectual tradition, leftists of a Marxist bent have not had the luxury of delaying the deep kind of analysis that can understand the origins of Hindu nationalism, its current programme and position in power, its possible trajectories and the potential sources of resistance. Of this type, one book that had a real impact on Western leftist thought was The Furies of Hindu Communalism (Verso, 1997), by the veteran independent Marxist and trade unionist Achin Vanaik.
There is still much of value in this book; however, it had the unintentional misfortune of being published too soon: before the BJP took command of the centre government in 1997, the Gujarati pogrom of 2002, the ensuing rise of Narendra Modi to political prominence, and finally the 2014 elections that swept him into power with a BJP absolute majority.
Thus, we are fortunate that Vanaik has returned to update his analysis. The result, aptly retitled The Rise of Hindu Authoritarianism, is a much sharper and more compelling volume. In shifting the theoretical engagement away from anti-secularism on the left, Vanaik has produced a masterpiece of conjunctural analysis that will not soon be surpassed, and whose implications deserve to be evaluated far beyond India in the global context of the rise of right-wing populist and authoritarian parties.
Hindu Communalism: A Total Political Force
When we refer to Hindu nationalism, Hindu communalism, or Hindu authoritarianism, we are talking about a combine of organizations called the Sangh Parivar. The parent organization, which still commands the combine, is the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (National Volunteers’ Organization, RSS)—a group founded during the colonial era.
Early RSS leaders saw the organisation as a counter to the secular nationalism of the Indian National Congress. The idea of a Hindu nation cleansed of Islam, British rule and other impurities correlated to a model of volunteerism, of service to the nation—which soon expressed itself in paramilitary organisation. The RSS cadre, though relatively small (numbering about 45,000 volunteers today), has always been the anchor of the Sangh’s political project.
The mission of Hindu communalism comprises much more than the RSS as a cadre formation and the BJP as a wider political party. The Sangh combine includes the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), an organization which has standardized Hindu doctrine on a ruling-class basis. It also combines a trade-union wing, the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS), which recently became the largest union federation in India, and the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarti Parishad (ABVP), the largest students’ federation. There are also women’s auxiliaries, groups propagating Hindu nationalism in the Sikh and Muslim communities, and numerous professional organizations. The Sangh is aiming for a total immersion of Indian life in Hindu communalism.
Hindu nationalist domination in India was in no way pre-ordained. It took decades of patient work on the cultural and political fronts. This goes back to before independence when the RSS and its ancestors propagated Sanathana Dharma, a unified Hindu tradition supposedly cleansed of imperfections in practice, especially barbaric excesses of the caste system. They reasserted the primacy of Brahminical texts such as the Vedas, Upanishads and especially the Bhagavad-Gita through the popular press.
The renaissance of Hindu print media was just one part of the Sangh’s ongoing struggle to reshape the popular practice of many co-existing versions of what Tithi Bhattacharya has correctly referred to as ‘Hinduisms’ along its own unitary lines. This can be seen particularly in the VHP’s patient cultivation of wide networks of gurus and sect leaders that help to cohere Sanathana Dharma across India as well as in expatriate communities abroad.
An important avenue to cultural hegemony across the nation is represented in campaigns among Dalit and Adivasi communities to convert, or as the Sangh puts it, ‘reconvert’ them to its own version of Hinduism from Christianity, Islam or tribal traditions. Politically, this has extended into outreach among millions of Indians who follow Sikh, Jain or Buddhist religions historically oppositional to Brahminism. These religions are now to be incorporated as subordinate Hindu traditions in an overarching community opposed to Islam, the chief foreign agent.
Cultural propagation of Hindu communalism in the print media has continued to be highly successful. The Sangh commands the allegiance of hundreds of daily newspapers (which are still a central medium of political life in India) and other periodicals, in Hindi and the numerous other regional languages, which covertly or overtly propagate its cultural-political line.
