Fascism's Firm Footprint in India
by Arundhati Roy
The Nation magazine, September 30, 2002
Gujarat, the only major state in India with a government headed
by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has for some years been the
petri dish in which Hindu fascism has been ~ fomenting an elaborate
political experiment. In spring 2002, the initial results were
put on public display.
It began within hours of the Godhra outrage-in which fifty-eight
Hindus were killed when a train returning from the disputed site
of Ayodhya on February 27 was set alight as it pulled out of a
station in Godhra, in Gujarat. Even now, months later, nobody
knows who was responsible for the crime. The Forensic Department
report clearly says that the fire was started inside the coach.
This raises a huge question mark over the theory that the train
was set alight by a Muslim mob that had gathered outside the train.
However, the then-Home Minister (now elevated to the post of Deputy
Prime Minister), L.K. Advani, immediately announced-with no evidence
to back his statement-that the attack was a Pakistani plot.
On the evening of February 27, Hindu nationalists in the Vishva
Hindu Parishad (VHP, the World Hindu Council) and the Bajrang
Dal movement put into motion a meticulously planned pogrom against
the Muslim community. Press reports put the number of dead at
just over 800. Human rights organizations have said it is closer
to 2,000. As many as 100,000 people, driven from their homes,
now live in refugee camps. Women were stripped and gang-raped,
and parents were bludgeoned to death in front of their children.
In Ahmedabad, the former capital of Gujarat and the second-largest
industrial city in the state, the tomb of Wali Gujarati, the founder
of the modern Urdu poem, was demolished and paved over in the
course of a night. The tomb of the musician Ustad Faiyaz Khan
was desecrated. Arsonists burned and looted shops, homes, hotels,
textile mills, buses and cars. Hundreds of thousands have lost
Across Gujarat, thousands of people made up the mobs. They
were armed with petrol bombs, guns, knives and swords. Apart from
the VHP and Bajrang Dal's usual lumpen constituency, there were
Dalits (untouchables) and Adivasis (indigenous peoples), who were
brought in on buses and trucks. Middle-class people participated
in the looting. (On one memorable occasion, a family arrived in
a Mitsubishi Lancer.) The leaders of the mob had computer-generated
lists marking out Muslim homes, shops and businesses. They used
mobile phones to coordinate the action. They had not just police
protection and police connivance, but also covering fire. The
cooking-gas cylinders they used to burn Muslim homes and establishments
had been hoarded weeks in advance, causing a severe gas shortage
While Gujarat burned, our prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee,
was on MTV promoting his new poems. (Reports say cassettes have
sold l00,000 copies. It took him more than a month-and two vacations
in the hills-to make it to Gujarat.
When he did, he gave a speech at the Shah Alam refugee camp.
His mouth moved, he tried to express concern, but no real
sound emerged except the mocking of the wind whistling through
a burned, bloodied, broken world. Next we knew, he was bobbing
around in a golf cart, striking business deals in Singapore.
One hundred and thirty million Muslims live in India. Hindu
fascists regard them as legitimate prey. The Iynch mob continues
to be the arbiter of the routine affairs of daily life: who can
live where, who can say what, who can meet whom and where and
when. Its mandate is expanding quickly. From religious affairs,
it now extends to property disputes, family altercations, the
planning and allocation of water resources. Muslim businesses
have been shut down. Muslim people are not served in restaurants.
Muslim children are not welcome in schools. Muslim parents live
in dread that their infants might forget what they've been told
and give themselves away by saying "Amrni!" or "Abba!"
in public and invite sudden and violent death.
Notice has been given: This is just the beginning.
No matter who they were, or how they were killed, each person
who died in Gujarat deserves to be mourned. There have been hundreds
of outraged letters to journals and newspapers asking why the
"pseudo-secularists" do not condemn the burning of the
Sabarmati Express in Godhra with the same degree of outrage with
which they condemn the killings in the rest of Gujarat. What they
don't seem to understand is that there is a fundamental difference
between a pogrom and the burning of the train in Godhra. We still
don't know who exactly was responsible for the carnage in Godhra.
But every independent report says the pogrom against the Muslim
community in Gujarat has at best been conducted under the benign
gaze of the state and, at worst, with active state collusion.
Either way, the state is criminally culpable.
While the parallels between contemporary India and prewar
Germany are chilling, they're not surprising. (The founders of
the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh [RSS], the National Volunteer
Force that is the moral and cultural guild of the BJP, have in
their writings been frank in their admiration for Hitler and his
methods.) One difference is that here in India we don't have a
Hitler. We have instead the hydra-headed, many-armed Sangh Parivar-the
"joint family" of Hindu political and cultural organizations,
with the BJP, the RSS, the VHP and the Bajrang Dal each playing
a different instrument. Its utter genius lies in its apparent
ability to be all things to all people at all times. The Sangh
Parivar speaks in as many tongues. It can say several contradictory
things simultaneously. While one of its heads (the VHP) exhorts
millions of its cadres to prepare for the Final Solution, its
titular head (the prime minister) assures the nation bat all citizens,
regardless of their religion, will be treated equally. It can
ban books and films and burn paintings for "insulting Indian
culture." Simultaneously, it can mortgage the equivalent
of 60 percent of the entire country's rural development budget
as profit to Enron. But underneath all the clamor and the noise,
a single heart beats. And an unforgiving mind with saffron-saturated
tunnel vision works overtime.
