The World Trade Organisation has stated that the Covid-19 pandemic could provoke the deepest economic downturn of our lifetime.1 As with any deep crisis, the effects will weigh heaviest on the poorest and most vulnerable, particularly in the Global South. India’s population stands at over 1.3 billion. Two-thirds of people live in rural areas, in about 650,000 villages spread over 728 districts. Practising safe distancing in over-crowded villages, towns and cities is a luxury the poor cannot afford. As India imposed its lockdown on 24 March, the plight of thousands of migrant workers, fleeing large cities in order to get home to their villages, was splashed across the media. India has some 450 million migrant workers, but as Supurna Banerjee explains:
Without the luxuries of social distancing, and with high comorbidity and less or no access to health care and testing centers, the poor are definitely going to be more affected if the outbreak cannot be contained. This is especially true in an economy where informal labour consists of 92.8 percent of the total workforce.2
The lockdown has resulted in millions of people losing their incomes, livelihoods and homes. In the absence of furloughing or welfare provision, desperation compelled hundreds of thousands to walk back to their villages in treacherous conditions. As all transport systems were halted, some were trapped in cities and others stranded in relief camps. Volunteers from trade unions, social workers and NGOs sought to help in collecting and distributing food and water, but this could not prevent tragedies. On 8 May, a freight train in Aurangabad district, Maharashtra, ran over and killed at least 16 home-bound migrant workers who had fallen asleep on the tracks due to exhaustion.3 “Marenge toh gaon mein hi marenge” (“if we are to die, we will die in our villages”) has been the exasperated cry of millions of migrant workers.4 In the world’s second most populous country, with the latest figures in June 2020 standing at a reported 587,092 coronavirus cases and 17,417 deaths, the plight of migrant labour is an unfolding humanitarian disaster.5
The search for scapegoats
Just as Donald Trump has sought to shift blame onto minorities for coronavirus, India under the hard right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (Indian People’s Party, BJP) government of Narendra Modi sees Muslims blamed in countless stories circulating on social media and in print news outlets. Muslims were accused of “corona terrorism” after the largest initial cluster of cases, identified in early March, was linked to a conference in Delhi of the Islamic missionary movement Tablighi Jamaat, which was held in violation of social distancing rules. While testing is not widespread, the health ministry claimed about 30 percent of India’s total Covid-19 cases have been traced to people attending this event. Subsequently, tens of thousands of people who came into contact with them were quarantined. On 16 April, one of the movement’s leaders, Muhammad Saad Kandhalvi, was charged with culpable homicide. If convicted, he could face up to ten years in prison.6
Leading politicians in Modi’s BJP government seized the opportunity to denounce Muslims as waging a “corona-jihad”. Senior BJP figure Rajeev Bindal said Tablighi Jamaat members were moving through the population “like human bombs”.7 The sentiment was reflected by Raj Thackeray, the leader of the far-right Maharashtra Navnirman Sena party, who told news outlets that Tablighi Jamaat members “should be shot”.8 It’s little surprise that there has been a surge in violence, business boycotts and hate speech towards India’s Muslim minority. In the state of Rajasthan, a pregnant Muslim woman was turned away from a public hospital because of her religion, which resulted in the death of her seven month old foetus.
However, large-scale religious gatherings have not been confined to Muslims. On 16 April, a Hindu festival was celebrated in the Kalaburagi district of Karnataka state. Hundreds of devotees flocked to the site to pull a five storey chariot in Chittapur village as part of a holy fair. The event attracted widespread publicity, and there were reports of some leading political figures from the government having wanted to attend. On the date of the procession, the district had 20 cases, the fourth highest among all districts, and three deaths, the highest among all districts in Karnataka. The next day, Karnataka had registered 315 cases of Covid-19, and 13 people went on to die.9 Nevertheless, there were no arrests, no ministerial condemnations and no lurid headlines describing a “Hindu” virus. Such displays of hypocrisy and anti-Muslim bigotry have become the norm in India under Modi’s regime.
Covid-19 shines a powerful light on deep structural social and economic inequalities within the fabric of society. India’s 200 million Muslims account for 14 percent of the population and are the largest minority group in the country, which has a large Hindu majority. They were already at a disadvantage when the coronavirus arrived. A 2013 government survey found they are the poorest minority group, surviving on an average of 32.6 rupees ($0.43) per day. Muslims also have less access to healthcare. According to a 2006 government report, about 40 percent of villages with large Muslim populations do not have medical facilities.10 These real structural inequalities are underpinned by the rise of religious ethno-nationalism—represented above all by the rise of the BJP under Modi. Modi became prime minister in 2014, a position he retained in the 2019 elections, and has made India one of the most polarised societies in the world today. This article deals with the emergence of the BJP, the nature of its offensive since 2019 and the bases of resistance to Modi. It will also seek to explain the relationship between the BJP and classical fascism, and in the process draw some conclusions and point to ways forward for the left.
The resistible rise of Narendra Modi
Modi is rooted in the historic project of the BJP—Hindutva. Hindutva is designed to enshrine India as a Hindu nation. The character of the state is to be “Hinduised”, in a way similar to the Zionist ideal of securing an exclusively Jewish character for the state of Israel. In this “nirvana”, minorities such as Muslims (and those of low caste and untouchables) have a place, as long as they accept and bow down to hierarchical, casteist, majoritarian rule. This vision of a Hindu nation is exclusively upper caste and based on the supposed superior habits of elite groups such as Brahmins. It regards low caste and untouchable communities with disdain for their propensity to consume meat and alcohol, and their supposedly poor sanitary habits.
More fundamentally, Hindutva celebrates caste distinctions as natural and desirable for social cohesion. Put bluntly, upper caste people need someone to clean their latrines and dispose of rubbish, which is something that pure Brahmins will never even contemplate. Hindutva activists have challenged the legitimacy of caste reservations, a form of affirmative action through which lower-caste groups benefited from quotas in the civil service and education. Therefore it is not surprising that untouchable Dalit communities and low-caste groups have been victims of caste violence. According to NGOs, in 23 years of BJP rule in the state of Gujarat, 524 Dalits have been killed by upper caste Hindus, 1,133 Dalit women have been raped and over 38,600 cases of serious crimes against Dalits were registered.
