Overview:

India's size inclines many Westerners to gloss over its social crises. But the rise of Hindu nationalism cannot be simplified to a single sitting PM who rose to power on anti-Muslim sentiment. In this first of four parts on Indian fascism, we look at Narendra Modi: one piece in a crisis with a life all its own.

Reading Time: 8 minutes

There’s something fascinating, if also disturbing, about Western incuriosity around the world’s largest democracy. 1.4 billion of our world’s 7.8 live in India, a country a third the size of the US, which has under a quarter of India’s population. How can the fortunes of so many mean so little? Nevertheless, India exists in the Western imagination around a few vague touchstones: a “mystic” realm for spiritual awakening, a nation of call-centers for outsourced labor, the land of Bollywood, and a place of deep poverty, pollution, and sexual violence. Castes and cricket, colonialism and yoga, bright religious festivals and “Indian food” (a compression of multiple regional cuisines into one catch-all) round out a loose sense of “the culture”.

But is it enough? When Western news bothers to follow the rise of Hindu nationalism and attendant calls for Muslim ethnic cleansing, do we even know where to begin?

Hardly. And you can tell how ill-prepared we are whenever you see articles referring to the current crisis under “Modi’s India”. Because, yes, the sitting prime minister, Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has absolutely given license to this toxic status quo. But it is a feature of our ignorance to presume that any one person truly governs 1.4 billion. And a dangerous feature, too, because if we don’t fully understand the problem, how on Earth can we serve as more effective advocates for change?

In this four-part series, I’ll outline some of the broader movements, histories, and pressure-points shaping the rise of far-right extremists pushing for a Hindu India.

But we will start today with Modi, the man supposedly “in charge” of 1.4 billion human beings, to get a sense of his role, along with the limits of his reach.

Jumping castes

Modi’s biographies are filled with the usual flourishes not easy to prove, but which give the impression of a lifelong devotion to nationalist aid, especially for fellow Hindus. There’s also an ascetic streak, a severe commitment to self-denial, that fits well with the fixation on purity and cleanliness that underpins many nationalist movements.

What matters most, though, is his caste. Caste is complex, because it not only describes role and opportunity for different families, but also access to state benefits through the terribly named “Other Backwards Castes” list (OBC). These benefits include a job-reservation scheme proposed by the Mandal Commission, to ensure access to government employment for people from struggling groups. (And this will be important to keep in mind, when we circle back to recent Hindu-nationalist outcry at the idea of Muslims being given too many government jobs.)

And yet, because India is immense, a merchant caste in one region might not be in the same plight as its equivalent elsewhere. This schism creates opportunities for people who are doing well within a richer regional version of one caste to still pitch themselves as “men of the people”, “average joes” who pulled themselves up by their bootstraps.

(Boy, we sure haven’t seen any politicians like that in the West, now have we?)

Modi belongs to the Modh-Ghanchi caste. Its name is a two-part description: Ghanchi refers to oil-pressing merchants, and Modh indicates success within that framework. But that’s where the simplicity ends, because as Modi rose in political office, he did so in part on the back of the OBC vote. Why? Because the Ghanchis were on the OBC list. And who wouldn’t want to support one of their own? If Modi lifted himself up from one of the bottom-ranked castes, then surely he would be an excellent advocate for other OBCs?

Well… no. Not exactly. The Ghanchis were only added to the OBC list in 1994, at which point Modi was already party secretary for the BJP, an instrumental and highly valued player in their growing regional success. In 1978 (back when Modi was 28), the OBC list for his region, Gujarat, did not include his caste. This has informed accusations of Modi being a “fake OBC”, leveraging his caste’s current standing to score political points.

(Again, it’s a shame we have no Western equivalents, eh?)

By the bootstraps of nationalism

Nevertheless, some facets of Modi’s youth both explain his role in Hindu extremism, and also illustrate why it’s unwise to pin Indian fascism on a single human being.

Modi did work hard, and not just for his family’s stall and later with a chai cart, but also as a member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), to which he might have been recruited as early as eight. (Again, lots of details about Modi’s early life are flimsy, and even his university credentials, critical for higher office, might have been fabricated, a possibility based as much on his earlier claims that he never pursued higher education—another “man of the people” statement—as on inconsistencies in degree details.)

