The Indian elections and religious fascism in South Asia: troubling times ahead

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File:Narendra Modi addressing All India Conference on Livestock and Dairy Development.jpg

The Indian elections are around the corner, and with it comes the high (and blood-curdling) likelihood of a dyed-in-the-wool religious fascist, Narendra Modi, leader of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, becoming the Prime Minister of India. It’s not a certainty – the Indian electorate has surprised us with remarkable independence of thought on numerous occasions before – but poll after poll shows the BJP-led coalition coming out on top in this round of parliamentary elections, usurping power from the current ruling coalition led by the corrupt, dynastic Congress Party. It is something that should worry all of us. One doesn’t have to go very far back to see why. Numerous pogroms have been conducted by Hindu nationalist groups throughout the 20th century, soon after their founding under a virulent ideology known as Hindutva (roughly translated as Hinduness) that attempted to homogenize a remarkably rich and diverse body of philosophy, rational thought, and faith into a dangerously narrow, religo-cultural, ethnocentric vision for India. The meteoric rise of the political wing of the Hindutva brigade, the BJP, started in 1992 when Hindu nationalist groups destroyed the Babri mosque in Ayodhya, resulting in yet another pogrom against Muslims in the country, particularly in the city of Mumbai, the economic centre of India and home to Bollywood, among other things. But it was in 2002, when the Hindutva brigade had consolidated power in the center, that we saw the worst that they had to offer when they went on a rampage against Muslims in the North Western state of Gujarat, following the tragic death of 58 Hindus who were killed when two compartments of a train caught on fire. Without investigations or proof, the deaths were squarely blamed on Muslims and, with the blessings of the Gujarat government and the active collusion of the Gujarat police, over two thousand Muslims were slaughtered across the state by Hindu fascist groups, some in the most heinous ways imaginable, with macabre cases of brutality and sexual violence.

Narendra Modi was the Chief Minister of Gujarat at that time. He still is. A 2007 investigative journalistic exposé by Tehelka magazine, documented grassroots fascist leaders speaking openly about how he “blessed the anti-Muslim pogrom” and made efforts in his capacity as the Chief Minister to ensure the rioters were “given three days to do whatever [they] could.” (If you have the stomach for it, check out Tehelka’s The Truth: Gujarat 2002 for a particularly chilling read.)

This very man is going to become one of the most powerful men in the world in another few weeks.

But neither he nor his cronies and enablers among the various Hindu fascist groups are alone in their ability to engineer popular support via the vehicle of religious nationalism in the subcontinent. Indeed, I’m going to try and pre-empt the inevitable accusations I normally get of being a “Hindu-hater” or “anti-Indian” (probably delivered by software engineers sitting in Silicon Valley…much of the funding for the Hindu fascist groups in India comes from a right-wing section of the Indian diaspora). But I’m going to do so by comparing them to that which they probably reserve the greatest amount of hatred for – Pakistan. So I will briefly switch to exploring the longstanding program of Islamization that has gone on in that country, pretty much from the day it was born, despite the fact that the founding father, Jinnah, was a remarkably secular, forward-thinking man who is probably rolling in his grave right now. Founded as a secular republic in 1947, Pakistan very quickly became an Islamic one, but it was under the dictatorship of Zia-ul-Haq starting in 1978 that the most poisonous integration of religion and state occurred in the country. This brought about the widespread persecution and killings of Hindus, Christians, Ahmadiyyas and other minorities across the country. The program included the dreaded Hudood Ordinance that could legally have people charged with theft getting their arms or legs cut, and female rape victims charged with adultery. Thousands of rape victims were put in jail under Zia’s dictatorship because they could not comply with the Islamic condition requiring them to have numerous male witnesses of their victimization, often resulting in the victims getting charged with adultery and the rapists set free. Part of the Islamization project were the dreaded blasphemy laws that came with the threat of death for saying derogatory remarks of the prophet Mohammed and life imprisonment for defiling the Quran. And while no one has actually been convicted of any of these charges, thousands have been charged and many have often been killed by frenzied street mobs. Two prominent figures assassinated for their opposition to the blasphemy law included Shahbaz Bhatti, the Roman Catholic Federal Minister for Minorities, and Salman Taseer, the Muslim Governor of Punjab. Both times, the assassins were treated like heroes and lauded for their acts, with thousands of lawyers tumbling over each other to defend them for free.