Whipping up communal hatred is part of the mandate of the
Sangh Parivar. It has been planned for years. Hundreds of RSS
shakhas across the country (shakha literally means "branch,"
and RSS shakhas are "educational" cells) have been indoctrinating
thousands of children and young people, stunting their minds with
religious hatred and falsified history, including unfactual or
wildly exaggerated accounts of the rape and pillaging of Hindu
women and Hindu temples by Muslim rulers in the precolonial period.
In states like Gujarat, the police, the administration and the
political cadres at every level have been systematically penetrated.
It has huge popular appeal, which it would be foolish to underestimate
or misunderstand. The whole enterprise has a formidable religious,
ideological, political and administrative underpinning. This kind
of power, this kind of reach, can only be achieved with state
Under this relentless pressure, what will most likely happen
is that the majority of the Muslim community will resign itself
to living in ghettos as second-class citizens, in constant fear,
with no civil rights and no recourse to justice. What will daily
life be like for them? Any little thing, an altercation at a cinema
or a fracas at a traffic light, could turn lethal. So they will
learn to keep very quiet, to accept their lot, to creep around
the edges of the society in which they live. Their fear will transmit
itself to other minorities. Many, particularly the young, will
probably turn to militancy. They will do terrible things. Civil
society will be called upon to condemn them. Then President Bush's
canon will come back to us: "You're either with us or with
the terrorists." ~
Those words hang frozen in time like icicles. For years to
come, butchers and genocidists will fit their grisly mouths around
them ("lip-sync," filmmakers call it) to justify their
Bal Thackeray, the leader of the Shiv Sena-the right-wing
Hindu fundamentalist political party in the state of Maharashtra,
responsible for a pogrom in which hundreds of Muslims were massacred
in the city of Bombay in 1992-93-has the lasting solution. He's
called for civil war. Isn't that just perfect? Then Pakistan won't
need to bomb us, we can bomb ourselves. Let's turn all of India
into Kashmir. When all our farmlands are mined, our buildings
destroyed, our infrastructure reduced to rubble, our children
physically maimed and mentally wrecked, maybe we can appeal to
the Americans to help us out. Air-dropped airline meals, anyone?
Fascism's firm footprint has appeared in India. Let's mark
the date. While we can thank the American President and the "Coalition
Against Terror" for creating a congenial international atmosphere
for its ghastly debut, we cannot credit them for the years it
has been brewing in our public and private lives. The massed energy
of bloodthirsty patriotism became openly acceptable political
currency after India's nuclear tests in 1998. The "weapons
of peace" have trapped India and Pakistan in a spiral of
brinkmanship-threat and counter-threat, taunt and counter-taunt.
Fascism is about the slow, steady infiltration of all the
instruments of state power. It's about the slow erosion of civil
liberties, about unspectacular, day-to-day injustices. Fighting
it does not mean asking for RSS shakhas and madrassahs that are
overtly communal to be banned. It means working toward the day
when they're voluntarily abandoned as bad ideas. It means keeping
an eagle eye on public institutions and demanding accountability.
It means putting your ear to the ground and listening to the whispering
of the truly powerless. It means giving a forum to the myriad
voices from the hundreds of resistance movements across the country
that are speaking about real issues-about mining, about bonded
labor, marital rape, sexual preferences, women's wages, uranium
dumping, weavers' woes, farmers' worries. It means fighting displacement
and dispossession and the relentless, everyday violence of abject
While most people in India have been horrified by what happened
in Gujarat, many thousands of the indoctrinated are preparing
to journey deeper into the heart of the horror. Look around you
and you'll see in little parks, in empty lots, in village commons,
the RSS is marching, hoisting its saffron flag. Suddenly they're
everywhere, grown men in khaki shorts marching, marching, marching.
Historically, fascist movements have been fueled by feelings
of national disillusionment. Fascism has come to India after the
dreams that fueled the freedom struggle have been frittered away
like so much loose change. Independence itself came to us as what
Gandhi famously called a "wooden loaf"-a notional freedom
tainted by the blood of the hundreds of thousands who died during
Partition. For more than half a century now, that heritage of
hatred and mutual distrust has been exacerbated, toyed with and
never allowed to heal by politicians. Over the past fifty years
ordinary citizens' modest hopes for lives of dignity, security
and relief from abject poverty have been systematically snuffed
out. Every "democratic" institution in this country
has shown itself to be unaccountable, inaccessible to the ordinary
citizen and either unwilling or incapable of acting in the interests
of genuine social justice. And now corporate globalization is
being relentlessly and arbitrarily imposed on India, ripping it
apart culturally and economically.
There is very real grievance here. The fascists didn't create
it. But they have seized upon it, upturned it and forged from
it a hideous, bogus sense of pride. They have mobilized human
beings using the lowest common denominator-religion. People who
have lost control over the* lives, people who have been uprooted
from the* homes and communities, who have lost their culture and
their language, are being made to feel proud of something. Not
something they have striven for and achieved, but something they
just happen to be. Or, more accurately, something they happen
not to be.
Unfortunately there's no quick fix. Fascism itself can only
be turned away if all those who are outraged by it show a commitment
to social justice that equals the intensity of their indignation.
Are we ready, many millions of us, to rally not just on the streets
but at work and in schools and in our homes, in every decision
we take, and every choice we make?
Or not just yet. . .
If not, then years from now, when the rest of the world has
shunned us, as it should, like the ordinary citizens of Hitler's
Germany, we too will learn to recognize revulsion in the gaze
of our fellow human beings. We too will find ourselves unable
to look our own children in the eye, for the shame of what we
didn't do. For the shame of what we allowed to happen.
Arundhati Roy lives in New Delhi and is the author of The
God of Small Things and Power Politics (South End). See www.thenation.com
for ."Gujarat s Gendered Violence," a sidebar by Ruth