Modi emerged from the historic BJP stronghold of Gujarat, where he achieved notoriety as chief minister when an orchestrated Hindu mob attacked Muslims and left some 2,000 dead in communal carnage in 2002. An estimated 150,000 people were driven into refugee camps.11 Women and children were among the victims of this pogrom; the violence included mass rapes and mutilations of women.12
As a young man Modi had joined the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a paramilitary extremist Hindu nationalist outfit, which is discussed further below. He quickly became a skilful regional organiser and, alongside others in the RSS, was placed in key strategic positions in the BJP in the Gujarati city of Ahmedabad. Modi’s complicity in the anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat made him an international pariah, and he was banned from entering Britain and the United States from 2002 to 2012. But BJP success in Gujarat elevated Modi to its national leader when Atal Bihari Vajpayee stepped down after his 2004 general election defeat. Back then, Chris Harman observed how the BJP sought to build support through communalist agitation, pitting one section of the poor against another. However, large-scale pogroms of Muslims and other minorities does not ensure the economic stability required by Indian and multinational capital.13 In spite of his RSS allegiance, Modi realised, if the BJP was ever to win a national election, it had to widen its appeal and he would have to distance himself from the 2002 Gujarat communal violence.
Accordingly, Modi ran successfully in the 2014 general election to become prime minister on a ticket of cleaning up the quagmire of corruption and nepotism entrenched by decades of Indian National Congress (INC) rule. As a classic populist, on the one hand Modi paraded as a former tea-stall holder, made good by his own efforts and hard work, and now directly speaking to millions (including through the use of hologram technology that he uses to broadcast his rallies). Yet he also utilised his chief ministership of Gujarat state to court support among the Indian business elites as “Mr Economic Miracle”.
For the BJP to present itself as a viable option for Indian capitalism, regional success had to be translated to the national stage, which is a scene long occupied by Congress. The INC traditionally campaigned as a national integration party that wanted to reconcile the poor to capitalism. To do so, it used the slogan of “Fighting Poverty” and the language of socialism. Contrastingly, Modi’s winning 2014 election slogan was “India Rising”, which placed emphasis on unlocking major economic and infrastructure programmes, such as the extension of broadband across rural areas, the creation of more IT jobs and the promotion of e-commerce. Easy credit was offered to tenant farmers, small businesses and would-be entrepreneurs in urban areas. Economic liberalisation meant “minimum government, maximum governance”. Indian capitalism felt it could be safe in Modi’s hands.
The 2019 offensive
Since the BJP’s spectacular electoral victory of 2019, when it increased its share of the vote, the party has felt more confident to assert its ideological Hindutva agenda. In January 2020, home affairs minister Amit Shah declared that the BJP government’s purpose was to resolve the issues “afflicting the nation for the last 70 years—in just eight months”.14 These problems were fourfold: Article 370 of the constitution on special status of Kashmir; the building of the controversial Ram temple at Ayodhya; the Muslim institution of triple talaq; and Pakistan.
In the summer of 2019, the state of Kashmir and Jammu was stripped of autonomy after seven decades. Article 370 allowed the state to have its own constitution, a separate flag and freedom to make laws. Foreign affairs, defence and communications remained the preserve of the central government. This was the only Muslim majority state to accede to India at independence, but did so on condition of autonomy and the promise of a plebiscite on its future status. The mere idea of a Muslim majority region was anathema to BJP thinking, which characterised the arrangement as a “historical blunder” in need of correction. A referendum has never taken place because the result would be a resounding victory for independence. Kashmir belongs to Kashmiris, not India or Pakistan.
At the same time, an intervention in the Muslim Personal Law, which governs marriages between Muslims in India, rescinded triple talaq divorces. Triple talaq is a form of divorce practiced by some Muslims in which a husband can divorce his wife by saying “talaq” (divorce) three times. Modi claimed that withdrawing it was to protect Muslim women but unsurprisingly this convinced few, particularly as Hindu Code laws and other religious protections that are detrimental to women remain. In February 2020, parliament upheld a Supreme Court decision to grant the land of the demolished Babri Mosque at Ayodhya for temple construction.
A further provocation was launched on 11 December 2019, when the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) was introduced. The CAA sought to fundamentally redefine citizenship, making it contingent on religious identity and the possession of legacy documents. This move has been the most zealously prosecuted and has provoked opposition on an unparalleled scale, including by the Muslim women who formed an inspiring protest camp in Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh neighbourhood. The CAA amends the 1955 Citizenship Act, which guaranteed the right of citizenship to all who were residents of India at the coming into effect of its constitution in January 1950 and all those subsequently born in India.
The CAA fast-tracked citizenship to refugees fleeing religious persecution from the neighbouring countries of Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan. This right is guaranteed for all Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Jains, Parsees and Sikhs but not Muslims. Justifying the CAA, it was claimed that only religious minorities in these predominantly Muslim neighbouring countries were subject to discrimination and therefore that it was only correct for India to offer them sanctuary and citizenship rights. If humanitarianism is the chief concern, why not offer haven and citizenship to Shia Muslims and Ahmadis, both minority communities who are subjected to persecution in Pakistan? The CAA also does not mention Sri Lanka’s Tamils, who are predominantly Hindu but include some Muslims, and face persecution from an assertive Sinhalese Buddhist state. Nor does it say anything about Rohingyas from neighbouring Myanmar or Tibetan refugees. This is why the legislation has provoked such outrage among millions of people in India and abroad, who believe its real purpose is to disenfranchise Muslims.