The RSS is a far-right Hindu nationalist movement styled after European fascists, and it underpins today’s rise of the “Hindutva”: a religious term reclaimed to identify people committed to Hindu purism, unity, and singularity in India. It’s a volunteer corps of paramilitary members, which often lends its forces and authority to the BJP.

You might remember the RSS from the fact that one of its members assassinated Mahatma Gandhi in 1948. Both British and Indian governments banned the organization, but the banning never quite stuck. As such, Modi’s history with the RSS is by no means a mark against him. In fact, it put him in contact with the men who would form the BJP unit in the Western state of Gujarat. After sowing his wild oats as a late teen on walkabout around Northern and North-Eastern India, he became a pracharak, a campaigner for the RSS. That’s where he started to learn the basics of mobilizing larger audiences.

We’ll get into the RSS more in another article, but when it was banned again and its members driven underground, Modi also worked on his rhetoric as a writer and pamphleteer. When the organization returned to public life, his campaigning work in multiple cities involved crafting the RSS version of history of their recent government suppression. When Modi returned to Gujarat, installed by the RSS in the BJP, he applied his lessons to great success in getting the BJP elected.

Mobilising anti-Muslim hate: The 2002 Gujarat riots

After moving up the ranks as an excellent elections campaigner and party secretary, Modi was asked to replace Gujarat’s ailing chief minister in October 2001, and then won an ensuing by-election to enter the state legislature on February 24, 2002.

On February 27, a train carrying Hindus on pilgrimage was stalled amid an angry group of Muslims in Godhra. The anger of these locals, some simply working merchant stands along the packed train line, related to the site of pilgrimage. In the 16th century, the Babri Masjid mosque was built on land that some Hindus believe to be the birthplace of Lord Rama. In 1992, the BJP organized a rally that turned violent, and the mosque was razed. Months of deadly rioting between Hindu and Muslim nationals ensued.

Decades later, these Hindu pilgrims were returning from their celebration of Lord Rama on that same site. Reports vastly differ as to what happened next. Some claim fuel was used to set fire to the train, as part of a pre-planned massacre by a terrorist mob. Others, noting the location of fire damage, speculate a tossed object, such as one of the train-side merchants’ hot plates, hit the many flammable items inside amid angry outcry. Either way, disaster followed. 59 Hindu passengers were burned alive.

And Chief Minister Modi? He sanctioned the flying of these charred bodies to Gujarat’s most populous city, to be displayed in the streets, and that same day in Godhra, long before investigators could do their work, called the burning of the Sabarmati Express “a pre-planned act”. He further said that “[t]he culprits will have to pay for it. It was not communal violence. It was a violent, one-sided, collective act by only one community.” Meanwhile, as Human Rights Watch notes, his cabinet

organized a meeting in Lunawada village of Sabarkantha district just hours after the attack in Godhra on February 27, 2002. At the meeting, a plan was drawn up and disseminated to the top fifty leaders of the BJP, RSS, Bajrang Dal and VHP detailing the methods and strategies for the revenge killings that followed the Godhra massacre. The instructions were then methodically carried out by the police.

“Compounding Injustice: The Government’s Failure to Redress Massacres in Gujarat”

What followed was a heinous retributive massacre led by Hindu extremists whipped up by a range of nationalist movements. Only estimates of the death toll are possible, with the numbers ranging from 1,000 to 2,000 in the next few days. The horrific reports of burning, mutilation, gang rape, and murder include the extraction and slaughter of at least one fetus before killing its mother, and forcing a child to drink gasoline before throwing a match at his mouth. And over the next three months, the riots continued, with regional Muslims driven from their homes into a new ghettoized existence, 200,000 strong. Modi did not offer assistance to his constituents in flight, and made a point of not visiting such internally displaced refugee camps in later years.

The turn to presidency, and emboldened extremism

What Modi did do, with his ensuing years as Gujarat’s chief minister, was focus on economic improvement in his region. And he did this fairly well, with a range of prominent public works projects (electricity, irrigation, groundwater conservation), along with a focus on privatization and small-government-oriented public policy to boost industry. The BJP in general still upped its anti-terrorist rhetoric, but Modi’s government kept local nationalist movements at arm’s length for a while. (Modi himself, however, only attended Hindu events, and refused to wear gifted Muslim items at goodwill events.)