So the Hindu nationalists don’t have to look far to see models for their virulence. In fact, like religious nationalists of any ilk, be they Muslim, Christian, or Jewish, the Hindutva brigade would find a fair bit of congruence with other like-minded groups. After all, each of them rely on the basest, most cruel, instincts of people. Some apologists for the Hindu nationalists might state with a touch of smugness (or envy?) that the legislation of Hindu nationalism hasn’t occurred in India, what with it being such a staunchly secular republic and all, the same way the legislation of Islamic nationalism has happened in Pakistan. They’d be wrong, because it’s already started. It’s just a matter of scale and time. Till date, five states in India, and not all of them under BJP control, have legislated anti-conversion laws aimed at targeting Muslim and Christian religious activities. Legislation that targets freedom of expression and speech continues slowly but surely in a number of states, even nationally. Every once in a while these have ludicrous results, like when the Indian government banned Wendy Doniger’s book, The Hindus: An Alternate History, resulting in increased publicity and sales for the book before Penguin could carry out the court order of pulping all their copies. And make no mistake, resistance to Hindu fascism in India, like resistance to Islamic fascism in Pakistan, has been strong and courageous. But in another few weeks, it is almost certain that we will have a Hindu nationalist guilty of gratuitous crimes against humanity becoming the elected leader of India, and in charge of one of the most powerful, nuclear-armed, militaries in the world. Nuclear-armed Pakistan lies next door.

If you’re not worried, you should be.

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A love letter to the subcontinent (also known as South Asia)

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I very recently returned from a mind-blowing trip to India and Kashmir. It was a trip that rekindled a long-dormant, but deeply awesome bond with my cousin, my soul mate in the family, while also establishing a new bond with his partner, culminating in the fond realization that I had a community with them. It was a trip that continued to strengthen the memories and painful love of my other soul mate in the family, the one who left this realm almost a decade back, and who was one third of the power-trio we formed growing up together. It was a trip that took me to Srinagar in Jammu & Kashmir to witness gorgeous beauty, awe-inspiring human rights activism, and rage-inducing stories of brutal oppression meted out by the Indian state. It was a trip which further affirmed to me that I had no choice but to stand unambiguously in solidarity with the liberation of my Kashmiri brothers and sisters, as well as their inalienable right to self-determination. It was a trip that made me realize that while I was a rather steadfast agnostic humanist, I was also a deeply spiritual one. It was a trip that continued to reaffirm the love and friendship I shared with my parents and a handful of other close kin, further establishing the longing I felt for them when I was not around them. Simultaneously, it was a trip that confirmed to me that, while I loved them, they irritated the crap out of me when I was with them in the same physical space for more than five minutes (a trademark of families who believe in suffocating the life out of you with care and affection). It was a trip that rekindled a visceral love for animals, a connection with animals that resulted in my feeling deep hurt when I saw or heard of any pain they went through. It was a trip that ensured, beyond any doubt, that no matter which place I ended up calling home, whether it was Toronto or Minneapolis, one part of my soul was always going to be firmly entrenched in that part of the world we know as the South Asian subcontinent, that there was always going to be a home there.

But it was also a trip that had me come to grips with the very real and blood-curdling possibility that India might soon elect a dyed-in-the-wool religious fascist as the prime minister. A man who orchestrated violence and bloodshed upon minorities in Gujarat in 2002. A man who represents a virulently homogenizing philosophy that has no place in the glorious chaos that is the subcontinent, and yet somehow seems to have reared its ugly head yet again.

In lieu of all that, I wrote a love letter to that mass of geography we call the South Asian subcontinent.

It is reproduced below today, March 23, 2014 in homage to that great humanist and anti-colonial martyr, Bhagat Singh, and his awe-inspiring sacrifice eighty three years ago:

 

Hello my love,

This letter is long overdue. It speaks of a searing love inside me; one that burns and quenches at the same oxymoronic time. It is a love I am barely able to express in words because of the deep pain and anguish it brings with it. Nevertheless, I’m endeavoring to do so because I think I will go completely insane if I don’t. So here goes:

I feel compelled to start by saying that I love you. I don’t know if I say it enough. Those three words carry with them a lot of social and cultural baggage, so I should break it down. I’ll start ass-first.

