Sajida recognised many of the men who came to her house that night and beat her father Akhlaq to death with the bricks that they found under his bed. It was already past ten when the 200-strong lynch mob of young men – her Hindu neighbours – forced its way into the house. Minutes earlier an announcement had been made over the newly installed loudspeakers of the Hindu temple in the village: one of the handful of Muslim families in the village – Sajida’s family – had eaten beef. By the time the police arrived, Mohammed Akhlaq was already dead. Sajida’s brother, twenty-two-year-old Danish, was fighting for his life. The police took away some meat they found in the fridge, saying they were sending it to a laboratory for ‘forensic testing’. Many hours later, when the media descended on the small village just sixty kilometres from Delhi, it was eighteen- year-old Sajida who spoke to them. Her anguished question ‘If it is not beef, will they bring my father back?’ reverberated around the country. Others asked – suppose it had been beef? Is India now a country where a human being can be beaten to death for what they have eaten?
Yet any outside observer who thought that the lynching of Mohammed Akhlaq was really about beef, about spontaneously inflamed religious passions in a country where in the majority religion Hinduism, cows are considered sacred (though many Hindus traditionally eat beef), would have quickly been disabused of this notion. It soon emerged that the people who forced the temple to install loudspeakers, who made the announcement, and who led the mob to Akhlaq’s house, had been preparing the ground for several months, setting up a new organisation, the Samadhan Sena (Solution Army), which drew in young men in the area, indoctrinating them with the current canards of the Hindu far-right like ‘Muslim population growth’ and ‘cow slaughter by Muslims’.
Barely a month earlier, three young Muslim men had been attacked and murdered in the same area for allegedly stealing cattle. And anyone still claiming that this was a matter of local power politics in this corner of Uttar Pradesh state could hardly sustain this view when, one after another, leaders of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) spoke up to condemn not the murder, but the arrests of the perpetrators (the main accused is the son of a BJP functionary). They demanded that the charges be dropped and called for ‘legal action against those people who are engaged in cow slaughter as it is hurting Hindu sentiments’; most ominously they called for mass gatherings of powerful castes, ‘mahapanchayats’, like those preceding the orchestrated mass killings and rapes of Muslims in Muzaffarnagar (also in Uttar Pradesh) ahead of the 2014 general elections. From the central government, meanwhile, Culture Minister Mahesh Sharma came forward to call the lynching ‘an accident’ – citing as evidence that Sajida had not been raped.
And what of Modi? With the case dominating headlines, he, just returned from the US and soon to be preparing for his visit to Britain this November, remained markedly, but by now not unexpectedly, silent. In his ‘Digital India’ tour of Silicon Valley, Modi had proclaimed that the ‘most fundamental debate’ for youth in India today is the choice between Windows, Android and iOS. As a statement released at a massive protest in Delhi against the lynching put it:
Today, twenty-two-year old Danish, battling for his life in a hospital, brings out the complete farce of Modi’s statements. The ‘most fundamental debate’ for youths like Danish is to how to keep alive in a country where emboldened communal [inter-religious] fascist goons can literally kill people in the name of what they eat or any other pretext to whip up communal frenzy!
But Modi’s silence over the lynching of Mohammed Akhlaq was very far from being the ill-judged indifference of a globetrotting Prime Minister blinded by his own rhetoric of a hi-tech India – on the contrary, it was a strategic silence that gave exactly the same message as Sadhvi Prachi, a vocal leader of the BJP’s sister organisation, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council) who flatly stated ‘those who consume beef deserve such actions against them’. In fact, the rise of the ‘beef ban’ campaign to its current homicidal proportions as a central plank of the Hindu far right – Mohammed Akhlaq’s murder on 28 September has been followed by an epidemic of brutal and orchestrated attacks on the pretext of suspicions of ‘cow-slaughter’, claiming the life of nineteen-year-old Zahid Ahmed Bhat in Kashmir on 9 October and of twenty-two-year-old Noman in Himachal Pradesh on 14 October – is a recent phenomenon which can be traced back to speeches Modi himself made in his election campaign last year; he talked about a ‘Pink Revolution’ of cow slaughter and beef production that would occur in India were he not to be elected.