The CAA was accompanied by proposals for a National Register of Citizens (NRC), which would be designed to document all legal citizens and thereby aid the deportation of illegal migrants. This will have a direct impact upon the National Population Register (NPR), which has previously not relied upon legacy documents to prove residency. For historical reasons, most people in the subcontinent do not have birth certificates, even today. Under colonial rule the British were systematic about recording births and deaths of members of the Raj, but were not so particular about Indians. The palpable fear amongst India’s 200 million-plus Muslim community is that these measures will be (and are already being) used to question and deny their citizenship. In Uttar Pradesh, the most populated state and site of historic communalist violence between Hindus and Muslims, some 32,000 people identified as “illegals” in April were predominantly Muslim.15
In February 2020, Delhi prepared to go to the polls for local assembly elections and the BJP ran a virulently anti-Muslim campaign. Kapil Mishra, the BJP’s candidate in the Model Town neighbourhood, compared the election to a “fight between India and Pakistan” and described the Muslim women’s camp at Shaheen Bagh as “mini Pakistan”.16 BJP finance minister Anurag Thakur addressed election rallies chanting “desh ke gaddaron ko” (“what should be done with traitors of the country?”) and frenzied crowds responded with “goli maaro saalon ko” (“shoot them”).17 Amit Shah, the most belligerent of senior BJP figures, goaded his opponents for being alien to Mother India. He lambasted Rahul Gandhi with taunts of “Rahul Baba, I will translate this law into Italian for you”, a reference to his Italian-born mother Sonia Gandhi. Such inflammatory rhetoric fuels genuine fear that millions of Muslims who have lived in India their entire lives, and whose families have been there for generations, will lose their citizenship—and their rights, livelihoods and homes with it. Fortunately, the BJP lost to the incumbent Aam Aadmi Party (Common People’s Party, AAP), which is led by Arvind Kejriwal. But the BJP’s share of the vote rose by 6.2 percent, whereas the AAP’s share fell by 0.7 percent. Although the BJP only secured eight seats out of 70, they secured 38.5 percent of the vote. The victorious AAP won 62 seats with 53.6 percent.
Kejriwal declared his victory over the BJP a signal for a “new kind of politics”, but his words ring hollow. He studiously avoided mention of Shaheen Bagh and his own party made serious concessions to the BJP agenda. In a clear signal of acquiescence to religious symbolism, Kejriwal pointed to the significance of his victory taking place on the day dedicated to Hanuman, the monkey God favoured by the RSS. In such a toxic atmosphere it was only a matter of time before violence would erupt again. At the end of February 2020, video footage emerged showing police officers beating a group of five Muslim men in Delhi who had been injured during a mob attack. Taunted and ordered to sing the national anthem as a form of humiliation, one of these men, 23 year old Faizan, later died.18 After initial clashes between Hindus and Muslims, the situation deteriorated and organised mobs of Hindu men, armed with swords, sticks, metal pipes and bottles filled with petrol, emerged chanting nationalist slogans. They rampaged through several neighbourhoods killing Muslims and burning their homes, shops and mosques.19 Some Hindus were killed but the majority of victims were Muslim. Gangs of Hindu men stopped people in the streets demanding to see their identity cards, and any men who refused were forced to show whether or not they were circumcised. Several journalists were attacked or asked to confirm their religion. According to Human Rights Watch, at least 52 people were killed and over 200 injured in these three days of communal violence. Properties were destroyed and communities were displaced in targeted attacks by mobs of Hindu youth.20 Such carnage invoked memories of the communal frenzy that gripped Delhi in 1947-8 targeting Muslims and that in 1984 targeting Sikhs.
Human Rights Watch also documented related events in Uttar Pradesh. On 19 December 2019, the pressure group Rihai Manch organised a protest against the CAA in the state capital, Lucknow. The day before, human rights activists were placed under house arrest. These included lawyer and Rihai Manch head Mohammad Shoaib, senior policeman-turned-campaigner S R Darapuri and award-winning social activist Sandeep Pandey. Shoaib and Darapuri were later taken into custody without a warrant. Shoaib was charged with incitement to violence and intent to murder and damage to public property during the 19 December protests, even though he was under house arrest at that time. During the hearing of a habeas corpus petition for Shoaib, police wrongly claimed that they arrested him on 20 December. Darapuri accused the police of open communalism: “They do not bother hiding their bias, as they know they are fully protected.” He added: “If they could do this to a retired inspector general of police such as myself, I hate to think of what they are doing to the common man.” Sadaf Jafar, a female activist with a Muslim name who was associated with the INC, was soon to find out. Arrested on 19 December while filming the protest on her phone, Jafar said she was repeatedly beaten by the police: “They beat me. They mouthed the filthiest abuse, which you will not be able to print. They did not give me food and water. I was completely dehumanised… I had begun to realise what it means to be a Muslim in Amit Shah’s India”.21
School textbooks have been re-written with Muslims almost airbrushed out of Indian history. If mention is made, they are depicted as invaders, religious zealots and totalitarian rulers. With the exception of the Taj Mahal, most historic sites of Sultanate dynasties and Mughal rule go neglected by the Archaeological Survey of India, which is the government agency responsible for cultural monuments. Hindutva proponents have even claimed that the Taj Mahal was originally a 12th century Hindu temple built by the Maharajah of Jaipur.22 Not content with this, in October 2017, the BJP government of Uttar Pradesh, headed by Yogi Adityanath, a Hindu priest perpetually cloaked in saffron robes, chose not to include the Taj Mahal in the state’s tourism brochure. This was no oversight. Hindutva views all “foreign” presence throughout history, but particularly Islamic influences, as corrupting “Indian” civilisation. Modi himself referred to the Mughal Empire, along with British colonialism, as a period of slavery.23
Academics have not been spared. In 2018, the University Grants Commission insisted that 40,000 colleges broadcast a live transmission of Modi praising BJP founder Deendayal Upadhyaya. In autumn 2018, students from Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the BJP’s student wing, orchestrated a successful protest against the appointment of eminent historian and liberal journalist Ramchandra Guha to a chair at Ahmedabad University for being “anti-national”. The curtailment of civil liberties has also affected journalists, who have been arbitrarily detained, arrested on spurious grounds and sometimes beaten up. Fourteen journalists have been killed in India since Modi came to power in 2014.24
Is India lurching towards fascism?
