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The recent calls by members of the BJP-RSS combine, in Haridwar and in Delhi, for the large-scale elimination of Muslims, indicate that the dog whistle of Islamophobia has now become a foghorn. The silence of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah about these unprecedented calls for full-scale armed war against Muslims can be read in one of two ways: as signs of their sense of impunity and confidence, or as signs of their sense of precarity and insecurity. I make a case here for the latter argument.
My argument is not the familiar instrumentalist argument about the Uttar Pradesh elections and the BJP’s concern about being humiliated in its sacred heartland. I believe we are witnessing what I call genocidalism, which stems from a deeper logic which afflicts all xenophobic nationalisms. This logic is connected to the relationship between nationalism and violence, and to what Marx and many Marxists identify as “the treadmill effect”.
I have argued elsewhere that the relationship between nationalism and violence is both intimate and two-way. We are accustomed to thinking that nationalism can lead people to kill and die in the name of the nation. When nationalism becomes extreme, its believers also become extreme in their readiness to kill or die for the nation. All nationalism contains the germ of suicide-bombing. And the idea that only Islam spawns jihadis is one of the great lies of our times. Every Hindu, Christian or Jew who is willing to implode or self-immolate in the hope of achieving the status of martyr and soldier together, is part of the inner logic of nationalism, even if an extreme version. A committed army, police force or commando outfit minus the constant trumpet of nationalism is impossible, or toothless. We do not need to say much more about the road from nationalism to violence.
With the arrival of the modern formula of the nation-state, group violence takes on a new function, which is to provide the fuel for the very idea of attachment to the nation. The main place in which we can see this is in the formation of modern militaries, which use training, rehearsals and actual warfare to produce the sense of attachment to the fiction and abstraction of the nation. Loyalty to the nation is hard to produce, since the nation is, for most people, abstract, fictive and remote. Dying and killing for the nation are sure ways to produce loyalty for such an abstraction. These acts often draw on the vocabulary of honour, sacrifice and purity which are deeply woven into all nationalisms.
It is in and through violence, both official and unofficial, that the sense of the sacredness of the nation is renewed, revived and restored. The recent theatrical displays by Modi and his acolytes in sites such as Varanasi, are also ways of renewing the always finite supply of sacred fuel for the machinery of nationalism. So too is the effort to rebuild central Delhi, to rewrite history in textbooks, social media and official propaganda, and to brutally subordinate subaltern populations, such as those of Kashmir. In all the places in which the Indian armed forces are involved in violence against Indian populations (in the tribal belt, in Maoist areas, in the North-East, in every single border state), violence has a utilitarian function (the imposition of state-sponsored order) but it also has a spectacular or theatrical function, which is to ensure that nationalism is not forced to go on life-support.
The digital media today is the guarantee of the widespread and near-instantaneous circulation of these local performances to the national stage. But this is not a simple cycle, since it tends towards a critical moment of self-contradiction, which is what we are seeing today in the Hindutva calls for organised genocide of Indian Muslims.
We can look at what I call genocidalism in the same way as these thinkers, especially Marx, looked at the treadmill effect in capitalism. Genocidalism is that moment in the history of genocide in which the production of violence has to be massively ratcheted up to keep up the minimal required level of nationalism. Genocidalism, like capitalism, is systemic, totalising and extractive. It demands full attention, full commitment and full participation from the largest possible number of people. Like capitalism, genocidalism mobilises and exploits a large number of workers who are tasked to keep up the daily production of violence, and benefits a small class of entrepreneurs and managers who envision, design and benefit from the treadmill of violence and can be seen as the profit-making class of genocidalism.
Modi’s India has now entered into the phase of genocidalism, the most advanced stage of nationalism. This stage, however, requires the open fuelling of the genocidal machine, even in the face of critics at home and the likely horror of critics abroad. It reveals the manic workings of the nationalist machinery in India, which can no longer be content with sporadic, spontaneous or localised episodes of violence. It needs systematic bolstering and mobilisation. It requires public policy, either from the state or from those very close to it.
The Haridwar Sansad of December 17-19, 2021, in this regard, offers a strong parallel with the infamous Wannsee Conference of January 1942, when the Final Solution was made into official Nazi policy. The fact that this and subsequent calls to general war against Muslims were organised by men and women in saffron makes a good deal of sense, since the sadhu-akhada side of the BJP-RSS machine has been steadily playing the role of outfits like the Waffen-SS under the Nazis, and has emerged as the tip of the spear consisting of various thugs, mobs and militias seeking a centralised leadership. Though some FIRs have recently been filed against the key figures in these events, the fact that both Modi and Shah have been silent about these remarkable public statements is a sobering index of the official legitimacy of genocidalism in India today.
If I am right that the new genocidalism represent a moment of panic and anxiety at the highest levels of the BJP-RSS machine, and not a moment of complacency or gloating, it also reminds us that the Indian drama today has two major elements which are not defined or exhausted by the aim of militant Hindutva to turn Muslims into India’s social dead. The anxiety comes from two other major forces which have shown that they are not part of the Hindutva consensus: the representatives of India’s farmer communities who broke Modi’s resolve to repress them in and around Delhi for almost a year; and the vast numbers of India’s Dalits who are angry, politicised and increasingly subjects of a revolution of rising expectations throughout India. A conservative estimate of the total number of these two populations (anti-regime farmers and anti-Hindutva Dalits) has to add up to at least 300 million Indians today. This massive number shows no signs of bowing down to the current regime or of exiting quietly from the political stage.
It is this 300 million that is the target of the Hindutva hysteria about India’s 200 million Muslims. The logic here has a lot to do with the treadmill effect at the heart of today’s genocidalism in India. On the one hand, the campaign to terrorise Muslims by calls for their genocide is a signal to farmers, Dalits and other resisting groups to be careful, lest they also become objects of genocidalism. The other prong is a recruitment strategy, to draw members of these groups into the Hindutva umbrella by giving them active roles in the new genocidalism. This dual strategy is intended to regulate the speed with which the genocidal machinery needs to be ratcheted up, while also providing some of the labour needs for the genocidal project wherever possible.
Let me return now to my reasoning for seeing the new genocidalism as a sign of desperation in the ruling regime and not of a swollen sense of impunity or of a new level of arrogance. Modi and his regime still need and crave the approval of the West and of other political powers that set store by human rights, especially the human rights of those who are being targeted for genocide. Modi has so far managed to retain some credibility in these circles, unlike many other xenophobic autocrats. But that free pass is at risk. In these circumstances, for this regime to allow its supporters to make open calls for genocide against Muslims shows that their commitment to genocidalism now trumps their interest in their image in the eyes of opponents, both internal and international. This is an index of desperation.
The UP and Punjab elections, and subsequent state elections, are certainly relevant to the timing and locations of the new genocidalism. But they are not the bigger or the whole story. The regime itself has made a massive wager against any need for a truly independent legislature, judiciary or press. In order to make this wager work, the regime and its supporters have doubled down, by making genocidalism its open political platform, hoping that enough Indians will support this wager. This is a desperate wager. It might also be the dawn of hope in this darkest of our political nights.
Arjun Appadurai teaches in New York and Berlin. His most recent book, co-authored with Neta Alexander, is Failure (London: Polity Press, 2019). Appadurai has been working on the vicious cycle of nationalism and violence for more than two decades.