Modi’s politics cannot be understood without reference to his lifelong membership of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). The RSS was formed in the mid-1920s, in opposition to Indian independence from Britain. An authoritarian, militarist, cadre- based organisation, it shared many features with rising fascist parties in Italy and 1930s Germany, which were a direct source of inspiration. RSS ideologue M.S. Golwalkar notoriously viewed Hitler’s treatment of the Jews as a model of ‘race pride’ which India should emulate in its treatment of minorities. The khaki shorts-wearing stormtroopers of the RSS continue to provide the ideological direction – as well as the leaders – for the plethora of organisations which have been established around it, including the ruling BJP. This became clearer than ever when Modi and his ministers in India’s elected government were summoned to a secret RSS conclave at its headquarters in Nagpur to give an account of their actions to date to the RSS leaders.
For many commentators, the Hindu supremacist violence promoted by the RSS – targeting Muslims, Christians, and Dalits – gives the lie to India’s much-trumpeted modernity: it is seen as being at odds with India’s rapid economic growth and the idea of ‘development’ which Modi constantly invokes. But the reality is that this violence is both essentially modern and highly compatible with, in fact embedded within, the predatory neoliberal version of ‘development’ which Modi stands for. Before Modi ascended to power in Delhi, when he was Chief Minister in the western Indian state of Gujarat, corporates enthusiastically hailed the so-called ‘Gujarat model’ of development. This involved huge swathes of land and coastline being converted into Special Economic Zones (and latterly ‘Special Investment Regions’) and handed over to corporates massively subsidised by the state. High levels of growth in relation to the rest of India were accompanied by some of the worst rates of farmers’ suicides, nutrition poverty levels higher than all-India levels, an incidence of child malnutrition of forty- seven per cent, higher than the national average, and the virtual elimination of labour rights.
Inextricably entwined with the idea of Gujarat as a ‘model’ was the even more sinister notion of Gujarat as a ‘laboratory’ for a Hindu state. In 2002, Modi had presided over systematically organised genocidal attacks in which over 2,000 people from Gujarat’s Muslim minority community were systematically killed, and more than 200,000 people were displaced. Women and children were specifically targeted for horrific violence. The police were instructed not to intervene while Hindu supremacist mobs linked to the BJP murdered and raped, selectively targeting the addresses occupied by Muslim families. Court cases implicating Modi are still being heard, including one filed by Zakia Jafri, whose husband Ahsan Jafri, a former MP, was brutally murdered in the violence. The family of two British citizens, Saeed and Sakil Dawood, murdered in Gujarat while on holiday are also pursuing a civil case against Modi. Judgments in both these court cases are expected in the next few months. The Hindu supremacist groups repeated this ‘experiment’ in Odisha, in 2007, in an anti-Christian pogrom, and again against Muslims in Muzaffarnagar, Uttar Pradesh, ahead of Modi’s election campaign. The day the election results were declared, software professional Mohsin Sadique Shaikh was beaten to death in the city of Pune, and his death celebrated with the chilling text message, ‘the first wicket has fallen’.
The Hindu supremacists’ Hindutva ideology does not represent a return to ancient Indian traditions as its exponents claim. It is in fact deeply colonial, a product of the nineteenth century. It was informed by the British rulers’ ‘scriptural’ understandings of Hinduism which, in a context of multiple understandings and practices within Hinduism, drew on specifically elite, upper caste, and patriarchal interpretations. Part of the Hindutva project continues to be one of homogenising, Brahmanising and masculinising Hinduism – for example destroying temples to Hindu Goddesses and Gods whose origins are in indigenous religions or those worshipped by Dalits. Despite recent attempts to mobilise Dalit communities against Muslims and to appropriate the legacy of the Dalit leader and thinker – and architect of the Indian constitution – B.R. Ambedkar, Hindutva is deeply invested in the maintenance of the caste hierarchy and in violence against Dalits. The dehumanisation underpinning this has been underlined yet again in a spate of horrific attacks on Dalits in recent weeks. When two young children – three-year-old Vaibhav and nine-month-old Divya – were burnt to death in BJP-ruled Haryana when their home was set on fire by upper caste men as the family slept inside, Modi’s Minister VK Singh absolved the government of responsibility by likening the murder to ‘someone throwing stones at a dog’.