In the 1980s, the cultural industry combined with Sangh intellectuals to produce hugely successful TV adaptations of the Ramayana and Mahabharata, epic poems of ancient origins that had developed alongside Indian culture itself into hundreds of different variations speaking to widely diverse regional communities and social strata. The TV versions sought to impose an elite interpretation of the texts; hence, they were told in a ‘purified’ version of Hindi that leaned heavily on Sanskrit, while the rule of Lord Ram on earth and the civil war of the Bharata dynasty were projected in different ways as lessons and models for a future India founded on Hindu nationalism.
More recently, Hindutva doctrine has spread onto the internet, and is more and more affecting the secular elite-dominated English-language media. This long cultural war prepared the ground for the political emergence of the BJP as a contender for rule.
Origins of Hindu Nationalist Dominance
The success of Hindu nationalism on the cultural front was not matched by political success until the late 1970s. Up to this point it was an utterly marginal force on the political landscape. Hindu communalists been absent from the freedom struggle as an organised force. This was not helped by the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, planned and executed by a group of ex-RSS cadre in 1948.
In the 1970s, Congress Party rule ran into a crisis. The plodding growth of import-substitution policies slowed and finally halted. Industrial militancy exploded in response. An elections scandal was the occasion on which then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi attempted to contain the crisis by suspending Parliament and introducing her own personal rule.
This, the National Emergency of 1975-77, proved to be hugely unpopular. But the opposition to Gandhi was politically incoherent. RSS cadre stepped into the gap, leading and cohering the anti-Emergency movement in many places. Instead of bolstering Congress rule, the Emergency proved to be the beginning of Congress’ political decline and the catalysing incident of the BJP, its eventual gravedigger. The chastened ruling party abandoned its attempt at left-wing authoritarian populist rule, and, under Indira Gandhi’s son Rajiv, shifted rapidly to the right. Its embrace of neoliberalism was consummated in 1990-91 with the New Economic Policy presided over by Finance Minister (later PM) Manmohan Singh.
Congress before independence had resembled an agrarian mass movement. Afterwards in its period of hegemony, it united diverse forces from across regional and class lines, including urban professionals, industrial workers, and the core minorities of Dalits and Muslims, all of whom had a stake in its socialist ideology of redistributive economic development. With the loss of this official ideology, what had been true for some time was now obvious: The Congress Party not actually a unified political force, but a disparate collection of interest groups united only by their ability to win power together and thus command a share of the patronage and resources that resulted.
Meanwhile, the RSS had launched the BJP as an electoral vehicle under its control, and hastened to push the perceived political opening wider. It found a convenient wedge issue in Ram Janmbhoomi. This centred around a medieval mosque in Ayodhya, the northern city held to be the birthplace of the Hindu god Lord Ram.
Hindu communalists had long claimed that the Babri Masjid had been erected by a Mughal emperor sacrilegiously over a destroyed temple commemorating Lord Ram’s birth. They now demanded a temple to him be built at the site. Funds were collected in thousands of villages for bricks that would supposedly go to construction of the temple. In 1990, BJP leader L.K. Advani launched a series of rath yatras (chariot-led processions) destined for Ayodhya. The campaign soon crossed the line from propaganda for a new temple to anti-Muslim violence waged in places far from Ayodhya by Hindu mobs organized by the Sangh. In 1992, the VHP decided to build a platform as the beginning of a temple structure. Encouraged by the Congress government’s repeated ignominious retreats before the mob fury, it finally forced the issue with a pre-planned demolition of the mosque.
Ram Janmbhoomi was an early example of how the Sangh could supercharge a religious wedge issue to foster mass communal politics which it could ride to power. It has been a successful strategy for them ever since. As Vanaik notes, Ram Janmbhoomi did for the BJP what Gandhi’s Salt March had accomplished for the Congress Party in 1931.
During this time, the Sangh took advantage of a developing political crisis in Indian politics. Congress’ political dominance was pulled apart by new formations based on backwards-caste identity politics (such as Uttar Pradesh’s Bahujan Samaj Party) and regionalist parties initiated by urban middle classes and rural notables, who came to believe they could better access the resources and patronage of state and central rule against the Congress Party rather than within it.