When I say you I must clarify that I speak of a very expansive and deeply complex entity. Sure, that includes a land and people, but it’s much more than that. I speak of you in a way that isn’t exclusive, an evolving you with a richness to your social, cultural, geographic, and political chaos that is constantly changing and, above all, alive. I do not mean a nation-state or even a conglomeration of nation-states. I think the idea of the nation-state has invaded your beautiful life form like a cancer, much like it has done so in the rest of the world. There might have been a time when that idea held a temporary, albeit highly brief, value of liberation, when the yoke of colonialism was being cast aside by emaciated hands and mighty hearts. That value might still exist ephemerally in different situations where state repression and military occupation suppress a people, conditions you are fully aware of in the pristine valleys of Kashmir, the lush forests of Northeast India, the sandy beaches of Eelam, or the arid plains of Balochistan among others. But that value is also dangerously toxic when it lingers beyond its expiration date, as you no doubt have found out with powerful post-colonial states like India and Pakistan exerting their brutality. Those artificial institutions of nationhood continue to eat away at your being, like venomous tumours causing a whole host of vicious side effects. That is most decidedly not the you I love. I think of you as a microcosm of humanity, with all that humanity brings with it. I think of you as representative of a world at large in the most diverse form imaginable. I think of you as many different parts of a greater whole, parts that are often at odds with one another. So, please know that when I speak of you, it is in the most universal sense of the word, breaking free from, yet simultaneously expressed in, the laughably limiting monikers representing peoples, religions, states, societies, communities, and geographies.

When I say love I wish to point out that I use this term while trying to liberate myself from the limitations of the English language, a language I have an immense, albeit grounded, fondness for (and one that I’ve learnt is very much an Indian language, despite what nationalists across many seas might say). English-speaking folk (myself included) deploy this word in a variety of situations, ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous, whether it’s to express ones feelings for a soul mate, a pet dog, or their favourite pizza topping. The love that I speak of is a bit more chaotic. My mother once told me that there are as many different words for love in Tamil or Malayalam as there are situations to use them, while friends of mine have made similar claims for Urdu and Bengali. They left me with little doubt that they were absolutely right because they all proceeded to list them. It really is quite remarkable to hear. Those languages have a great ability to capture the various complex forms of love and pay proper linguistic homage to the inherent diversity of the term. Followers of different faiths, every one of which can be found in you, sing and pray to even holding love as a supreme being, of love as god. As an agnostic humanist, I continue to find myself pleasantly surprised at the bliss I feel when I hear those deeply spiritual renditions, all centered on love. I think it is this kind of love I speak of, a love that means different things at different times, a love that is happy, sad, angry, painful, humorous, soulful, sublime, and ridiculous when I say that I love you. Our sisters and brothers in what is now known as Latin America have a gorgeous word, añoranza, to describe a longing or yearning so deep that it’s impossible to comprehend. I know I feel a deep sense of añoranza for you. It is one of the many manifestations of the love I have for you.

And finally, when I say I, it gets a little tricky to explain without going into some unnecessary existential angst. It’s not a simple I, as in just myself as an individual that I speak of. I’ve actually found the individualistic I very difficult to deal with. It is a communitarian way of being that I developed partly because of you, and the sense of community, with all the pitfalls associated with it, that you imparted on me. I think the I that I refer to might best be explained by this philosophical notion of ubuntu that our brothers and sisters in southern Africa have gifted to the world. Ubuntu upholds a fundamental humanism connecting us all, an interconnectedness that Desmond Tutu wrote of as a person who “is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, based from a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed.” This notion is something that many of your homegrown philosophies uphold, something that I certainly felt as a part of you, something I am deeply grateful for. When I say that I love you, I refer to myself as an integral part of this greater whole that you and I exist in.

I’m calling you the subcontinent because of the limitations imposed on the utilization of the term India, and the sterility of the term South Asia (South from what? The world is a sphere suspended in space). I still use those terms often because of the cultural power they wield and their ability to convey specific land masses. But I feel like the love I need to express goes beyond the utilitarian limits of nationalism or the geographic sterility of pre-sanctioned boundaries. Maybe I feel it particularly strongly because I am one of your diasporic, transnational children. You know, absence makes the heart grow fonder and all. I also feel the term subcontinent, while geographic in nature, seems a little more organic in how it describes you as nothing more and nothing less than a part of a greater whole. A greater whole that is social, cultural, political, and geographic. I am viscerally connected to this particular part due to my family, friends, hometown, place of birth, socialization, political growth, cultural influences, and maybe a general predilection towards dopamine-releasing chaos, but it doesn’t preclude the fact that this connection can occur, and indeed has occurred, in other parts of this greater whole with equally rich results.

I’ll end this letter here. But not before mentioning that, in writing about this love I have for you, I am comforted by a vague feeling that, regardless of what fascists and fundamentalists of various nationalities and faiths might attempt, they can never tarnish the resplendent core of your being.

All my love,

Sri