On June 26, 2019, Noor Nahar Begum, a 14-year-old girl from the Roumari chapori village in India’s northeastern state of Assam, hanged herself after her name and the names of her family members were excluded from a draft of the state’s National Register of Citizens.
On August 6 — one day after the Indian Parliament had stripped the northern state of Jammu and Kashmir of virtually all political and economic autonomy — Indian security forces in the Kashmiri neighborhood of Parigram dragged young, predominantly Muslim men out of their homes and forced them to chant “Jai Hind!” (“Victory to India!”) and “Vande Mataram” (essentially “I Praise Thee, Mother India”). They made residents who refused to obey their orders lick dirt off the road.
On December 21, police in the city of Muzaffarnagar in Uttar Pradesh broke down the doors of the Sadaat Madrasa Islamic seminary and orphanage and rounded up its cleric, Maulana Asad Raza Hussaini, and 35 of his students; back at their barracks, the police tortured Hussaini, stripping him, beat him black and blue, and forcibly inserted a rod into his anus.
And on January 5, 2020, thugs associated with the right-wing student organization Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (All Indian Student Council or ABVP) laid siege to Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi with bamboo sticks, rods, hammers and stones, sending at least twenty students and faculty to the hospital with severe head wounds and abrasions.
Unrestrained and unashamed state and state-backed terror is now the order of the day in India. In the past year, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), who received an overwhelming if, in many respects, dubious mandate in the 2019 General Election, have enacted a cavalcade of hyper-repressive and potentially genocidal measures at the state and national level. These measures and India’s overall economic implosion, social turmoil and political descent into authoritarian hell have provoked mass protests from millions of diverse residents of India, many of whom have endured unspeakable violence while demanding dignity, equity and justice.
As the streets of India continue to boil with defiant joy and reactionary fury, anti-authoritarians, abolitionists, anti-fascists and other politically engaged people of conscience across the world, especially in the United States and the Global North, have a moral imperative to learn about the neoliberal Hindu nationalist state project so that they can effectively and sensitively fight in solidarity with its most vulnerable targets.
“Hindi, Hindu, Hindustan”
Numerous center-to-left activists, intellectuals, media organizations and protesters who have covered India’s latest wave of mobilizations have framed them as struggles to “re-establish” India as a secular liberal representative democracy. This framing has widely drawn inspiration from Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and the Indian Independence Movement as well from a supposed golden era overseen by Jawaharlal Nehru and, to a lesser extent, his dynastic heirs and the Indian National Congress (INC), with which Gandhi, Nehru, and Nehru’s successors are almost inextricably associated.
Without dismissing this perspective out of hand, it arguably runs the risk of shrouding India’s modern past in predominantly bourgeois, metropolitan, upper-caste nostalgia, in turn overlooking the numerous ways in which India’s liberal vanguard — not to mention quite a few self-described leftists — paved the path to the precipice at which the country and the broader South Asian region currently stand. Suffice to say, for the purposes of this article, quite a few of India’s Indigenous peoples; Dalits, Bahujans, and other lower-caste groups; Muslims, Sikhs, and other religious minorities; and, of course, the past and present subjects of the Indian occupation of Kashmir often have a distinctly less rosy view of Independent India’s alleged glory years or even its more recent periods of secular liberal rule.
Nonetheless, India’s intertwining crises of state authority, neoliberal capitalism and caste domination have become particularly combustible since the BJP became a force of influence in national and regional politics in the 1980’s. Since he was first elected prime minister in 2014, Modi has gone out of his way to stoke the flames encircling India’s political and societal powder kegs.
Modi first cut his teeth in electoral politics as the chief minister of the western state of Gujarat. During his tenure, he oversaw a horrific anti-Muslim pogrom that ultimately proved to be little more than a showcase for what has become known as the Gujarat model of business, governance and the business of governance: that is, the pursuit of economic growth by any means necessary, including and especially barbarism.
Before he was a charismatic, entrepreneurial visionary (known then and now by his victims as the “Butcher of Gujarat”), Modi was, for years, a rank-and-file member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (National Volunteer Organization or RSS). The RSS was directly inspired by the European fascist movements and regimes of the early twentieth century, to the point that its founder described the Nazi Holocaust as “a good lesson for us in Hindustan to learn and profit by.” At present, it is, by all reliable accounts, the largest grassroots proto-fascist organization in the world, counting five to six million members and serving as the de facto mothership of the family of Hindu right-wing organizations known as the Sangh Parivar.