Hindutva was also shaped by the British response to the first war of independence of 1857. This unprecedented wave of uprisings had demonstrated the potential for anti-colonial solidarity between Hindus and Muslims who shared a syncretic culture. The post-1857 British rewriting of Indian history as an age-old struggle between Hindus and Muslim ‘invaders’ – part of a deliberate strategy of divide and rule – was adopted wholesale by the ideologues of Hindu supremacy, and continues to be used to target India’s Muslims as ‘enemies’ and ‘outsiders’.
While after independence the RSS adopted the rhetoric of economic nationalism, and continues to do so when convenient, Hindu supremacist forces played little part in the anticolonial movement, focusing their attentions on Muslims rather than the British rulers, and in fact actively collaborated with the British on a number of occasions.
It was in the 1990s that the Hindu far right decisively emerged from the political shadows it had occupied since the RSS assassinated Gandhi in 1948 for ‘compromising with Muslims’. Its visibility soared with its national campaign to build a temple on the site of an existing 500-year-old mosque, the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya in North India. Collections were made in Hindu temples in Leicester and Brent to send gold bricks for the construction. On 6 December 1992, the historic Babri Masjid was destroyed by a crowd of 15,000 Hindu right ‘volunteers’ led by BJP leaders. This was followed by a cycle of orchestrated inter-religious violence across the country, in which 900 people lost their lives. By 1998, the first national BJP-led government came to power. Hindu fascism was well on its way.
This rise was inextricably tied to the restructuring of capital in the era of neoliberal globalisation and the Indian state’s adoption of economic liberalisation. Following the first IMF loan to India in 1982, the Congress Party, which had been in power almost continuously since Independence, increasingly sought legitimacy for interlinked policies of economic restructuring and militarisation through Hindu-inflected nationalist rhetoric. The participation of national as well as local Congress leaders in attacks on minority communities including the devastating 1984 pogroms of Sikhs which followed the assassination of Indira Gandhi marked a new phase in which Hindu chauvinism was explicitly visible in the material practices of the state. This was intensified after the second larger IMF loan of 1991.
If the last quarter-century has seen all the main political parties in India adopt neoliberal policies, it is the BJP that has embraced neoliberalism, both ideologically and in practice, in its most unadulterated form. Transnational corporations, both Indian and foreign, lauded Modi as ‘India’s CEO’ in-waiting and Washington indicated its preference for the BJP long before Modi’s electoral victory last year, drawn by the vision he offered of a ‘shining’ India effectively shorn of most of the awkward trappings of democracy. Environmental regulations, human-rights concerns and labour laws would no longer matter. The legitimacy for a state that openly sells off the country’s land and labour in this vision would come from an aggressive redefinition of India as an exclusively Hindu nation. A three-day World Hindu Congress last November was sponsored by Jaguar, Dunlop, Jindal and other transnational companies. A pamphlet distributed at the Congress listed the five enemies of Hindu society, five fingers in the claw of the demon Mahasur. Among them were Muslims who are the ‘poisonous fruit of Islam’ and Marxists, ‘the thumb of the demon’s claw’, which has given birth to ‘multiple bastard offspring like Communists, Socialists, Liberals, Maoists, Anarchists and all other forms of Leftists’.
