Benjamin Zachariah has been studying the history of the Indian Right and of Indian manifestations of fascism and Nazism for nearly two decades. He read history at Presidency College, Calcutta, and at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he completed a PhD in the last years of the previous century.
Zachariah is the author of Nehru (2004), Developing India (2005), Playing the Nation Game (2011) and After the Last Post (2019). His current research projects are concerned with the nature and concerns of the historiography of India, and the intellectual histories of romantic anticapitalism and global fascism. He has taught and researched in several countries, and is now Senior Research Fellow at the University of Trier, Germany. In this moment of unrest, and brutal violence by the state and state-backed groups, The Wire asked him: is this, or is this not fascism?
Ramachandra Guha recently cautioned protesters to be “careful with their words” and to not use the term “fascism” to describe what is happening. What is your opinion on this question?
Well, clearly Ram Guha isn’t taking into account the long development of the Sangh parivar. They were convinced followers, first of the Italian Fascists, and then of the German Nazis, and they still follow that tradition, with a movement that is based on the use of paramilitary forces loyal to the party for extra-legal blackmail and violence. Why, then, should we be ‘careful with our words’?
Having said that, I don’t think quibbling about definitions makes sense – I can see plenty of reasons to oppose right-wing movements that are not (yet) fascist movements. We can agree that some think that this lot are fascists, and some don’t, but we agree that we must oppose their attempts to turn India into a monolingual, monofaith authoritarian country.
What we must ensure though is that we don’t wait till we have ‘full fascism’ to recognise a movement as fascist – by that time it’s too late to oppose them. They have captured state power and use the full capacity of the state to further their goals.
Do you think that state capture is now complete?
We must distinguish between fascism as a movement in search of power, and a fascism that has captured the state. The Sangh parivar has nearly completely captured the state, and coordinated its institutions so that they are subservient or loyal to the needs of the party and the leader. The courts are no longer free, the police work at the behest of the ruling party, some armed forces personnel appear to be politically supporting the ruling party, and a parliamentary majority is being misused to pass laws that are incompatible with the constitution – but since the courts have been captured, who is to say so?
Everyone should be familiar with, or look up, the meaning of the German word ‘gleichshaltung’, which would sound harmless enough in English because it means ‘coordination’, but was used by the Nazis to describe their control of all institutions, associations and forms of public life in the country. Nothing was to remain outside of their control.
But one can argue there are many salient differences between fascists of the past and of the present.
Fascism in most parts of the world was discredited after the Second World War. ‘Neo’-fascists are ‘neo’ because their old languages and practices no longer seemed credible. Now they have begun to regroup, and we can see that ‘neo’ is ‘palaeo’ too – once people have forgotten that the old languages were discredited, they can also come back into use, alongside the new terminology developed in the new context. The idea of Hindus as a ‘race’, and as ‘Aryan’, would have sounded ridiculous to many people after 1945, but it’s back in a big way, and no one laughs.
India has the longest-running continuous fascist movement in the world – the RSS was founded in 1925. It’s nearly 100 years old. Their internal language hasn’t changed; they’re still using texts by Savarkar or Golwalkar for indoctrinating their members – and Golwalkar famously thought that the Nazi example of getting rid of Jews from Germany should be followed in India for Muslims. In his We, Or Our Nationhood Defined, he wrote,
“…To keep up the purity of the nation and its culture, Germany shocked the world by her purging the country of Semitic races – the Jews. National pride at its highest has been manifested here. Germany has also shown how well-nigh impossible it is for races and cultures, having differences going to the root, to be assimilated into one united whole, a good lesson for us in Hindustan to learn and profit by.”
They’ve presented themselves differently to the outside world, depending on their sense of strength or impunity. They were on the defensive after they killed Gandhi, and then they weren’t defensive any more, reinventing themselves as a ‘social service’ organisation. The old language then gradually came back to the forefront.
What in the RSS’s actions reminds you of fascism?
Fascism works with a repertoire of concepts that are clearly recognisable among the Sangh parivar. They don’t use the full repertoire all of the time – that’s contextually and politically bounded.
The repertoire tends to include a claim to an organic and primordial nationalism – the idea that the nation is in blood and soil, and everyone who belongs has to share that. It also includes a controlling statism that disciplines the members of the organic nation to act as, for and in the organic nation.
Then, that nation must be purified and preserved by cleansing it of its impurities.
One can also see that this is a circular argument. It is in the service of preserving this organic nation that a paramilitarist tendency towards national discipline is invoked. The paramilitary will ensure that the nationals of that nation behave properly as nationals, or else they can be disciplined or punished. And it excludes those who they don’t believe belong, in a variety of ways.
