India: Intimations of an Ending – Part I
0 comments | by Arundhati Roy
The rise of Modi and the Hindu far right.
It is a long eye opener article and LISA is presenting it in three parts
While protest reverberates on the streets of Chile, Catalonia, Britain, France, Iraq, Lebanon, and Hong Kong, and a new generation rages against what has been done to their planet, I hope you will forgive me for speaking about a place where the street has been taken over by something quite different. There was a time when dissent was India’s best export. But now, even as protest swells in the West, our great anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist movements for social and environmental justice—the marches against big dams, against the privatization and plunder of our rivers and forests, against mass displacement and the alienation of indigenous peoples’ homelands—have largely fallen silent. On September 17 this year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi gifted himself the filled-to-the-brim reservoir of the Sardar Sarovar Dam on the Narmada River for his 69th birthday, while thousands of villagers who had fought that dam for more than 30 years watched their homes disappear under the rising water. It was a moment of great symbolism.
This text was presented in New York City on November 12 as the Jonathan Schell Memorial Lecture on the Fate of the Earth, created by Type Media Center and the Gould Family Foundation and presented by Cooper Union.
In India today, a shadow world is creeping up on us in broad daylight. It is becoming more and more difficult to communicate the scale of the crisis even to ourselves. An accurate description runs the risk of sounding like hyperbole. And so, for the sake of credibility and good manners, we groom the creature that has sunk its teeth into us—we comb out its hair and wipe its dripping jaw to make it more personable in polite company. India isn’t by any means the worst, or most dangerous, place in the world—at least not yet—but perhaps the divergence between what it could have been and what it has become makes it the most tragic. Right now, 7 million people in the valley of Kashmir, overwhelming numbers of whom do not wish to be citizens of India and have fought for decades for their right to self-determination, are locked down under a digital siege and the densest military occupation in the world. Simultaneously, in the eastern state of Assam, almost two million people who long to belong to India have found their names missing from the National Register of Citizens (NRC), and risk being declared stateless. The Indian government has announced its intention of extending the NRC to the rest of India. Legislation is on its way. This could lead to the manufacture of statelessness on a scale previously unknown. The rich in Western countries are making their own arrangements for the coming climate calamity. They’re building bunkers and stocking reservoirs of food and clean water. In poor countries—India, despite being the fifth-largest economy in the world, is, shamefully, still a poor and hungry country—different kinds of arrangements are being made. The Indian government’s August 5, 2019, annexation of Kashmir has as much to do with the Indian government’s urgency to secure access to the five rivers that run through the state of Jammu and Kashmir as it does with anything else. And the NRC, which will create a system of tiered citizenship in which some citizens have more rights than others, is also a preparation for a time when resources become scarce. Citizenship, as Hannah Arendt famously said, is the right to have rights.
The dismantling of the idea of liberty, fraternity, and equality will be—in fact already is—the first casualty of the climate crisis. I’m going to try to explain in some detail how this is happening. And how, in India, the modern management system that emerged to handle this very modern crisis has its roots in an odious, dangerous filament of our history.
The violence of inclusion and the violence of exclusion are precursors of a convulsion that could alter the foundations of India—and rearrange its meaning and its place in the world. Our Constitution calls India a “socialist secular democratic republic.” We use the word “secular” in a slightly different sense from the rest of the world—for us, its code for a society in which all religions have equal standing in the eyes of the law. In practice, India has been neither secular nor socialist. It has always functioned as an upper-caste Hindu state. But the conceit of secularism, hypocritical though it may be, is the only shard of coherence that makes India possible. That hypocrisy was the best thing we had. Without it, India will end.
In his May 2019 victory speech, after his party won a second term, Modi boasted that no politicians from any political party had dared to use the word “secularism” in their campaigns. The tank of secularism, Modi said, was now empty. So, it’s official. India is running on empty. And we are learning, too late, to cherish hypocrisy. Because with it comes a vestige, a pretence at least, of remembered decency.
India is not really a country. It is a continent. More complex and diverse, with more languages—780 at last count, excluding dialects—more nationalities and sub-nationalities, more indigenous tribes and religions than all of Europe. Imagine this vast ocean, this fragile, fractious, social ecosystem, suddenly being commandeered by a Hindu supremacist organization that believes in a doctrine of One Nation, One Language, One Religion, and One Constitution.