British colonialism in India began with a transnational corporation, the East India Company. The new East India Companies are those like the British Vedanta, currently fighting a battle with Adivasi (indigenous) communities determined to protect their sacred mountain and source of livelihood from bauxite mining; or Essar which has funded a murderous paramilitary, the recently revived Salwa Judum, to terrorise and displace thousands from their homes and into camps. If the high pitch of corporate enthusiasm for self-styled ‘Man of Development’ Modi has been tempered somewhat in recent months it is not because of the escalating bloody wars of displacement and dispossession, the multiplying bans of books and burnings of human beings. It is not because of the assassinations of rationalist thinkers and activists, or the wave of writers, artists, scholars and scientists who have returned government awards in protest. It is not because of the lynchings of elderly Muslim men in small villages, and of young Muslim men in cybercities. The corporates are merely anxious that Modi is not going far enough fast enough.
Modi’s meetings with Ministers will be only part of the story of his visit to Britain. The Hindu right has a network of organisations in Britain, and they have been promoting him as a ‘superstar’ politician and, never short on hyperbole or shy of evoking historical parallels others might think better avoided, have promised to showcase him in a massive ‘Olympics style’ event at Wembley Stadium (tagline: ‘Two Great Nations – One Glorious Future’).
Hindu right networks draw upon the Indian diaspora in the UK and North America extensively for moral and, more importantly, material support for their project of establishing Indian as a Hindu rashtra or state. By setting up groups claiming to represent Hindu ‘faith communities’ in Britain, they also have access to government funding for their activities. Pro-Hindutva groups in Britain like the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (HSS, the international wing of the RSS), forged strong links with both the Labour Party and the Conservative Party. For example, Labour MP for Brent North Barry Gardiner of the Labour Friends of India, displayed a prominent endorsement from Modi on his own campaign material and attempted to invite Modi to the UK in 2013 – only changing his mind after South Asian, human rights and trade union groups staged a vocal protest outside his constituency surgery.
Back in 2001, on one of several visits to Gujarat, Gardiner had personally presented then Chief Minister Modi with a cheque for £1 million collected in Britain by Sewa International for earthquake relief. After the Gujarat genocide of 2002, progressive South-Asian organisations in Britain exposed Sewa International for diverting funds raised for earthquake relief and channelling them to organisations directly involved in carrying out the violence.
Hindu right groups have consistently tried to block legislation which Dalit organisations have campaigned for, outlawing caste discrimination in Britain. During the 2015 general elections, the Hindu right circulated leaflets urging ‘Dharmic’ (sic) people to vote for the Conservative candidate in Harrow, who promised to overturn the legislation.
A glance at some key figures involved in building support for the Hindu right – and Modi in particular – in Britain is instructive, revealing once again the synergies between Hindu supremacist ideologies and global corporate capital. Take Alpesh Patel. A founder- director of the Praefinium Hedge Fund and ‘India Dealmaker’ for the Department of Trade and Industry, and a committed Conservative (notably, his blog describes David Cameron as ‘genuine’ and ‘authentic’), the trader and financial journalist writes a regular column for the UK newspaper Asian Voice. His columns reiterate all the key tenets of Hindutva – in one he addresses Modi’s newly formed government, drawing an oft-repeated parallel with Israel.
The first determinant of your relations with any Foreign Government must be their treatment of the Hindu population within their borders. It has to be the business of this Government how Hindus are treated worldwide. If they want better relations with India, first make the best relations with Hindus in their own country … The people of Israel provide protection for Jews wherever they are in the world, of whichever nationality. We shall extend no less protection to Hindus.
Within the discourses of Hindutva, Muslims, and Muslim men in particular, are identified as the primary threat to the nation, and made to symbolically represent a series of interlinked tropes including terrorism; fanaticism; allegiance to forces external, and hostile, to the nation; illegal immigration; population growth; and women’s subordination. Indian ‘national interests’ within these hyper-nationalist discourses revolve around the perceived threat from Pakistan, and focus on Kashmir, and the bodies of Kashmiris, as the territory over which Indian ‘integrity’ must be violently reproduced. Clearly, this has multiple intersections with the post-Cold War shift which identified Islam as the new enemy of and, post-9/11, the US-led War on Terror; with the Islamophobia which has become central following realignments in the dominant discourses of British racism; and with the changes in the British state’s approaches to race which underpinned the shift from multiculturalism to ‘community cohesion’ and ‘muscular liberalism’.
