As a scholar of modern Indian history, recent events in India – namely, the repeated attacks on whoever does not share the ideology of right-wing ultra-nationalist groups – prompted me to reflect about how novel a phenomenon this is and whether previous historical processes might offer some clue to as to the longer term impact of such events
The Emergency regime (1975-77) imposed by Indira Gandhi immediately sprung to mind. I soon realised however that, even though in both cases freedom of expression was attacked, under Mrs Gandhi’s regime censorship was systematically imposed by the state’s institutions, while, in Modi’s India, what we are witnessing are targeted attacks on free thinkers by groups only loosely associated with the party in power.
I then pondered China’s Cultural Revolution, when supporters of Mao Zedong, his Red Guards, harried whoever could even be remotely accused of not blindly following the Great Leader. In that case the objective of Mao’s followers was cleansing the Communist Party of ‘rightist’ elements and not taking over the control of the country’s cultural institutions, as right-wing groups are trying to do in India today.
The next comparison I alighted upon was the ‘strategy of tension’ in the Italy of the 1970s. During that troubled decade, Italy experienced a tremendous amount of political violence, both from left-wing and right-wing extremists – about 15,000 terrorist attacks occurred between 1969 and 1988. What made me compare today’s India with that violent chapter of my country’s history is the fact that right-wing extremists in both cases acted in cooperation and collaboration with parts of the state’s apparatus. In today’s India, this is clear from the prompt support that, for example, Smriti Irani offered the ABVP in the University of Hyderabad in the wake of its altercation with Rohith Vemula and his Ambedkar Studies Association comrades; or from Rajnath Singh’s supportive reaction to the ABVP students when he first heard of the clash with some leftist ‘anti-nationals’ at JNU.
Government support to right wing
But that’s where the similarities between the two cases ended. First of all, right-wing groups in India have not so far resorted to large scale terrorist attacks like their Italian predecessors did, preferring to target (fatally, in some cases) individual critical thinkers or writers. Also, the support of the Italian ‘deep state’ was covert, whereas the Indian government is openly and blatantly supporting ‘its own’ right-wing extremist groups.
I finally came to the conclusion that I was trying to avoid: the best parallel with Modi’s India is with Italy and Germany just before the consolidation of the fascist regimes. The main reason why I eschewed making a comparison between Modi and the Fascist regime is that one should take into account both the obvious differences in the personalities, styles and political objectives of Mussolini and Modi and their different attitude vis-à-vis democracy both as a system and a philosophy. Also, fascism was a phenomenon deeply rooted in the socio-political context of post World War Europe. As such, it is unwise to attach the fascist label to a completely different context. But once that has been pointed out, the many similarities between the rise of fascism in Italy and the present Indian situation are too evident to be missed.
The first and more conspicuous is the modalities through which, in today’s India, right-wing groups are trying to silence every form of dissent in pursuit of their own ultra-nationalist narrative. This is strikingly similar to the strategy adopted by the various ‘fascist squads’ that played such a crucial role in the consolidation of Mussolini’s regime. They started attacking left-wing intellectuals, unionists and communist leaders in order to create a climate of fear.
Operating in large groups, they would surround their victims’ house, often at night, telling them to get out, shouting slogans and brandishing sticks. They would then often beat them up or threaten to burn down their homes, which they often did. It is difficult not to be reminded of the Dadri lynching or the protests that led Perumal Murugan to quit writing.
Crucially, when the first of such raids were ignored by the Italian authorities, the squads understood that the state was on their side and that they could therefore count on total impunity. It was during this early stage of the fascist regime that numerous opponents fled the country or decided to remain silent. The fascist party then consolidated its regime, building on the climate of fear that its goon squads had created.
The local sections of some nationwide organisations like the Bajrang Dal or the ABVP strongly remind me of these fascist paramilitaries. They too are only loosely associated with the government and, in some cases at least, hardly controlled by the BJP. However, what is striking is the climate of impunity in which they operate. Whether they choose to target a Tamil writer because of his ‘anti-national’ writings or to raid trains in search of beef, or to beat up a student in police custody, what they can rely upon is that no one will take much effort to punish them. While the authorities do act when serious crimes are committed, as in the case of the Dadri lynching, even in these extreme cases, there is no political condemnation either of the acts themselves or of those political leaders that publicly defend the attackers.
The political impunity guaranteed to these squads, on the one hand, further galvanises right-wing extremists throughout the country; on the other hand, it reinforces a clear strategy of the government to take over the control of India’s cultural institutions. This again is strikingly similar to the strategy adopted by the Italian fascist party during the first phase of its existence.
One of the very first acts of the Fascist regime was indeed a root and branch reform of Italian educational institutions. They not only changed the curricula so that they would be more in line with the fascist worldview – and here, again, the similarities with the action of Smriti Irani’s Ministry are striking – but also penetrated the educational institutions of the state with individuals loyal to the regime. Such was the climate of fear that when, in 1931, the Fascist party demanded that all university professors state their loyalty to the regime, only 15 out of over 1,200 refused to do so.
The crusade to conquer India’s cultural institutions is the clearest example of the collaboration of the government with the RSS. From the appointment of Yellapragada Sudharshan Rao as the chair of the Indian Council for Historical Research, to the pressure that RSS-affiliated organisations exercise even on foreign universities to the recent crackdown at JNU or the beating up by a mob led by a BJP Rajasthan MLA of activists associated with the MKSS, what is emerging is not a series of unrelated episodes, but a clear pattern aimed at ending the supposed dominance of ‘secular’ or ‘anti-national’ elements – the two terms by and large coinciding – on India’s cultural life.
The crackdown at JNU is particularly worrisome not only because a student was arrested and several others forced underground because they dared to express their opinion. This had happened only twice before: upon the proclamation of the Emergency regime in 1975 and during the last term in office of Indira Gandhi, which will be remembered as a period of near authoritarianism. It is also important because of the message that it sends: expressing opinions that are at variance with the government’s notion of national interest will not be tolerated. If you were a student at one of India’s universities, would you now dare raise the issue of, for example, human rights in Kashmir, if for your pains incarceration awaits? Fortunately, many will be brave enough to risk jail; but many others will understandably succumb to the growing climate of fear.
Is India’s democracy in danger? My tentative answer is maybe. Its democratic institutions are much stronger than Italy’s in the 1920s. But this does not mean that the dangers should be underestimated: democracy is something that takes a long while to build, but very little time to destroy.
Dr. Diego Maiorano is with the School of Politics and International Relations, University of Nottingham and is the author of Autumn of the Matriarch – Indira Gandhi’s Final Term in Office, Hurst & Co./Oxford University Press/Harper Collins, London, New York and New Delhi, 2015.