I am speaking here of the RSS, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, founded in 1925—the mothership of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. Its founding fathers were greatly influenced by German and Italian fascism. They likened the Muslims of India to the “Jews of Germany,” and believed that Muslims have no place in Hindu India. The RSS today, in typical RSS chameleon-speak, distances itself from this view. But its underlying ideology, in which Muslims are cast as treacherous permanent “outsiders,” is a constant refrain in the public speeches of BJP politicians, and finds utterance in chilling slogans raised by rampaging mobs. For example: “Mussalman ka ek hi sthan—Kabristan ya Pakistan” (Only one place for the Muslim—the graveyard, or Pakistan). In October this year, Mohan Bhagwat, the supreme leader of the RSS, said, “India is a Hindu Rashtra”—a Hindu nation. “This is non-negotiable.”
That idea turns everything that is beautiful about India into acid.
For the RSS to portray what it is engineering today as an epochal revolution, in which Hindus are finally wiping away centuries of oppression at the hands of India’s earlier Muslim rulers, is a part of its fake-history project. In truth, millions of India’s Muslims are the descendants of people who converted to Islam to escape Hinduism’s cruel practice of caste.
If Nazi Germany was a country seeking to impose its imagination onto a continent (and beyond), the impetus of an RSS-ruled India is, in a sense, the opposite. Here is a continent seeking to shrink itself into a country. Not even a country, but a province. A primitive, ethno-religious province. This is turning out to be an unimaginably violent process.
None of the white supremacist, neo-Nazi groups that are on the rise in the world today can boast the infrastructure and manpower that the RSS commands. It has 57,000 shakhas—branches—across the country, and an armed, dedicated militia of 600,000 “volunteers.” It runs schools in which millions of students are enrolled, and has its own medical missions, trade unions, farmers’ organizations, media outlets, and women’s groups. Recently, it announced that it was opening a training school for those who wish to join the Indian Army. Under its bhagwa dhwaj—its saffron pennant—a whole host of far-right organizations, known as the Sangh Parivar—the RSS’s “family”—have prospered and multiplied. These organizations, the political equivalents of shell companies, are responsible for shockingly violent attacks on minorities in which, over the years, uncounted thousands have been murdered.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been a member of the RSS all his life. He is a creation of the RSS. Although not Brahmin, he, more than anyone else in its history, has been responsible for turning it into the most powerful organization in India, and for writing its most glorious chapter yet. It is exasperating to have to constantly repeat the story of Modi’s ascent to power, but the officially sanctioned amnesia around it makes reiteration almost a duty.
Modi’s political career was jump-started in October 2001, just weeks after the 9/11 attacks in the United States, when the BJP removed its elected chief minister in the state of Gujarat and installed Modi in his place. He was not, at the time, even an elected member of the state’s legislative assembly. Three months into his first term, there was a heinous but mysterious act of arson in which 59 Hindu pilgrims were burned to death in a train. As “revenge,” Hindu vigilante mobs went on a well-planned rampage across the state. An estimated 2,500 people, almost all of them Muslim, were murdered in broad daylight. Women were gang-raped on city streets, and tens of thousands were driven from their homes. Immediately after the pogrom, Modi called for elections. He won, not despite the massacre but because of it—and was re-elected as chief minister for three consecutive terms. During Modi’s 2014 campaign as the prime ministerial candidate of the BJP—which also featured the massacre of Muslims, this time in the district of Muzaffarnagar in the state of Uttar Pradesh—a Reuters journalist asked him whether he regretted the 2002 pogrom in Gujarat. He replied that he would regret even the death of a dog if it accidentally came under the wheels of his car. This was pure, well-trained, RSS-speak.
When Modi was sworn in as India’s 14th prime minister, he was celebrated not just by his support base of Hindu nationalists but also by India’s major industrialists and businessmen, by many Indian liberals, and by the international media as the epitome of hope and progress, a saviour in a saffron business suit, whose very person represented the confluence of the ancient and the modern—of Hindu nationalism and no-holds-barred free-market capitalism.
While Modi has delivered on Hindu nationalism, he has stumbled badly on the free-market front. Through a series of blunders, he has brought India’s economy to its knees. In 2016, a little over a year into his first term, he announced on television that, from that moment on, all 500 and 1,000 rupee banknotes—over 80 percent of the currency in circulation—had ceased to be legal tender. Nothing like it had ever been done on such a scale in the history of any country. Neither the finance minister nor the chief economic adviser seemed to have been taken into confidence. This “demonetization,” Modi said, was a “surgical strike” on corruption and terror funding. This was pure quack economics, a home remedy being tried on a nation of more than a billion people. It turned out to be nothing short of devastating. But there were no riots. No protests. People stood meekly in line outside banks for hours on end to deposit their old currency notes—the only way left to redeem them. No Chile, Catalonia, Lebanon, Hong Kong. Almost overnight, jobs disappeared, the construction industry ground to a halt, small businesses simply shut down.