This convergence was evident in February 2007 when the Hindu Forum of Britain made allegations of ‘forced conversions’ of ‘hundreds’ of ‘Hindu and Sikh girls’ by ‘Muslim extremists’ at British universities. The allegation of forced conversions of young women is part of an arsenal of myths propagated by the Hindu right in India to incite violence against minority communities; inflammatory leaflets making these claims were in circulation immediately before the massacres of Muslims in Gujarat in 2002, and most recently they have resurfaced in the myth of so-called ‘Love Jihad’ – Muslim men ‘seducing’ and converting Hindu women. The notion of ‘Love Jihad’ has been systematically used both to control and terrorise Hindu young women who choose their own partners outside their community, as well as to incite violence against Muslims. Amit Shah, Modi’s right-hand man, is among the many Hindu right leaders who directly incited rape of minority women in election speeches while invoking this myth. In fact the notion of Hindu women needing protection from predatory Muslim men informs the core patriarchal-nationalist narrative of Hindutva, which appeals to Hindu men to reassert their masculinity through the performance of sexual and other forms of extreme violence against minority groups.
Metropolitan Police Commissioner Ian Blair, who was a guest at the HFB conference where the claims were made, seized the opportunity to commit his force to action, despite the complete absence of any evidence that such conversions were in fact occurring. Blair’s remarks were duly reported under headlines like the Daily Mail’s, ‘Police Protect Girls Forced to Convert to Islam’ and the Metro’s ‘Hindu Girls targeted by extremists’. Mail readers were told that ‘extremist Muslims who force vulnerable teenage girls to convert to Islam are being targeted by police’. The Metro further reported that ‘Scotland Yard is to set up a Hindu Safety Forum with “aggressive conversion” as its top priority’. Yet a few months later, the police were apparently unable to cite a single such case.
Increasingly, in contrast to earlier constructions of ‘Asians’, ‘British Hindus’ are not only distinguished from ‘Muslims’, but represented as the acceptable, integrated face of ‘difference’, a process of redefinition with strong colonial antecedents which began in the 1990s and in which Hindutva groups actively collaborate. The self-defined ‘British Hindu’ is constructed as the ideal neoliberal diasporic subject. Her/his ‘difference’ consists only of elements of ‘culture’, which are both essentialised and commoditised, and does not imply any critical perspectives on global capital or imperialist intervention. Meanwhile the fact that Indian capital is playing an increasingly significant role in the crisis-ridden British economy has only reinforced new representations of its diaspora as loyal and deserving British citizens.
The extent to which ‘Hinduism’ in the racialised discourse of British citizenship has come to be associated with an assumed allegiance to the ongoing British imperialist project was demonstrated back in October 2011 when David Cameron spoke at a reception for ‘prominent members of the Sikh and Hindu communities’ hosted at 10 Downing Street to celebrate Diwali. In his first public comments on the televised lynching of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi by NATO backed forces in Libya earlier that day, Cameron enthused to his guests that ‘Diwali being the festival of a triumph of good over evil and also the death of a devil, perhaps there is a little resonance in what I am saying tonight’.
This Diwali, Cameron will be welcoming Narendra Modi himself at Downing Street. Modi notoriously loves the camera on such occasions, and perhaps the beleaguered Cameron too is looking forward to the opportunity to play Margaret Thatcher to Modi’s General Pinochet. But left and progressive South Asian groups and individuals, and thousands of other people who oppose fascism and corporate imperialism, will be spoiling the party, and making Modi feel very unwelcome indeed.
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