It is tempting to characterise India under Modi and the BJP as a form of incipient fascism, if not a full-blooded fascist state. Such views have some foundation. Adityanath, the BJP chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, stated: “If [Muslims] kill one Hindu man, then we will kill 100 Muslim men… I will not stop until I turn [Uttar Pradesh] and India into a Hindu rashtra [nation]”.25 “Beef lynchings” of Muslims suspected of eating beef and wanton violence against Dalits are sometimes compared to the antisemitic pogroms in Nazi Germany. The CAA is likened to the Nuremberg race laws. The censoring of books, rewriting of textbooks, replacement of leftists or Congress appointees by BJP loyalists in state administrative roles, curbing of civil liberties, detention and arrest of liberal journalists and other critics on specious charges have all been noted above. Muslims are openly referred to as cockroaches that infest the body politic of Hindu society by a servile media that makes Fox News look liberal.
However, it is inaccurate to label Modi’s regime as fascist. Although this is not the place for a full discussion of the nature of 21st century fascist movements and how they compare to “classical” fascist movements of the interwar period, some aspects of the BJP and its rule can be briefly explored. Historically, the BJP is rooted in the RSS, which was founded as a right-wing paramilitary organisation in 1925 and is committed to Hindutva. It was inspired by European far-right groups of the 1930s, modelling itself on their volunteer corps, uniforms, rallies and rhetoric.26 Their chief ideologue was Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, who was a leading member of the Hindu Mahasabha (Hindu Society) that was founded in the early 20th century and militantly defends Hindus’ claims of religious and cultural supremacy over Indian Muslims.27 Its foundational principles are based upon late 19th century revivalist currents aimed at renewing the Hindu ethic and rallying the Hindu faithful. A central belief is that India had been emasculated by British imperialism, and that the prior “alien” rule of Muslims had contributed to this by degrading the true faith. Recovery required moral, spiritual, political and physical renewal.
The RSS spawned a range of organisations in late colonial India. Both the BJP and the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) grew out of this nest. The VHP has crafted itself as a cultural organisation and claims to represent the interests of the whole Hindu community. It is well-rooted in temple networks and cultural associations. The secretive RSS is a hierarchical, militarised and deeply authoritarian body with a uniform of white shirts and khaki shorts. Special emphasis is put on discipline, regular physical and mental exercise and allegiance to their supreme leader.
The social base of the RSS and its supporters in the BJP family is critical to understanding its function. Hostile to Congress and its avowed secular programme, the RSS has traditionally found appeal in urban settings where religious communities live side by side. When secular nationalism fails to bring people together on the basis of class solidarity, religious idioms assume great importance. The glorification of Hindu values and history also attracts those who have lost status and power in the process of social change. This includes both white-collar workers, who are seeking easy explanations for their relative deprivation, and more traditional urban elements, who are alienated by the secular and universalistic aspects of modern capitalist institutions and politics. Small business owners that are desperate for an end to regulation and restrictive practices, which are traditionally associated with the early Congress governments, can form a strong affinity with the notion of Hindu advancement. These layers of society are often mistrustful of the state. The Hindutva ideology draws them in by envisioning the nation as a tightly-knit unit, which is modelled on the family. This ideal of the nation also offers security to those alienated by urban life, such as educated urban youth and the geographically mobile who lack satisfactory ties of caste and family. The RSS thus shares a social base with classical fascism—the “petty bourgeoisie” or middle class that formed the foundation of, for instance, Hitler’s Nazis and Benito Mussolini’s fascists. However, this section of society has also been the base of other movements that have very different politics from fascism such as Peronism in Argentina and Islamism in Iran and Egypt.28
More profoundly, fascism typically acquires state power when the middle classes come to feel completely desolate, excluded from the benefits of economic liberalisation and alienated from existing political structures. This has not yet happened; the middle classes have not yet entered such a frenzied state. Nor is the BJP government desperate enough to need to turn openly to a street movement. As horrendous as the Covid-19 crisis is, the foundations of capitalist society are not yet shaking.
The RSS and the BJP are sometimes conflated, but this does not help us to get to grips with reality. It is important to grasp the distinction between Modi as a member of the RSS and Modi as the leader of the BJP and prime minister of India. The BJP is a bourgeois electoral party and thus is much broader than the RSS. Founded in 1951 as the Bharatiya Jana Sangh with the collaboration the RSS, the BJP initially favoured economic protectionism. Over the past two decades, it has been converted to economic liberalism and increasing foreign investment in priority sectors (although restricting it in others). When the party was in power in 1998, it shifted its policy even further in favour of globalisation. The government that it led from 1998 to 2004 saw an unprecedented influx of foreign companies into India. Under Modi there has been a drive towards deregulation and extensive privatisation of infrastructure and services, as well as a significant easing of labour and ecological regulations. Moroever, it has moderated its core Hindutva ideology in order to court wider electoral support and demonstrate its reliability to capital.
RSS culpability in Mohandas Gandhi’s murder still puts them outside the political mainstream, but there are concerted efforts by Hindu Mahasabha to rehabilitate Nathuram Godse, his assassin, as a national hero. This was behind the Mahasabha reconstruction of the assassination on the 150th anniversary of Gandhi’s birth in January 2019, when an effigy of him was burnt. Outrage compelled Modi to criticise the stunt in an effort to present himself as a modern statesman. But his status as most effective BJP leader simultaneously produces tensions and conflict within the RSS’s family of organisations. These will deepen as Modi negotiates the twin roles of statesman and RSS cadre.
Two issues have demonstrated Modi’s vulnerability here. The first was a parliamentary manoeuvre in Maharashtra state, where the BJP had been in coalition with the regional Hindu far-right Shiv Sena Party (SS). Having won last year’s election, albeit with a reduced majority, the BJP reneged on a deal to share the chief ministership with the SS. They assumed that the SS had nowhere else to go. However, the SS then formed an unprincipled coalition with Congress and a regional capitalist farmers’ party. These are unlikely bedfellows, but as all three have a vested interest in teaching the BJP a lesson, the alliance may hold. More importantly, in Mumbai, the capital of Maharashtra, the change in government meant that anti-CAA protests were not attacked by the police or the SS’s militia.
A second example is in Assam, where the BJP fell out with their major coalition partner, Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), which aims to stop all Bengalis moving into Assam, regardless of religion. The BJP was caught in a trap of its own making, as mass protests gripped Assam against the CAA, albeit coming from an entirely different direction to the chauvinism of the AGP.
