A couple of days back, my cousin forwarded me a link that had me rolling on the ground laughing, while simultaneously injecting my soul with a chilling fear. The source of this scatter-brained experience was a link to this children’s picture book entitled Bal Narendra.
You see, “Bal” means “boy” in Hindi, while “Narendra” is the first name of Narendra Modi, the Hindu nationalist who was proven to be guilty of crimes against humanity for his role in the pogrom that killed over two thousand Muslims in Gujarat in 2002, and who is very likely going to be the next Indian Prime Minister (see my previous post regarding that here or here). As you might have guessed, the book is a picture book meant for children, not too dissimilar than the ones you and I read as children, probably about anthropomorphized animals and vague, black-and-white moral endings. Only this one is about the pristine boyhood of Narendra Modi.
In it the book goes on to show the glorious piety of Narendra Modi. Pious, because in India, like in many other parts of the world, a corrupted idea of moral purity is needed for the image of any aspiring demagogue. Glorious, because in India, like in many other parts of the world, a distilled version of authoritarian power is needed for the image of any aspiring messiah. The book goes on to explain how the beatific Bal Narendra always ensured his shirt had its creases removed on account of him keeping it folded under his pillow every morning, what a fastidious student he was, how he rescued a drowning boy and resisted school bullies, the manner in which he removed an old razor blade from a bird’s legs, and how (as a boy, mind you) he never allowed Indian Army soldiers “to go unreplenished.” A picture of a smiling Bal Narendra providing tea to grateful Indian Army soldiers leaves us wondering how one of the most powerful and brutal militaries in the world needed this saintly young ‘un, still in his khaki school shorts as he attended Hindu nationalist schooling, to provide replenishment to its soldiers in the form of tea, but I digress.
This book is possibly going to be in the house of many an English-speaking, middle-class, Hindu nationalist out there who wishes that one day their fresh-faced bal (and it’s always a bal) will also go on to become the lionhearted murderer of innocents and lead the world’s largest democracy into violent nihilism and the purity of the free market (Bal Narendra when he grew out of balhood really did fall in love with private capital, a love that might just outstrip his simmering hatred for religious minorities). Here’s a link to a major portion of the book if you desire a brief foray into the surreal world of religious nationalism for children in India: Bal Narendra
Now, I am reminded of yet another farcical book, this one a comic book, published a couple of years back by a Jewish nationalist group called Stand With Us (“us” presumably being Zionists and Israel, the state that the Hindu nationalists salivate over as the model of demagoguery to follow). This comic book is called Captain Israel. Yes indeed, Captain Israel, check out the picture above – a well drawn, muscular super-hero, possessing much virile vascularity. In one hand he possesses a magnificent shield modeled after Captain America (only the shield is a giant star of David – can’t have people getting confused here), and in the other hand a giant menorah, yes a menorah, lit candles and all, wielded as a weapon. He screams “For Israel!” with all the other accoutrements of Israeli occupation, including soldiers and fighter jets, revolving around him. His main cause? To kill the “barbaric destroyer snake” that is the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, quite literally drawn as a venomous serpent, and a movement that tries to (non-violently, if anyone is asking) resist Israeli oppression of the Palestinians by advocating for the boycott of the Israeli state until the oppression stops. Not unlike the South African anti-apartheid boycott movement, in fact deeply inspired by it.
So what can Bal Narendra and Captain Israel teach us? For one thing, it tells me that fascism can so very easily devolve into farce. I’m willing to wager no small amount of money that many of the Hindu nationalists who would vote for Modi en masse, and many of the Jewish nationalists who act as shrill apologists for Israel’s brutal human rights violations, would in fact laugh at Bal Narendra and Captain Israel respectively (or even simultaneously, maybe at a joint fundraising event in Washington DC).
But lurking just beneath that farce is real danger, even more sinister than what the farce tries to hide. It’s the reason why my own reaction of mirth was followed by a feeling of dread when I saw these examples of farce. Because religious nationalists like the Hindutva brigade, or the right-wing Zionists, or for that matter the Christian and Islamic fundamentalists, are not jokes. They are very real and ominous threats to humanity. We then see that the farce only provides temporary laughter, because it is nothing more than facade. Their images were reduced to jokes, but the danger to humanity never was.
Bal Narendra and Captain Israel: from fascism to farce and back again.