The ultimate goal of the RSS and the Sangh is encapsulated by the slogan, “Hindi, Hindu, Hindustan”: they aim to convert India, arguably one of the world’s most diverse countries, into a Hindi-speaking Hindu ethno-state. This is not to say that the diverse sub-groups lumped, increasingly by force, under the general category of “Hindu” would enjoy equality within this state: the Hindu right-wing’s dystopian vision of the future is profoundly Brahminical, in that it would reinforce the supremacy of the highest-ranking group within India and South Asia’s still-existent, still-vicious caste hierarchy. As such, it would also consolidate the heteropatriarchy that underpins Brahminical authority.
To these ends, Hindustan, as the Hindu Right imagines it, would be a hyper-capitalist dystopia, ruled by the billionaires and transnational corporations who have worked hand-in-hand with the Modi regime, having, admittedly, sidelined their previous collaborators within the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty and the INC.
Modi, the RSS and the Sangh as a whole have made every effort to begin laying the foundations of the bourgeois Hindu supremacist hellscape of their dreams. Since 2014, they have employed various forms of political, economic, social and cultural warfare against India’s population at large.
They wiped out the wealth of millions of impoverished Indian residents by arbitrarily and suddenly demonetizing 500 and 1,000 Rupee notes in the name of fighting corruption. They have further debilitated India’s agricultural industry and deepened its farmer suicide epidemic. They have instigated a hideous rash of mob lynchings on suspicion of cow slaughter. They have muffled, expelled and/or assassinated numerous civil society actors, intellectuals, activists, and journalists. They have used the omnipresent boogeyman of Maoist insurgency to discredit, incarcerate, dispossess, displace and/or massacre Indigenous peoples, peasants, leftists, liberals, and virtually anyone who stands up to their acquisition of wealth and converts. And they have constructed an expansive personality cult around Modi that is perhaps unmatched among any of the world’s other reigning nationalist strongmen.
Emboldened by their landslide electoral victory in May of 2019, Modi and the BJP wasted no time in implementing the ultra-nationalist platform on which they sailed back into office. On July 31, the BJP-controlled state of Assam published the final draft of its National Register of Citizens as part of its crusade against “illegal immigration,” condemning up to 1.9 million of its residents — with a deliberate targeting of Bengali-speakers and Muslims, who are considered outsiders by definition — to statelessness and detention.
On August 5, the BJP-controlled Indian Parliament abrogated Articles 370 and 35A of the Indian Constitution, which had granted Jammu and Kashmir the status of an independent state and guaranteed its people some measure of control over their internal affairs (at least on paper). Indian security forces, whose numbers in the region rose severalfold immediately before the parliamentary decision, have since maintained a near-total communications blackout, maiming protesters with pellets, arresting young men en masse, and threatening women with sexual assault in the darkness that has enveloped the Kashmir Valley.
On December 11, India’s Parliament passed the Citizenship Amendment Bill, which grants citizenship solely to non-Muslim refugees from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan. Signed into law by India’s president two days later, the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), as it is now known, is meant to address Assamese and Hindu nationalist concerns about the fact that Assam’s NRC ended up catching more Hindus than Muslims in its net. Its naked attempt to set the stage for a nationwide NRC, for which nationwide detention centers already exist and are being constructed, is aided by the National Population Register (NPR), a list of all “usual residents” of India to be administered alongside the 2020 census for which the Union cabinet approved funding on December 24.
“The Toiling People Are Rising”: Will You Rise With Them?
The seeds of India’s present mass uprising against Hindutva (Hindu nationalism) began to germinate in Kashmir, where the Indian state’s renewed crackdown breathed new life into the long-standing tradition of Kashmiri resistance. Since August 5, Kashmiris, not unlike their Palestinian counterparts, have risked detention, brutalization, or worse by staging public demonstrations and defending themselves against their occupiers with stones, neighborhood barricades and community information networks.
The predominantly Muslim students of Jamia Millia Islamia University (JMIU) in Delhi and Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) in Uttar Pradesh were among the first members of India’s collegiate community to raise their voices against the CAA and the NRC. Their shocking abuse by the police and other state authorities — who attacked them with batons and tear gas in their own hostels, injuring over 100 people — sparked outrage and subsequent solidarity protests on college and university campuses all across the country.
Students are now considered to be among the Modi regime’s most vociferous opponents. They received backup in the form of Chandrasekhar Azad Ravan, the magnetic leader of a Dalit rights organization known as the Bhim Army. Azad’s militant, boundary-crossing constitutionalism has made him a powerful ally to Dalits and Muslims alike; a photo of him standing on the steps of Delhi’s famous Jama Mosque while holding up a copy of the Indian Constitution, which was authored by pre-eminent Dalit statesman B.R. Ambedkar, has already become iconic. Azad, like so many other protesters and even uninvolved residents in the vicinity of the protests, was arrested on December 21 and, as of now, remains in custody.