The BJP’s parliamentarianism has necessitated the incorporation of broader social constituencies. These include the upper middle classes and professional, highly educated and prosperous groups who may outwardly display observation of orthodox Hindu rituals, but are in truth secular, cosmopolitan and deeply materialistic. Regrettably, the BJP has also succeeded in penetrating some working-class areas with its own trade union, which is called Bhartiya Mazdoor Sangh and is an RSS-affiliated body. Some workers identify with the BJP’s nationalism in the hope that India truly is a rising power on a par with China.
This is also the hope of Indian industrial and corporate elites who do business with the West but also in the Arab Gulf, where Saudi Arabia is India’s second biggest supplier of oil after Iraq. It is also now India’s fourth largest trading partner, with bilateral trade at $27.48 billion in 2017-18, and Saudi investment of around $100 billion is planned in areas ranging from energy, refining, petrochemicals and infrastructure to agriculture, minerals and mining.29 These elites are not in favour of mass violence and street thuggery as the norm. Of course, Indian capital can weather occasional and low-level communal killings, but it has no need to turn to a mass street movement to save Indian capitalism from the dangers of an advancing revolutionary workers’ insurrection, as was the case with the rise of classical European fascism. The BJP is favoured by the Indian ruling class at present precisely because it is able to deliver the right economic and political climate for profits to be made at minimum costs and without a bloodbath.
Nonetheless, the growth of right-wing populism and the far-right in India means the BJP is acting as an incubator of far-right ideologies, including fascism. Modi was the first leader of the populist right to emerge who broke with the social liberalism of traditional parties that had presided over capitalism in the post-war era. He was a pioneer for economic liberalism in the wake of the 2008 crisis, who used populist rhetoric to attack the old party system of established politics for their elitism and failures to listen to ordinary people. Modi, as Gujarat has shown, is perfectly capable of using religious nationalism as a basis for mobilisation. But Modi’s prime ministership requires a much broader appeal. The BJP is a thoroughly modern machine; its professional cadre is made up of men and women in suits with media savvy, not men in white shirts and khaki shorts performing militaristic religious rituals.
Under Modi, the BJP has also become one of the richest political parties in the world. According to the elections think-tank the Association for Democratic Reforms, in the financial year 2017-18, India’s seven largest political parties declared a combined income of $185 million. The BJP’s share stood at 73.5 percent of the total. Voluntary donations to the BJP were worth 2.5 times more than the total income, from all sources, of the next seven largest parties put together.30 Most of these are from corporate bodies, private individuals living abroad and the super-rich, who are attracted by the prospect of a low-wage, low-tax, deregulated economy, not Hindutva fundamentalism ushered in via mass communal violence. Modi has aligned himself with Donald Trump in the US and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, forming ties with free marketeer, populist right-wing leaders. Like them, Modi heads a nasty authoritarian regime but one that is not fascist as such.
The weaknesses of the INC and the left
The abject failure of the party of independence, the INC, to deal with the problems of the mass of ordinary people in India is its biggest indictment. The party has historically taken the allegiance of workers and peasants for granted, but in office it safeguarded the interests of employers, landlords and the military. Congress’s secular nationalism bound disparate social classes to a single project that could never meet the expectations of them all equally. Its early stance of attempting to balance competing factions could survive while there was room for manoeuvre in the immediate post-war era, when the world economy was expanding. Once global capitalism began to flounder in the 1970s, even the avowed secular nationalist Nehru-Gandhi family would increasingly play the communal card when faced with electoral losses. Thus Indira Gandhi stoked antagonism between Hindus and Sikhs in the 1980s, ultimately leading to her assassination and the subsequent anti-Sikh pogroms of 1984.
Her son and heir, Rajiv Gandhi, won a landslide victory, following a wave of sympathy for his mother, only to resort to enacting policies that aimed at serving conservative communal interests. Under him, the locked gates of the site of the 16th century Babri Masjid mosque in Ayodhya were opened in order to placate Hindu extremists. The Babri Masjid had been identified by the VHP as being the birth place of the Hindu deity Ram, and the organisation began promoting regular prayer sessions in Ayodhya. In recent decades “yatras” (pilgrimages to shrines), some of which imitate those dramatised in Hindu epics such as the Mahabharata and Ramayana, have grown in significance. If these were simply gatherings of the faithful for ritual purposes, there would be no issue. But on 6 December 1992 a mob illegally demolished the Babri Mosque. It had been incited by adherents of the VHP, backed by the RSS and the BJP, under the leadership of Lal Krishna Advani, who went on to become home minister in the 1998-2004 BJP government. In 1990, Advani had orchestrated the Ram Rath Yatra—an enormous procession through much of India that ended in Ayodhya. Although this was styled as a religious rally, it became a rallying point for a whole range of semi-dormant orthodox Hindu groups that were set on politicising religious idioms and symbols in order to aid an assertive religious nationalism.
The taint of dynastic politics has also dogged the INC, and Modi has mastered how to exploit this. Indeed, Rahul Gandhi could not have been a more vacuous, uninspiring and forgettable prime ministerial candidate for Congress in 2019. He has neither political tenacity nor authority. He lacks his great-grandfather’s charm and political stature, his grandmother’s iron will and political expediency and even his father’s handsome looks. Accusations of nepotism and elitism resonated after decades of disappointment and broken promises. The BJP gained 303 seats out of 543, as opposed to 52 for the INC, and thus comfortably won an outright majority in its own right. However, the BJP also heads the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) of centre-right and right-wing regional parties (including Shiv Sena), which secured a combined total of 353 seats. The INC heads the United Progressive Alliance, which won a mere 91 seats. Congress has ruled India for 49 of its 72 years of independence, but Rahul Gandhi delivered its worst electoral result ever.31
The failure of Congress’s secular nationalism has been mirrored by that of the liberal intelligentsia. This is particularly true of those who have been critical of the left but have also drawn their own problematic conclusions, including uncritical celebration of markers such as religion as momentous cultural signifiers of communal belonging. In academia, the rise of postcolonial and subaltern studies has motivated a new emphasis on the politics of “difference”, and thus led to the valorisation of the specifics of religion, caste, locality, gender, sexuality and region. Class, if it has been identified at all, has been relegated to a matter of secondary consequence. These intellectual attitudes provide legitimacy to Hindutva politics.