This corresponded to a shift in which voting blocs would be decisive in electoral politics. Two groups were key: first, the so-called Other Backwards Castes (OBCs), who comprise about 50% of the Hindu population, who increasingly demanded the rights and privileges given to Dalits with affirmative action. Second, the new middle class, defined by its conspicuous consumption in the opening of the economy sought a firm hand and a better business climate. The BJP made its bid to lead both groups in a total realignment of Indian politics.
Ram Janmbhoomi had demonstrated to Sangh leaders that they could stoke communal tensions, up to and including mob violence, with no response from the secular centre. The organisation of communal riots, primarily to provoke communal polarisation which the BJP could then ride to power—along with more local concerns dictated by economic competition with Muslim communities and petty score-settling, has become a fact of political life in India, with occasional national explosions. One such occurred in Gujarat in 2002, when a train carriage carrying Hindu pilgrims returning from Ayodhya caught fire.
Whether the carriage was set fire to deliberately or caught fire accidentally will never be made clear. What ensued recalls some of the most terrible violence against Eastern European Jews in the early twentieth century, during the continual reign of terror of Black Hundred ‘tsar’s men at work’ in imperial Russia, and during the early stages of the Shoah in Nazi-occupied territory. The label of pogrom is thus quite applicable. As Vanaik writes:
Over the next few weeks, the Gujarat [BJP] state government… carried out a massive pogrom and reign of terror. Mobs numbering in the thousands were unleashed, while police according to eye-witness accounts were told to remain aloof. At least 2,000 Muslims were butchered… Pregnant women were skewered, others gang-raped and then burned to death. The scale of the violence was enormous, but always selective and carried out with remarkable speed. This was only possible because of several months of prior preparation and planning. Muslim homes and businesses had been geographically identified; transport had been made ready, and gas cylinders and other combustible materials had been stocked. Distribution of venomous and hate-spewing pamphlets had been underway for some time (p. 87).
For a country in the developed West, events a small fraction as violent would have likely resulted in permanent exile from elected office for whichever officials happened to preside over them, whatever stance they took. In India, the chief abettor and likely organiser of the Gujarat pogrom is today the Prime Minister. How?
The chief share of the blame for this that does not fall on the Sangh itself rests with India’s secular elite, particularly its traditional political representative, the Congress Party. Congress itself had a strong Hindu communalist strain, going back to Mahatma Gandhi’s posture as a sadhu and use of Hinduized rhetoric to rally masses to the freedom struggle. With its dominance increasingly shaky, moreover, Congress’ leaders feared to alienate the ‘Hindu vote,’ and repeatedly resisted taking strong stands against communal politics even when they veered into extreme violence.
The idea of a unified ‘Hindu vote’ testifies to how great extent the Indian polity had already become de facto communalised at the beginning of the present century. Vanaik notes that ‘democracy has been redefined as Hindu majoritarianism,’ whereas secularism, contrasted to an increasingly accepted idea of Hinduism as the most tolerant of all religions, has become ‘a false and anti-Hindu construct’ (p. 79). Politics has become inverted—the initiators of ritualised mass murder become national heroes, while doubt is cast on how they were provoked by their victims as well as the secular parties showing ‘favouritism’ to Muslims in attempts to co-opt their votes.
Against this background, what is incredible seems not to be that the BJP could come to power but rather how long it took for Indian politics to fall under Sangh dominance. Modi’s sweep of the polls in 2014 and victories following at the state level this year built on developments that had been underway for some time. The decay of the Congress Party and its collapse in that year were the fruit from the long, successful march of the Sangh which it had abetted at crucial points.
Has India gone fascist?
The goal of the Sangh’s long cultural-political march has been to decisively reshape Indian life to conform with Hindu nationalism from the commanding height of the central government. School textbooks have now been rewritten to cast ancient Hindu India as a majestic civilisation overturned in the eighth century and onwards by undifferentiated waves of Muslim barbarians. Radical or even mainstream secular academics and students now must now consider the potential consequences of raising their voice to contest the Sangh’s cultural line.