The coherence of the fascist repertoire is maintained by inciting a sense of continuous crisis and alarm about the potential decay of the organic nation if discipline and purity is not preserved. The use of political violence is supposed to be purificatory.
Which of these elements of the repertoire is not present in Sanghi ideology and practice?
What are the different crises you see being fomented? Is their strategy working, and if so, what’s coming next?
The idea that a left-communist-liberal pact is diluting the strength of the nation, and fragmenting its natural unity – the reference to a mysterious ‘tukde tukde gang’ – is one attempt to create this crisis.
Another constant theme is of demographic danger, long discredited by experts – that Muslims procreate too quickly and will become a majority. That’s a theme that has been pushed by them since before independence. It’s a ‘loss of purity’ argument that also goes in the direction of weird claims about ‘love jihad’ and needing to rescue Hindu ‘girls’ from rapacious Muslim men.
The idea that India is being overrun by people who are not ‘naturally’ Indian is key to the whole CAA-NRC combination, of course. Those who don’t ‘naturally’ belong to India-that-is-a-Hindu-Rashtra are at the moment primarily Muslims, because they are a majority among the minorities. But that can change very quickly – the targeting, and occasional murders, of Christians, Indian or foreign-born, is something no one should forget.
And anti-Dalit violence is not diminishing, for all the rhetoric of a united Hindu India against ‘outsiders’. All these strategies work for a while. Moral panics can be created quite easily in the age of social media.
You mentioned that moral panics work for “a while”. Is there a sense that the time in which such tactics remain effective is running out? How much danger is there of all this toxicity resulting in something more devastating than the already heinous forms of everyday violence we are witnessing?
Each specific moral panic only works for a while. The thing with moral panics is that you have to keep upping the ante. What gets people worked up initially gets normalised afterwards. So you need a new one every now and then.
But moral panics in general can keep being generated, and you’re completely right to say that the toxicity is contagious. No one trusts anyone any more. and that mistrust can lead to a heightened sense of panic in which people strike out at each other because they believe they have to attack or be attacked.
It’s self-defeating in the sense that it’s almost impossible to overcome—its effects last for generations, its traumas are passed on and inherited. Whether that’s more devastating than the current violence—I don’t know yet—we can’t really know whether the detention camps being built will really turn into the style of death camps that we have historically known, and I hope people are not willing to wait that long. Meanwhile, the everyday violence will also continue.
What, then, is your prognosis for the immediate future? Will it be possible to stop this machinery before it does more damage?
Historians don’t usually know much about the future. But it’s clear that a lot of damage has already been done. A divided society has been further divided. We won’t know for sure what the consequences are for a while even if it stops now. People are trying to make changes. A few million people on the streets believe that it is important to stop the machinery of hatred now. If people can stay mobilised, organised, and can agree on a common minimum programme, it should be possible, by direct democracy, to make a change now. It’s a first step, but an important one.
What do you have to say about the millions risking life and limb out on the streets to protest this regime?
I think many of us have been wondering why it has taken the Indian people so long to realise that if they don’t act themselves, rather than waiting for someone to act on their behalf, they will lose all their freedoms. It’s a moment of optimism and immense hope to see ordinary people on the streets, in most cases not led by any political party, who have all been hopelessly inept.
I grew up in India, and I took our political freedoms for granted, so I don’t entirely blame anyone for watching the shrinking of spaces of dissent with a sense of disbelief. And this sense of disbelief meant that people took time to realise they had to act for themselves.
This is a protest catalysed by the CAA and NRC, but the people of India have many reasons to be dissatisfied. The economy is in a mess. Students are being attacked by paid thugs of the government in their universities, ordinary people are being lynched by Sanghis in many parts of the country. Perhaps because everyone feels attacked, there is a broad coalition that has come together. The solidarity of people from across professions, classes, castes and religions is very good to see. Students stand with trade unions, Dalits and Sikhs and caste Hindus with Muslims, and women are playing a leading role in the struggle. Still, this is a coalition, and different people want different outcomes from the struggle.
Unfortunately, while the world has noticed that Indian democracy is fighting for its life, this may not be enough when the government is willing to use violence, both through official state channels and through unofficial ones. In the great non-violent protests of the colonial era, the colonial rulers believed that the use of violence against peaceful protestors would delegitimise its rule. This government doesn’t seem to be concerned about loss of legitimacy.
But we can be cautiously optimistic, even as we fear for our friends and family who are on the frontlines of the protests. ‘We, the people of India’, the phrase that opens the preamble to the constitution, makes more sense than ever now.
Partha P. Chakrabartty is an independent journalist concerned with the intersections between politics, marketing and technology.