Of late, I have been seriously disturbed by the authoritarian trends displayed by the Hindu Right in India.
Contrary to the perception of the West, Hinduism is not essentially a peaceful and philosophical religion – though definitely it has that facet. Hinduism is a fascinating mix beliefs and practices ranging from the lofty heights of Upanishadic philosophy to the dark depths of sorcery involving child sacrifice. It is not a monolithic religion, rather a pot-pourri of beliefs cobbled together into a heterogeneous mix. However, it has one thing to recommend it – pluralism. It is a religion which contains atheism even its fold of legitimate belief.
The current wave of attacks on secular writers and minority communities spread across the length and breadth of India, combined with efforts to impose Hindu beliefs on the population at large (i.e. the ban on beef) have, however, damaged that tolerant visage a bit. Even though the government and its supporters dismiss these as stray incidents blown out of proportion by a desperate opposition, there is a cause for concern as the strident voices on the extreme right have risen in pitch and aggression ever since Narendra Modi took charge as the Prime Minister of India. It is as though they now feel that with “their” government in power, there can be no stopping of the Hindu juggernaut.
(The “stray incident” argument will no longer sustain. With the current JNU imbroglio, the government has come out with its intention to impose its own brand of patriotism on the public. This unquestioning allegiance to a mythical “motherland” is staple of all fascist ideologies.)
Ever since I read Hindutva by V.D. Savarkar – the book that is the cornerstone of the ideology of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the main Hindu Right Wing organisation in India – I have been struck by the similarity it bears to the Nazi philosophy. The basic premise is the identification of a people with a land, and making them the absolute custodians of the law pertaining to that land: then anybody who is deemed as a “foreigner” immediately becomes an enemy of the people. Coupled with this is the open admiration of Hitler espoused by many RSS members. Also, the takeover of cultural institutions with an aim to instil a fictitious “Hindu identity” on India also smacks of Nazi methodology.
So I decided it was time to understand fascism in general – to understand whether we are on the verge of repeating history we are too stupid to learn from. And I found Fascism: a Very Short Introduction by Kevin Passmore a very clear and concise introduction to the subject.
In the book , before defining fascism, Kevin Passmore makes it very clear that to do so is very difficult – for fascism is always ‘A and not A’, as Ortega y Gasset says. So after pages and pages of telling us what fascism is not, he gives the following definition:
Fascism is a set of ideologies and practices that seeks to place the nation, defined in exclusive biological, cultural, and/or historical terms, above all other sources of loyalty, and to create a mobilized national community. Fascist nationalism is reactionary in that it entails implacable hostility to socialism and feminism, for they are seen as prioritizing class or gender rather than nation. This is why fascism is a movement of the extreme right. Fascism is also a movement of the radical right because the defeat of socialism and feminism and the creation of the mobilized nation are held to depend upon the advent to power of a new elite acting in the name of the people, headed by a charismatic leader, and embodied in a mass, militarized party. Fascists are pushed towards conservatism by common hatred of socialism and feminism, but are prepared to override conservative interests – family, property, religion, the universities, the civil service – where the interests of the nation are considered to require it. Fascist radicalism also derives from a desire to assuage discontent by accepting specific demands of the labour and women’s movements, so long as these demands accord with the national priority. Fascists seek to ensure the harmonization of workers’ and women’s interests with those of the nation by mobilizing them within special sections of the party and/or within a corporate system. Access to these organizations and to the benefits they confer upon members depends on the individual’s national, political, and/or racial characteristics. All aspects of fascist policy are suffused with ultranationalism.
Quite a mouthful.
What Passmore is at pains do here, and throughout the rest of the book, is to distinguish fascism from other forms of authoritarian conservatisms. Authoritarian conservatives believed that the elites drove the society, and were supportive of traditional values like religion, family and civil society; and they left room for private enterprise. Fascists, in contrast, subjugated the individual totally to the nation, and worked for the total destruction off institutions other than the party. In this, they bear a lot of similarity towards authoritarian communism – only its concept of class struggle is discarded.
About half of the book is about the history of fascism, about how it was spread across Europe but succeeded in coming to power in Italy and Germany, mainly due to post-war disillusionment. This was especially true of Germany where the people felt betrayed by the weak Weimar Republic. (To tell the truth, I found this part of the book rather weak – like a boring history lecture. However, it was necessary background for the analysis of the later chapters.)
After doing a whirlwind tour of fascism across Europe and America (it leaves out Asia, Africa and the Middle east – a serious lack, in my opinion), the author poses the pertinent question: Is fascism still alive among us? He begins with an intriguing quote from Umberto Eco:
Ur-Fascism [a term meaning ‘eternal fascism’] is still around us, sometimes in plainclothes. It would be so much easier for us, if there appeared on the scene somebody saying, ‘I want to reopen Auschwitz, I want the Blackshirts to parade again in the Italian squares’. Life is not that simple. Ur-Fascism can come back under the most innocent of disguises. Our duty is to uncover it and point the finger at any of its new instances – every day and in every part of the world.
Stirring words: but Passmore does not agree fully. In today’s extreme right, he sees a slightly different shade of authoritarianism.
Whereas fascism sees the destruction of democracy as a precondition for the triumph of ultranationalism, the contemporary extreme right attempts to ethnically homogenize democracy and reserve its advantages for the dominant nationality. Their imagined society is perhaps closer to the South African Apartheid state or to the ideals of white separatists in the United States. I prefer to use the term ‘national-populist’ to describe this form of movement.
I have to say I agree with him – his words seem chillingly applicable to the Right in India.
Even today, fascism remains a term of abuse. So the extreme right has cleverly redefined ultranationalism, by translating xenophobia and intolerance into liberal democratic language. The rights given to minorities are called ‘preferential treatment’ and the claim to ‘equal rights’ is used to discriminate against them. In order to preserve the alleged distinctiveness of a given nation, the rights of those who are said to ‘threaten the identity of the nation’ are to be restricted. We can see this tendency all over the world, from the Tea Party activists in the USA to the Hindu Mahasabha in India.
Fascism is racist. All inhabitants of a territory are not treated as its citizens.
Citizenship and its benefits are accorded or denied on the basis of conformity to, or possession of, characteristics alleged to be ‘national’, be they biological, cultural, religious, or political. Nationalism and racism pervade all aspects of fascist practice, from welfare provision and family policy to diplomacy. Those deemed to be outside the nation face an uncertain future – extermination in the worst case.
Individual identity, distinct from the national identity, is not allowed. In case the difference is religious or political, the ‘others’ can be assimilated (perhaps to live as second class citizens). In case it’s biological or racial, expulsion or extermination is the only fate awaiting the unfortunates not falling under the fold of nationalism.
Fascism is against all other isms which tend to group people across nations under one umbrella, such as feminism and socialism. Women are accepted only so far as they conform to the interests of the nation state (or race) – usually as child-producing machines. Similarly, though class is denounced, equality is obtained only by total surrender to the nation-state.
Is fascism in the danger of making a comeback in the modern age? We may believe it is impossible in this age of enlightenment, when democratic values have seeped into the bottommost layers of society. Against this kind of optimism, Passmore has this to say:
It would be complacent to assume that democracy is now so deeply rooted as to make it impossible for the extreme right to win power, for democracy itself is not free from discriminatory tendencies. Democracy is deeply rooted, but it is not always connected to a belief that all human beings deserve equal treatment. For many, it means simply the right of the majority to do as it wishes, and national-populism has successfully exploited this conviction.
Seeing the direction democratic India is proceeding in nowadays, his words take on a frighteningly prophetic tone. As an ardent believer in a secular democracy, I sincerely hope I am mistaken.