This emergent cultural hegemony and recently-acquired political hegemony of the BJP at the centre, combined with its long record of stoking and participating in communal violence, has led leftist and secular observers to claim that the Sangh is fascist. This most often carries an implication that the Indian state is now fascist, or is about become such. Vanaik’s debate with this segment of the Indian left comes in the penultimate chapter and is perhaps the most relevant section of the book for a world leftist audience.
That the Sangh has ideological affinities with fascism is not in dispute. M.S. Golwalkar, a leader of the RSS in the colonial era, wrote admiringly of Nazi Germany’s ‘purging of the Semitic Races’ to ‘keep up the purity of its race and culture,’ an example he thought India could ‘learn and profit by’—in particular, against Muslim ‘despoilers.’ Nor is it contested that the paramilitary organisation of the RSS, its adulation of the unitary Hindu nation and more recently Narendra Modi as a strong and charismatic national leader, bears an eerie resemblance to the classical fascist parties of Italy and Germany in the interwar period.
But the label of fascism has always been a slippery one. As a historical movement, it projected a utopia of independent producers held dear by the petty-bourgeois cadre at the core of the movement and aped socialist rhetoric to sway sections of the working class. Economically, fascism in power enforced state-capitalist policies. In contrast, the BJP is fiercely neoliberal, enacting policies that keep the Indian working class at a level of bare subsistence and below to attract foreign investment through the comparative advantage of cheap labour. Fascism came to power promising, and delivering, harsh dictatorial methods and violent repression—to the point of extermination—of working class parties. Yet Modi, who comes from the fanatical right within the RSS, has made no moves to establish a personal dictatorship—neither has the BJP moved to forbid or outlaw dissent, relying instead on the creeping instatement of an atmosphere of menace from above and below.
Vanaik correctly dismisses the rhetorical use of the f-word, while treating seriously many of the Indian scholars and activists with an elaborated analysis of ruling or incipient fascism in India. These include some of India’s most renowned leftist thinkers such as Mumbai-based historian Jairus Banaji, a former Trotskyist, and Aijaz Ahmad, a Delhi-based literary critic aligned with the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPM).
Banaji, Ahmad, and others who Vanaik subjects to lengthy criticism all situate their analysis at some level within classical Marxist thought on fascism—Ahmad on the traditional Gramsci-Togliatti axis and Banaji drawing on Arthur Rosenberg, Wilhelm Reich and Jean-Paul Sartre. Vanaik’s stringent reading of these authors, along with the work of Leon Trotsky, August Thalheimer and other important Marxists on fascism—finds each of these claims difficult to sustain.
What Vanaik finds missing in any application of classical Marxist thinking on fascism to the Sangh is a sense of the specific historical conjuncture in which Trotsky, Gramsci and the others were operating—a capitalist crisis of such magnitude at the economic, political, and cultural levels in which large portions of not only the middle classes but also the bourgeoisie were driven towards the complete political reconstruction of the state offered by fascists.
Because of the difficulties of applying the classical Marxist analysis to Indian reality today, most of its proponents exercise a certain degree of creativity in defining what constitutes a fascist movement or fascist rule. Banaji is most interested in the psychology of fascism as a mass-movement. Rather than a political process of counterrevolution occurring in exceptional circumstances, fascism for Banaji is a looming possibility behind every expression of authoritarian policies to manage capitalism. Ahmad states outright that fascism today does not require dictatorship; rather ‘coercion has… a specific form: small doses, steadily dispensed, no gas ovens, just a handful of storm troopers, here and there, appearing and disappearing; and a permanent fear that corrodes the souls of the wretched of the land, while the liberal democratic machinery rolls on.’
The stringency of Vanaik’s reading of the classical Marxist position on fascism, particularly his insistence (following Robert Paxton) that fascism is only possible in the unity of three moments—the fascist movement, the fascist state and the intermediate stage of the transition, the movement taking power—will likely prove controversial among an international leftist audience comfortable with a more creative interpretation of fascism (for example, ‘the fascism of the future doesn’t have to be traditional. Nor does it have to respect the sequences observed in the interwar years, or reanimate old cultures.’)