Congress’s weaknesses could have been an opportunity for the Indian left to fill the vacuum and mobilise from below against the right. The Communist Party tradition has been strong in India. The Left Front alliance incorporates the Communist Party of India (CPI), the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist), the All India Forward Bloc (AIFB), the Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPI(M) and the Revolutionary Socialist Party. This is not the place for a thoroughgoing analysis of the left in India, and so it will have to suffice to say that a combination of Stalinist heritage and parliamentary cretinism has proved woefully inadequate in the face of Modi’s racist populism and a resurgent far right around the RSS and VHP. In 2019, left parties only won five seats, their worst result in over six decades. West Bengal and Kerala had been the traditional bases of Communist control. In West Bengal, a state ruled by the left for 34 uninterrupted years, the CPI(M) lost all its seats in 2019. In Kerala, where the then undivided CPI won in 1957 and formed the world’s first Communist government to win office through parliamentary elections, the left achieved just one seat, although its share of the vote was 32 percent. The electoralist strategy has proved disastrous. Even the CPI(M), the largest left-wing party in membership and historically the largest in parliament, has also fallen prey to the vagaries of constitutional politics, and has been mired in wheeler-dealing bids to out-manoeuvre its opponents. Successive compromises with local and global capitalists in Bengal and Kerala resulted in worsening conditions for the urban and rural poor, workers and the peasantry.32
Despite their electoral success in 2019, Modi and the BJP have another problem. The economy is increasingly unhealthy. The International Monetary Fund predicts that India’s GDP will rise by just 1.9 percent in 2020. The government is set to sell its holdings in national airline Air India, which reported huge losses in 2018-19, leading to the accumulation of enormous state debts.33 The Indian rupee was among the most battered currencies in Asia during March 2020, hitting a record low. Foreign investors withdrew from Indian assets due to growing concern that Covid-19 would inflict even more pain on an already struggling economy.34
Even before Covid-19 and prior to last year’s general election, the labour participation rate had fallen to 41.9 percent in March 2019, which is the lowest since January 2016. The employment rate also fell to 38.2 percent. The number of unemployed people actively looking for a job was reported to be just below 37.9 million, the highest since October 2016.35
When Indians’ perceptions of their country are recorded by research organisations, a contradictory picture emerges. According to a 2019 report by the Pew Research Centre, about two-thirds (65 percent) say the financial situation of average people in India is better today than it was 20 years ago. Nevertheless, it also reported that 393.7 million jobs were in a vulnerable state and, despite an estimated 3.5 percent official unemployment rate in 2018, 18.6 million Indians were jobless.36 Looked at through age categories, unemployment stands at 37.48 percent for the 20-24 age group and 12.81 percent for the 25-29 age group in October 2019. For those aged 15-19 years, the unemployment rate stood at 45 percent. The contraction in the economy implies not only fewer opportunities for young graduates but an overall reduction in stable employment prospects.37
Prior to the pandemic, ordinary people were already feeling the impact of a sluggish economy. More than seven in ten believed rising prices were a very big problem. Nearly seven in ten of both BJP supporters and Congress backers share the view that elected leaders are corrupt. In the run up to the Delhi Assembly elections, 58 percent stated that no matter who won the election, things would not really change much. This included a majority of both BJP and Congress adherents.38 There is also enormous inequality. Oxfam India states that control of the country’s wealth by the richest 1 percent of the population increased from 58 percent to 73 percent from 2018 to 2019, while the wealth of the poorest 50 percent increased by just 1 percent.39
Thus this picture is not one of universal satisfaction with Modi’s India. Moreover, the weaknesses of the economy indicate that Modi’s room for manoeuvre is limited. The reality behind India’s economic rise is being exposed on the global market. The gap between the narrative of economic prosperity and the reality for millions of Indians will produce frustration and pressures from the base of the BJP. Of course, Modi will seek to resolve this through a return to scapegoating, but this is far from straightforward, as noted above.
Strands of resistance from below
Amid growing economic uncertainty, and despite a failure of leadership from Congress, there has been inspiring resistance from below to Modi’s regime and his attempt to drive through the Hindutva project with vicious racism and initiatives such as the CAA. For instance, one of the largest and most sustained non-violent civil disobedience protests in the history of India came to an abrupt end at 7am on 24 March 2020, when Delhi police were deployed in force to clear the Shaheen Bagh women’s protest camp. Modi had announced a total lockdown the day before as a response to Covid-19 after a 101-day sit-in.40 Shaheen Bagh became a lightning rod for everything that is lamentable in contemporary India.
The protest began as a symbolic act with 15 local women sitting down across a six-lane road linking Delhi to Noida. They were soon joined by other women from the locality. Some wore the hijab and burqa, others did not; some were housewives, daughters or students, others were teachers and social workers. There were grandmothers, mothers, teenagers, toddlers and babies. Their immediate concern was the CAA. As women, they understood the implications this could have for their children—without documented papers, they could potentially be declared stateless. Protestor Sumbul Kamal summed up their reasoning: “We all believe in god. So what if my god is called Allah? Does that not make me Indian anymore?”41 Sumbul’s family, like many Delhi Muslim households, goes back several generations. Her grandparents took the decision to stay in India after partition. She continued: “Are my parents too no longer citizens just because they have no legacy documents? Are my children rendered illegal for lack of birth certificates?”42 Part of the tragedy of India is that many from Muslim backgrounds will be wondering whether their parents and grandparents took the right decision during partition and the resulting exodus of Muslims in 1947-8.
Soon the camp was joined by tens of thousands of other people, predominantly women from the local area and beyond in Delhi. At its height, the protest attracted over 100,000 during the coldest Christmas in Delhi for decades. On Republic Day, 26 January 2020, the national flag was hoisted by three local elderly women who became known as Shaheen Bagh dadis (“grandmothers”) and the national anthem was sung. Understandably, the consensus was to emphasise belonging to India. Muslim women have been caricatured as backward, ignorant and in need of the paternalism of outsiders, but were suddenly in the vanguard of a mass movement against Modi’s government. Women who had been denied agency by commentators were mobilised and began discussing the constitution, democracy, the nature of the state and social justice. The very act of mass civil disobedience begs questions about the role of women in the home and wider society. The women’s demands expanded from outright rejection of the CAA and related legislation to concerns over women’s safety (Delhi is notorious as one of the world’s most dangerous cities for women), rising costs of food and everyday household items, and unemployment and poverty.