Just over one week into the new year, India’s workers officially entered the fray of the anti-CAA/NPR/NRC/Hindutva mass movement in spectacular fashion. Following the breakdown of negotiations with India’s Labor Minister, the Center of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) called for a general strike in response to the national government’s attempts to push through pro-corporate, anti-worker amendments to labor laws that would, in the words of CITU General Secretary Tapan Sen, lead to the veritable enslavement of India’s workers.
On January 8, 2020, 250 million workers — about a fifth of India’s population — brought countless roads, railway lines, government offices, shopping districts, power plants, and plantations to a standstill. Students from at least 60 college and university campuses also extended their solidarity to this sea of agitating laborers. Congratulating all of these strikers, Sen asserted that, “The toiling people are rising, and they won’t rest till they achieve their demands.”
For all these hugely encouraging actions, India’s toiling, rumbling masses are by no means free of contradictions. Opposition to the CAA in Assam has a virulently nativist component that cannot be waved aside. The Kashmir question has also sparked fierce debate about the ethicality and legitimacy of appeals for “Azadi!” (“Freedom!”) that do not center Kashmiri self-determination by interrogating the very foundations of the independent Indian state itself.
In addition, soaring but perhaps uncritical and even self-defeating calls for Gandhian nonviolence in the face of the state’s relentless attacks upon dissidents, scapegoats and civilians at large leave the crucial issue of self-defense, especially for the most at-risk, frustratingly unaddressed.
However, a large-scale upsurge should not have to be perfect to deserve critical solidarity. Such perfection is harder and harder to come by in the contemporary era. In India, as in Hong Kong, France, Iraq and the numerous other parts of the world that have witnessed mass mobilizations against capitalist and imperialist state repression, the seeds of anti-authoritarian abolition — of autonomy, dignity, equity, justice and resilience in their fullest, most manifold senses — nestle alongside their conciliatory, regressive, and as yet undecided equivalents. The onus is now on leftists everywhere, especially those who find themselves in the core countries of the prevailing world-system, to join forces with their Indian and other global counterparts to nurture these seeds however they can.
Another South Asia is still possible
What, then, can you do to fight the neoliberal Hindu nationalist state project?
You could begin by seeking out, understanding, and amplifying the perspectives and platforms of individuals and organizations in the thick of India’s struggles, even when they might not perfectly align with your stances and strategies. Peoples Dispatch, Caravan Daily, and Antifascist India all provide detailed and reliable coverage of what’s happening, both hopeful and heinous, at the ground level. If you live in the United States, follow Equality Labs and the South Asia Solidarity Initiative for South Asian diasporic news and action-planning updates.
South Asian diasporic organizers and community members are all too aware that Hindutva is by no means geographically contained within South Asia. On the contrary, it is a transnational project with particularly strong ties to the United States. Hindu nationalist organizations in India receive a significant amount of funding and support from the Indian diaspora, especially in the US, and in turn support sister organizations and key global political figures, such as Tulsi Gabbard, who spread their message and share their interests. Many Hindu nationalists and American white supremacists further draw inspiration from and collaborate with each other, reinforcing anti-Blackness and casteism in the process.
Combating Hindu nationalism is also part and parcel of combating transnational capitalism in India, the United States, and the world as a whole. Confronting Zionism in its totality additionally necessitates confronting India’s occupation of Kashmir and its ever-closer relationship with Israel, America’s pivot in the Middle East. To top things off, Modi and US President Donald Trump see each other more and more so as useful accomplices to their respective authoritarian endeavors.
For all these reasons and more, American anti-authoritarians, abolitionists and anti-fascists must oppose Hindutva as part of their confrontation with American white supremacist capitalism and its settler-colonial state and empire. Leftists elsewhere — such as in the United Kingdom, where the Modi regime has found yet another willing partner in Boris Johnson — must similarly detect the foul stench of Hindutva festering under their very noses.
India and South Asia as a whole presently face their most dire existential crises since they fought the British Raj, with close to a billion lives hanging in the balance. The oppressed and weary but as-yet-unvanquished populaces of the region, for all their complexities and contradictions, have taken their fates into their own hands at a scale unseen for decades, prompting their aggressors to prepare for violence at a similarly grand scale, surpassing the horrors already occurring everyday.
Another South Asia is still possible, from below and to the left, but its prospects are rapidly getting less and less promising. Protect the sparks of revolutionary social transformation lit by Kashmiris, Muslims, Dalits, Indigenous peoples, students and workers: do your part to help them grow into a cumulative, roaring blaze that will reduce Modi’s India and the structures and systems of power that it possible to ash.
Fight Hindutva wherever you are, now more than ever.
Sarang Narasimhaiah is an Indian political organizer and doctoral candidate in political science currently living in the United States.