It is easier to follow Vanaik when he maintains that fascism is ultimately a political and strategic question. It is surely correct that as he writes, the left-wing diagnosis of fascism functions mainly as a klaxon: expecting ‘drastic curtailment or elimination of any democratic space for opposition,’ leftists confronted with fascism should ‘resort to primarily clandestine forms of struggle,’ since ‘mass and legal forms of resistance are near-impossible in the short and probably medium term’: essentially, ‘the game is lost’ should Hindu nationalists come to power in India, as they now have (p. 333).
In this emergency, what seems to be expected of the left is that it mutes its criticisms and unites with the neoliberal centre to close the possibility of fascist rule, no matter how much that same centre has conciliated the far right or how much the political ground shifts to the right.
Vanaik’s alternative conception follows this lengthy polemic. It is worth quoting at length:
An alternative view might see the forces of Hindu communalism as viciously authoritarian and capable of launching anti-Muslim pogroms, fomenting civil strife at a hitherto unknown level, and so on—though as non-fascist, or at best pre– or potentially fascist. Such a view would be more inclined to predict that the scenario, even after the formation of a BJP government, would be very different. It would be more inclined to emphasize the significant domestic and international constraints preventing any rapid elimination of all democratic space for open and mass forms of resistance. Precisely because the decisive battles to crush all democratic and working-class opposition have not yet been waged, there would continue to be significant prospects for delaying, halting and even reversing the extent of authoritarian degeneration. The securing of government power by political Hindutva would be a qualitative defeat for democratic, secular, and anti-communal forces. But the political game would not have been lost, and there would still be much to play for…
The long-term, and in a sense more basic, focus [of this perspective] would be not on the potential or likelihood of a ‘fascist’ suborning of the state, but on politicized Hindutva’s deep roots and growth in civil society, well beyond the question of its capacity to appropriate the state. In a sense, the phenomenon is more deep-rooted than fascism, more enduring and more difficult to destroy (pp. 334-5).
The diagnosis of BJP and Sangh rule as embodying right-wing authoritarian populist politics and rule rather than fascism seems to me reasonable and sustainable. It should come as a breath of fresh air to leftists attempting to come to terms with their own home-grown varieties of right-wing populism.
Seeds of a different future
Dropping a conception of BJP rule as fascist certainly does not mean underestimating the dangers of the current situation, nor of the frightening possibilities of a future in which India is still dominated by far-right Hindu communalists. Appallingly, it is difficult to see things otherwise.
The state elections of this year brought the BJP to power in two more states in northern India, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand. Uttar Pradesh is the largest state by far in terms of population. It now has Yogi Adityanath, a Hindutva preacher whose anti-Muslim fanaticism goes beyond Modi’s and borders on psychosis, as its Chief Minister. The landslide in UP also means that the BJP will win control of the Rajya Sabha, the upper house of Parliament, once state assemblies meet later in the year to elect the body.
Further disasters loom. The Sangh’s current wedge issues are Muslim exemptions to India’s basic family law, and the old standby of beef consumption. In every town and village with a significant Muslim population, a rumour that a cow has been slaughtered is enough to generate a pogrom, particularly on that community’s holidays. Indian Muslims, 10% of the population, have been effectively reduced to the status of second-class citizens.
Using beef as a religious wedge, however, has the potential to go far past its aim—the stigmatisation of Islam—to affect other active or potential political forces, such as Dalits, Christians, and the secularised urban middle classes. This belies the Sangh’s claim of organic unity and risks raising powerful opposition to its emergent hegemony.
In Modi’s home state of Gujarat, this summer the anti-beef campaign rolled on to the Chamars, a Dalit caste whose traditional occupation is scavenging the carcasses of dead animals, including cows. The savage beating of four Chamar youth engaged in skinning a dead cow prompted a de facto wildcat strike, with Chamars leaving animal corpses to rot on the street as they joined mass sit-ins and protests that clogged the cities and highways.