Impressive levels of organisation were displayed as word of the protest spread and galvanised more solidarity. A free kitchen was set up by Sikh farmers providing halal, vegetarian and other options; a health camp staffed by doctors, nurses and medical students from different medical institutes and hospitals joined; raised beds were installed for elderly women; blankets, shawls, hats and gloves were provided as well as clean drinking water and toilet facilities. Inter-faith prayers were held for those who wished to be observant, but there was little compulsion to participate. In addition, a makeshift community library was established with books and stationery donated by supporters in order to provide additional schooling for children. Novels, history books, pamphlets and textbooks were also made available. The entire camp was decorated in slogans that stressed unity across faith communities and demanded freedom and equality for all. The words “Inquilab Zindabad” (“Long Live Revolution”) echoed everywhere. Posters of great figures from India’s independence movement also figured heavily, including people of all faiths and none, men and women, and from different regions of the country.43 The protest was inspired and inspirational, vibrant and humbling. For a few short months, it provided a glimpse in embryonic form of how a different type of society could begin to evolve through struggles from below.
Despite efforts to demonise the Shaheen Bagh protesters as communalists and closet supporters of Pakistan, the movement inspired action by women across the country. In Aligarh, women and high school girls blocked all traffic within the Aligarh University campus and formed a human chain at the main crossing near the university guesthouse. At Shahjamal, under the Delhi Gate police station, hundreds of women from neighbouring localities occupied a main thoroughfare.44
Students were also inspired to mobilise. On 13 December, students from Jamia Millia Islamia University in Delhi decided to march to parliament in protest at the proposed citizenship changes. The police prevented them from going ahead and used batons and teargas to disperse them. This led to clashes and 50 students were detained. Two days later some 2,000 Jamia students held a mass protest on their campus. That evening hundreds of police officers forcefully entered the Jamia campus without the permission of university authorities. Batons and tear gas were again used and nearly 100 students were detained and some 200 injured.45 On 15 December 2019, students at Aligarh University in Uttar Pradesh organised protests on the campus against the CAA. That evening the police entered the campus and began to cordon off areas. Hundreds of students successfully broke through the police lines but the police retaliated with batons and tear gas. Students were assaulted and at least 60 were injured, including the student union president. Internet access was restricted and the police sealed the campus and closed the university until 5 January 2020.46
Both Jamia Millia and Aligarh have a predominantly Muslim student body. Police brutality here confirmed widespread fears of Muslims being targeted. Video footage of students being attacked by the police was broadcast across news channels, which helped to mobilise students from all across India to join the agitation in solidarity. Students protested at Jadavpur University, Pondicherry University, the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, the Indian Institute of Science, the Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad, Ambedkar University, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) and the Indian Institutes of Technology in Kanpur and Madras.47
Shaheen Bagh was becoming a cause célèbre. Politicians, notables from the film industry and academics visited the camp and made speeches of solidarity. Fearing the protests would spiral out of control, the police banned public gatherings in parts of Delhi and other cities and cut internet services. Colonial laws, still on the statute books, were invoked to ban four or more people from assembling.48 Unable to crush the movement for fear of adverse publicity, right-wing frustration burst forth and the forces of reaction were unleashed on students at JNU in Delhi. On the evening of 5 January 2020, a masked mob of between 60-100 people attacked the campus with rods and sticks. The assault lasted some three hours. The mob chanted “Urban Naxals, leave JNU” and “Anti-nationals leave JNU”.49 Activist and journalist Yogendra Yadav was assaulted in the presence of media and police.50 In a gangster-like ambush, ambulance tyres were punctured in order to hinder first aid arriving for the victims. These events left more than 42 students and teachers severely injured. Disturbingly, street lights were shut off by authorities during the incident. The JNU student president, Aishe Ghosh, was hospitalised after a brutal attack. He accused the police of deliberate inaction and claimed that they had been given prior warning of the assualt.51 Students blamed the BJP’s student wing, ABVP, of orchestrating the attacks, as evidence emerged of a WhatsApp group called “Unity against Left”, linked to messages from ABVP members.52
Adding to the already existing brutal repression of protesters, under the cover of the pandemic the state has introduced a raft of measures empowering it with all manner of powers to detain and arrest. This reflects the use of Covid-19 internationally by authoritarian governments systematically to shift the balance of class forces towards the ruling elite and arm the state with new powers. Yet the polarised nature of Indian society before the crisis had also generated class struggle. At the beginning of January 2020, a two-day general strike hit India and some 8-9 million workers struck. The ten unions involved called for an end to short-term labour contracts, low pay and privatisation of state-owned enterprises. They disrupted key industries, blocked railways and highways and participated in rallies and demonstrations. The strike was the third of its kind since the BJP came to power in 2014. Avinesh Sethi, a striking driver from Chandigarh, summed up the general mood: “I have worked like a slave to educate my four sons. In India sons are meant to be an asset but my sons are graduates and not one has a job. I have to support them on my salary”.53
A year earlier, in January 2019, there was a two-day general strike involving workers across ten trade unions including the All-India Trade Union Congress, which is affiliated to the Communist Party of India and is the oldest federation. This strike involved transport and factory workers, banking and insurance employees and federal and state workers in the childcare and service sector. They had 12 demands, which particularly targeted privatisation and demonetisation.54 Rural communities were involved and action was taken by farm workers who have lost out enormously after being lured into debt by easy credit schemes. Workers experienced the power of the state when police charged strikers with lathis (bamboo sticks) during a picket of the Daikin Air Conditioning plant at Rajasthan. The factory is part of a Special Economic Zone based around Japanese cooperation. Thirty workers were injured, 12 were arrested and charged with riot and attempted murder and an additional 700 were arrested for other offences. The company used hired thugs, who workers claimed “pelted [them with] stones” and “fired rubber bullets”.55 These strikes are deeply political, and a sign of escalating opposition to Modi’s polices. Though called from above by the bureaucracies of the trade union federations, these strikes have the potential to escape the control of the officials.