Some of us foolishly believed that this act of unimaginable hubris would be the end of Modi. How wrong we were. People rejoiced. They suffered—but rejoiced. It was as though pain had been spun into pleasure. As though their suffering was the labour pain that would soon birth a glorious, prosperous, Hindu India.
Most economists agree that demonetization, along with the new Goods and Services Tax Modi announced soon after—promising “one nation, one tax”—was the policy equivalent of shooting out the tires of a speeding car. Even the government admits that unemployment is at a 45-year high. The 2019 Global Hunger Index ranks India 102nd out of 117 countries. (Nepal comes in at 73rd, Bangladesh 88th, and Pakistan 94th).
But demonetization was never about economics alone. It was a loyalty test, a love exam that the Great Leader was putting us through. Would we follow him, would we always love him, no matter what? We emerged with flying colours. The moment we as a people accepted demonetization, we infantilized ourselves and surrendered to tin pot authoritarianism.
But what was bad for the country turned out to be excellent for the BJP. Between 2016 and 2017, even as the economy tanked, it became the richest political party in the world. Its income increased by 81 percent, making it five times richer than its main rival, the Congress Party, whose income declined by 14 percent. Smaller political parties were virtually bankrupted. This war chest won the BJP crucial state elections in Uttar Pradesh, and turned the 2019 general election into a race between a Ferrari and a few old bicycles. And since elections are increasingly about money, the chances of a free and fair election in the near future seen remote. So maybe demonetization was not a blunder after all.
In Modi’s second term, the RSS has stepped up its game. No longer a shadow state or a parallel state, it is the state. Day by day, we see examples of its control over the media, the police, and the intelligence agencies. Worryingly, it appears to exercise considerable influence over the armed forces, too. Foreign diplomats and ambassadors have been trooping to the RSS headquarters in Nagpur to pay their respects.
In truth, things have reached a stage where overt control is no longer even necessary. More than four hundred round-the-clock television news channels, millions of Whatsapp groups and TikTok videos keep the population on a drip feed of frenzied bigotry.
This November the Supreme Court of India ruled on what some have called “the most important case in the world.” On December 6, 1992, in the town of Ayodhya, a Hindu vigilante mob, organized by the BJP and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad—the World Hindu Council—literally hammered a 450-year-old mosque into dust. They claimed that this mosque, the Babri Masjid, was built on the ruins of a Hindu temple that had marked the birthplace of Lord Ram. More than 2,000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed in the communal violence that followed. In its recent judgment, the court held that Muslims could not prove their exclusive and continuous possession of the site. Instead, it turned the site over to a trust—to be constituted by the BJP government—tasked with building a Hindu temple on it. There have been mass arrests of people who have criticized the judgment. The VHP has refused to back down on its past statements that it will turn its attention to other mosques. This can be an endless campaign—after all, everything is built over something.
With the influence that immense wealth generates, the BJP has managed to co-opt, buy out, or simply crush its political rivals. The hardest blow has fallen on the parties with bases among the Dalit and other disadvantaged castes in the northern states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Many of their traditional voters have deserted these parties—the Bahujan Samaj Party, Rashriya Janata Dal, and Samajwadi Party—and migrated to the BJP. To achieve this feat—and it is nothing short of a feat—the BJP worked hard to exploit and expose the hierarchies within the Dalit and disadvantaged castes, which have their own internal universe of hegemony and marginalization. The BJP’s overflowing coffers and its deep, cunning understanding of caste have completely altered the conventional electoral math.
Having secured Dalit and disadvantaged-caste votes, the BJP’s policies of privatizing education and the public sector are rapidly reversing the gains made by affirmative action—known in India as “reservation”—pushing those who belong to disadvantaged castes out of jobs and educational institutions. Meanwhile, the National Crime Records Bureau shows a sharp increase of atrocities against Dalits, including lynching and public floggings. This September, while Modi was being honoured by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for building toilets, two Dalit children, whose home was just the shelter of a plastic sheet, were beaten to death for shitting in the open. To honour a prime minister for his work on sanitation while tens of thousands of Dalits continue to work as manual scavengers—carrying human excreta on their heads—is grotesque.
What we are living through now, in addition to the overt attack on religious minorities, is an aggravated class and caste war.
In order to consolidate their political gains, the RSS and BJP’s main strategy is to generate long-lasting chaos on an industrial scale. They have stocked their kitchen with a set of simmering cauldrons that can, whenever necessary, be quickly brought to the boil.
Arundhati Roy is an Indian author best known for her novel The God of Small Things (1997), which won the Man Booker Prize for Fiction in 1997 and became the biggest-selling book by a non-expatriate Indian author. She is also a world famous political activist involved in human rights and environmental causes.