Gujarati Chamars’ outrage is only one instance of a growing backlash by Dalits against BJP rule which has been brewing since early last year. On January 17th, Rohith Vemula hanged himself in protest of suspension from his studies at the University of Hyderabad. Vemula had been the target of a successful campaign by the Sangh’s student wing, the ABVP, to punish him for his ‘anti-national’ political activities. The Dalit student bodies of universities across India exploded in outrage.
Vemula’s suicide coincided with the prosecution of Kanhaiya Kumar, the Communist president of the student union at Jawaharlal Nehru University, for his efforts against the military occupation of Kashmir. Students, faculty and staff shut down the campus in response and forced the release of Kumar, also attracting a prominent international campaign in solidarity. The episodic anti-Hindutva movement was extended into the heart of India’s most prestigious university.
These and other incidents testify to an ongoing political ferment at many different levels of Indian society. This includes the ongoing assertiveness of Dalits and OBCs, as well as the refusal of Indian Muslims to resign themselves to a terrorised second-class citizenship. The political and economic ferment that these resistance movements emerge out of, for as long as it continues, will prevent the Sangh from attaining its desire of invincibility in culture and politics.
Organised labour and the left must have a role in this process as well, although how well they will act in it is unclear. The national general strike of 180 million workers in September 2016, likely the largest strike in global history, showed at least that the organised working class has great potential to disrupt Modi’s aggressive neoliberal development policies.
However, this comes at the nadir of both the trade-union and left movements in India. The general strikes have been a defensive response from union federations reduced mainly to a few bastions in the remnants of the state sector and in heavy industry. Indian unions have neither moved to strike back by organising in the mushrooming informal industry concentrated in the Special Economic Zones, nor to organise the tide of contract workers that are increasingly breaching their closed shops. Without a strategy to organise the sea of impoverished and desperate informal workers both outside and inside their workplaces, they will end up with their bargaining leverage taken away and their members sliding down the scale of the informal economy.
The state of the official left in India parallels labour’s decline. The main communist party, the CPM, suffered the same fate as Congress in the elections which brought Modi to power. In the previous edition of the present work, Vanaik aptly characterised the CPM as ‘Stalinist in ideology and organisation [but] increasingly social-democratic in practice’ (Furies, p. 327). It has suffered a massive alienation from its regional base in West Bengal and Kerala due to its collaboration in implementing neoliberal policies while in state government.’ It will likely soon face a devastating split in its ranks to match its student federation’s earlier break. The CPI and the gaggle of smaller Stalinist, social-democratic or left-nationalist parties that have taken the CPM’s lead seem committed to following it into irrelevance.
As Vanaik writes, a new Indian left will likely have to emerge ‘through a process of splits… re-compositions, realigments and fusions through extended dialogue and collaboration between small left groups’ (p. 405). This has started to happen on a molecular level, including scattered independent Marxists and trade unionists, India’s tiny but stubborn Trotskyist groups, and larger formations like the CPI (M-L) Liberation, a group hailing from the Maoist tradition which rejected the rural armed struggle in favour of the urban class struggle.
Any new party of the Indian revolutionary left would have to directly challenge the reformism of the old left: overcoming Hindutva means overcoming capitalism; a rerun of the Nehruvian welfare state is not on offer. It must also help defend what remains if Indian secularism, and engage in practical solidarity with Muslims to silence voices of hate and defend communities from the attacks of pogromists. Crucially, it must also shed the old Indian left’s blindness on the caste question, engage with Dalit activists and form united fronts with Dalit parties to thoroughly integrate the fight against caste with the fight against Hindutva and capitalism.
Such a party, admittedly, is very far from being realised. To get there we will need more than activism and organisational wrangling—we’ll need new ideas. The Rise of Hindu Authoritarianism possibly contains more new ideas than any other book that can offer them to the long process of constructing an alternative to Modi, Hindutva, and neoliberalism.
Achin Vanaik, The Rise of Hindu Authoritarianism: Secular Claims, Communal Realities. London/New York: Verso, 2017. £19.99/$29.95US.
Bill Crane is a member of the International Socialist Organization currently living in South Carolina.