It will be these sorts of political and industrial battles—and the development of rank and file initiatives among trade unionists within them—that can take the movement beyond its routinisation and the limitations of “bureaucratic mass strikes”. Whether they become major class struggles that can inspire wider sections of society, such as peasants and small farmers, will determine whether Modi’s regime can emerge unscathed by the coronavirus crisis. As inspirational as the strands of resistance have been, so far they have been quite disparate. Workers’ struggles have the potential to hit the economy, but also the capacity to provide cohesion and unity across the religious divide as well as drawing in the Dalit communities and other minorities who are suffering under the impact of the marketisation of the economy. Hindu workers and peasants need to be patiently argued with in order to convince them that the BJP, RSS and VHP are opposed to their interests as workers and peasants, just as much as they stand against the interests of Muslims and Christians. This is not an easy task because the RSS has been sending its cadre into poor neighbourhoods in urban and rural areas for decades. The membership of its Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad student organisation reportedly stands at three million, which makes it the largest student body in India. The success of their project to bind the Hindu masses with Hindu elites has been proven at the ballot box.
To reverse this, the left must show that there are no no-go areas for socialists. It needs to go into mills and factories. It needs to be present at village level to relate to ordinary peasants and workers about their common interests. This cannot be achieved by only relating to the officials at the top of trade unions and peasant groups.
The politics of the BJP and the RSS have to be correctly identified as right-wing populism and incipient fascism respectively. Labelling all right-wing organisations and individuals as fascist is historically inaccurate and unhelpful. Hindutva cannot be challenged either at the ballot box or at the base of society by making the slightest concession to the BJP agenda. Modi’s populist rhetoric and posturing needs to be exposed and his policies called out for their anti-working class intent. Politics from below is required as opposed to parliamentary manoeuvres and political horse trading with corrupt political parties. A movement from below needs to be built that is not based on Popular Front-style alliances based on courting the leaderships of mainstream pro-capitalist parties, but rather a united front aimed at exposing and militantly opposing the BJP and RSS on the streets and in the workplaces. Ironically, in spite of its Stalinist heritage, the left in India did once operate like this, during the colonial era. Despite state repression and censorship, the CPI had roots in a range of peasant societies, welfare groups and trade unions (particularly in the mill industry)—roots that were built from the bottom up. Since independence, the left’s Popular Front-style strategy has allowed it to make alliances with, and concessions to, the neoliberals of Congress. Tail-ending secular nationalism has been the hallmark of all Communist parties in the Global South, and this weakness has prevented independent working class and peasant organisation from emerging. This strategy has helped to institutionalise the Indian left within the parliamentary framework, and it has meant it has been tragically ineffective in its attempts to block the rise of the right. The challenge before the left is to renew itself by breaking with past ideology and practice and build broad united action against Modi and the right. No one underestimates how difficult this will be, but it is the only escape route from the dangers Modi presents.
Toni Azad is a researcher and writer on South Asia.
1 Thank you to Joseph Choonara and Barry Pavier for their comments on earlier drafts of this article.
2 Bannerjee, 2020. The term “migrant worker” refers to internal migrants, that is, rural Indians who have moved to urban areas to find work.
3 Banerjee and Mahale, 2020.
4 Adhikari and Mundoli, 2020.
6 Pathak and Frayer, 2020.
7 Gettleman, Schultz and Raj, 2020.
8 Gettleman, Schultz and Raj, 2020.
9 Girish, 2020.
10 Andrews, 2020.
11 Brass, 2005, p388.
12 Nussbaum, 2008, pp50-51.
13 Harman, 2004.
14 Hindu, 2020a.
15 Human Rights Watch, 2020.
16 Hindu, 2020b.
17 Mathew and Rajput, 2020.
18 Yadav, 2020a, 2020b.
19 Ellis-Peterson, 2020.
20 Human Rights Watch, 2020.
21 Human Rights Watch, 2020.
22 Akins, 2017.
23 Akins, 2017.
24 Gopal and Tripathi, 2020.
25 Akins, 2017.
26 The RSS was banned once during British rule and three times by post-independence governments: first in 1948 when a former RSS member assassinated Mohandas Gandhi; then during the period of emergency rule declared by Indira Gandhi (1975–77); and for a third time after the demolition of Babri Masjid in 1992 (see below). For more on the RSS see Basu, 1993; Jaffrelot, 1996 and 2007; Chandra, 2008; Chitkara, 1997; Islam, 2006.
27 Savarkar wrote the pamphlet titled Essentials of Hindutva in 1923, which was retitled Hindutva: Who is a Hindu? and reprinted in 1928.
28 Harman, 1994.
29 Pant, Harsh, 2019.
30 The Wire, 2020.
31 Ramani, 2019.
32 See Sarkar, 2007.
33 Indian Express, 2020a.
34 Parkin, 2020.
35 Business Today, 2020.
36 Devlin, 2019.
37 Kumar, 2020.
38 Devlin, 2019.
39 Oxfam India, 2020.
40 The numbers had been scaled down to ensure safe distancing.
41 Interview by author with Sumbul Kamal, Delhi, 31 January 2020.
42 Interview by author with Sumbul Kamal, Delhi, 31 January 2020.
43 In addition to pictures of Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, these posters included: Dalit leader Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar; Subhas Chandra Bose, the leader of the Indian National Army in the Second World War; socialist revolutionary and atheist militant Bhagat Singh, who was executed by the British at the age of 23; feminist educator Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain; and the Rani of Jhansi, the great heroine of the 1857 Rebellion.
44 New India Express, 2020.
45 Slater and Masih, 2019.
46 Press Trust of India, 2019.
47 Business Standard, 2019.
48 Yadav, 2020a.
49 Pal and Kaushal, 2020. “Naxals” is a reference to the Naxalite Maoist movement.
50 Varma, 2020.
51 Indian Express, 2020b.
52 Indian Express, 2020b.
53 Dhillon and Harding, 2020.
54 Demonetisation involved the removal of certain banknotes from circulation.
55 Pant, Shubhra, 2019.