This economic turn served Modi well when he was picked as a prime ministerial candidate in 2013. The BJP was able to pivot public sentiment away from the riots and toward Modi’s neoliberalist policies while in office in Gujarat. Hologram experiences, a massive social media and news campaign, and a relentless focus on the corruption and economic failings of the preceding government all helped the BJP win 31% of the national vote, and 282 of the 543 seats in the House, called Lok Sabha, in 2014.

After a split in another Indian party, new alliances arose for the 2019 election, in which Modi retained his prime-ministership under the National Democratic Alliance, a coalition containing the BJP. The NDA won a whopping 353 seats in Lok Sabha, with the BJP responsible for 303. (This was quite the change from when Modi first joined the BJP, and it had only two seats in parliament.)

With this fortified mandate, the BJP has been emboldened in its actions against India’s Muslim population. In the summer of 2019, Modi changed the status of India’s only Muslim-majority state, Kashmir, to dismantle longstanding protections against Hindu settlement. Soldiers were then sent in to contain and subdue the Muslim populace. That same year, changes to the Citizenship Amendment Bill denied Muslim refugees the ability to apply for Indian citizenship. This action followed an early BJP project for keeping Muslims already in India off the official rolls if they couldn’t provide proper documentation for their longstanding citizenship.

And it wasn’t simply direct government decrees. Also in 2019, the courts ruled in favour of Hindu interests in the ongoing dispute over Ayodhya, the site of the now-razed Babri Masjid mosque. In 2020, a leader in the BJP party stirred up outrage at a scene of inter-religious romance in a Netflix show, calling it a “love jihad”, in keeping with a common scare tactic of adding “jihad” to any activity involving Muslims. And Modi himself has been a strong proponent on the world stage against Islamist radicalization, that most common of talking points within local extremist groups.

Meanwhile, news services that received significant BJP campaign financing dollars via ad buys have been on the frontlines of everyday hate speech. While Hindu nationalists are now quite open in their calls for a “kill or be killed” mentality toward Muslims, the Sudarshan TV network has been fanning the flames. Most recently? By claiming that Muslims were embarking on a “job jihad” by taking what show hosts consider to be the rightful job reservations of Hindus.

It is a feature of our ignorance to presume that any one person truly governs 1.4 billion. And a dangerous feature, too, because if we don’t fully understand the problem, how on Earth can we serve as more effective advocates for change?

So who’s in charge?

When attempting to understand a country as old and as storied as India, especially from a significant remove in Western cultures, it’s easy for us to oversimplify the problem. Modi most certainly represents and actively advances extremist beliefs, and his work in office gives sanction to rhetoric and action that amounts to the ongoing ethnic cleansing of Muslims in India by far-right Hindu nationalists.

But Modi himself was raised up within surging extremist movements. Those movements have their own histories, and resonate with many of India’s 1.4. billion for reasons relating as much to social precarities as to complexly generational geopolitical strife.

The role for global humanists is twofold. The first challenge is to refuse the strongman mythos built around Modi. So long as we’re railing against a person, and not tackling the broader cultural pressure-points, we’re playing right into fascism’s game. And the second challenge is to take stock of the ways that our own actions, politics, and histories reinforce this crisis and similar brutalities all around the world.

Because they do, unfortunately.

Because even though India’s 1.4 billion might sometimes feel a world removed from our own, we are all connected, in waves of rhetoric and trendlines of hate that ripple from one region to the next until the sickness afflicts us all.

We cannot fix India’s fascism problem. Indeed, it would be the height of arrogance for us pretend otherwise, we who know so little about conditions on the ground.

But we can pay attention to where we might be playing into it, and try our best, on the basis of that knowledge, to do better wherever we can, and are.

GLOBAL HUMANIST SHOPTALK M L Clark is a Canadian writer by birth, now based in Medellín, Colombia, who publishes speculative fiction and humanist essays with a focus on imagining a more just world.