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India’s Hindu Nationalist Project Relies on Brutal Repression

The Indian state under Prime Minister Narendra Modi is meting out vicious repression against dissenters to his right-wing Hindu nationalist vision. Yet that constant need to crack down on protests also reveals something: his far-right project is undeniably brittle.

Indian police personnel on April 9, 2021 in New Delhi, India. (Sanchit Khanna / Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

On February 19, the Indian Ministry of Culture sent out a tweet celebrating the birth anniversary of M. S. Golwalkar, the staunch Hindu nationalist who for many decades served as the head of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), or “National Volunteer Organization.” Founded in 1925, the RSS bills itself as a cultural organization, but critics often describe it as a right-wing paramilitary, a nationwide network of well-organized cadres committed to Hindutva ideology, with deep links to the current governing party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Indeed, Prime Minister Narendra Modi got his start as a full-time activist in the RSS, and in a book he wrote in 2008, Modi gave a glowing portrait of Golwalkar.

However, not everyone views Golwalkar so favorably, and a closer look at his work reveals the bigotry at its core. In his first book, Golwalkar argued that “the non-Hindu peoples of Hindustan . . . must entertain no ideas but the glorification of the Hindu race and culture . . . [and] may stay in the country wholly subordinated to the Hindu nation claiming nothing . . . not even citizen’s rights.” (In this context, he wrote that Hitler’s Germany was “a good lesson for us in Hindustan to learn and profit by.”) In his second book, clarifying who these “non-Hindu” people might be, Golwalkar points to three “internal enemies” of the Hindu nation: Muslims, Christians, and Communists.

For Golwalkar, these enemies share one characteristic: they threaten to disrupt the supposedly “natural” unity and harmony of the Hindu race and Hindu civilization, which stretches back to time immemorial. Islam and Christianity were seen as dangerous because they were the religions of conquering “outsiders”: the Mughal Empire and then the British. This ignores not only the many divisions of pre-Mughal India along lines of caste, class, region, and religion (totally erasing, for instance, Buddhism’s stark opposition to orthodox religious practices in ancient India) but also the rich, centuries-old social lives of Islam and Christianity on the subcontinent.

If, for Golwalkar, Muslims and Christians were symbols of past defeat, the Communists were portents of a possible future rupture in the “Hindu nation.” He argues against what he calls “the theory of class conflict” explicitly because it originated outside India, but implicitly because it disrupts the assumed unity of all Hindus, showing it to be a divided set of groups with contradictory interests.

In case there’s any doubt that the current BJP government is the rightful heir of Golwalkar’s ideology, one can turn to Modi’s speech before Parliament in early February, where he coined the term “andolanjivi” to describe those who can’t live without protests and, in a chilling turn of phrase, compared all andolanjivis to parasites (“parjivis“), thus suggesting the need for extermination. Such language is a particularly disturbing expression of the paternalistic state argument — made in India, the United States, and elsewhere — that protests against the state must be the work of outside agitators. After all, how could its true citizens turn so boldly against it? Such rhetoric then justifies doing whatever it takes to remove from the body politic that which threatens to infect it.

This is not just rhetoric; the BJP government has actively targeted those it considers andolanjivis. For a casual follower of the news in India today, it is difficult to keep pace with the seemingly endless arrests of farmers, labor leaders, professors, students, lawyers, civil rights defenders, and journalists. Further, many of those targeted are stuck in legal limbo, imprisoned for years under draconian laws, trapped in bail hearing after bail hearing.

Thus, those arrested in the massive ongoing farmers’ protests share headline space with those arrested in last year’s round of state repression, which targeted those opposing discriminatory citizenship laws, and with a previous round of repression in the wake of anti-caste protests. All these rounds of repression follow a disturbingly similar pattern: an episode of violence, which is actively provoked or tacitly encouraged by Hindu nationalists, becomes a pretext for waves of arrests against those considered “anti-national” — “internal enemies” in the language of Golwalkar, or parasites in the words of his heir.

Developing the BJP model for Stifling Dissent

BJP repression has developed in tandem with rising waves of dissent. In the 2014 elections, with Modi as its prime ministerial candidate, it decimated its chief opponent, the once-grand Congress Party. Despite little parliamentary opposition, and despite the overall weakness of national-level labor unions, the BJP still had to face sporadic street-level protest against its Hindutva and pro-corporate policies. Over the course of its first term, a range of protest movements emerged in various parts of the country, from farmers’ movements to student movements to a reinvigorated anti-caste movement.

Of all these, the anti-caste movement is perhaps the most directly threatening to Hindu nationalist thinking. If communist ideology points to the class divides within Hindu society, the anti-caste movement points to divides that are more historically entrenched and more viscerally felt. As the great anti-caste leader Dr. B. R. Ambedkar presciently noted in 1936, “Hindu society as such does not exist. It is only a collection of castes. . . . A caste has no feeling that it is affiliated to other castes except when there is a Hindu-Muslim riot.”

An event called the Elgar Parishad, organized on December 31, 2017 in the city of Pune, Maharashtra, was an attempt to bring together the opposition movements that had emerged during Modi’s first term. Convened by two retired judges with a history of anti-caste and anti-Hindutva activism, the event drew participation from roughly 250 anti-caste, progressive, and left organizations and featured fiery speeches, musical performances, and cultural programs.

The event was set for the day before an anti-caste commemoration in the nearby town of Bhima Koregaon, which celebrated the military defeat of the notorious casteist Peshwa rulers on January 1, 1818 at the hands of the British. Ambedkar himself had visited Bhima Koregaon in 1927, celebrating the Dalits (those formerly known as the “untouchable” castes) who had joined the British Army to fight their caste oppressors. It later became an annual tradition for Ambedkarites to congregate in Bhima Koregaon on January 1 to keep the memory of the battle alive. This tradition never sat well with Hindu nationalists, suggesting, as it did, that caste divides can be more keenly felt than national ones, thus further eroding the myth of Hindu unity. Golwalkar himself had registered his dissatisfaction with Ambedkar’s reading of this historical event. Continuing Ambedkar’s rhetorical thrust, the Elgar Parishad cast the BJP-RSS combine as the new Peshwas, elites whose interests were directly opposed to the oppressed castes and classes.

On December 29 — before the Elgar Parishad event and the Bhima Koregaon celebrations — a group of Hindu nationalists desecrated a shrine near Bhima Koregaon that was held sacred by Dalits. Then, on January 1, groups allegedly tied to the Hindutva leaders Sambhaji Bhide and Milind Ekbote, and clearly following in Golwalkar’s footsteps, attacked Dalits on their way to the Bhima Koregaon celebrations. In response, Dalit groups organized massive protests throughout Maharashtra, culminating in a one-day strike that shut down much of the state capital Mumbai, also India’s financial capital. The backlash was immediate and brutal; police combed Dalit neighborhoods and arrested hundreds of youth with little evidence.

This turned out to be just the beginning of the state response. As Modi’s first term as prime minister reached its final year, and the country began to look toward the 2019 elections, a wild conspiracy began to circulate — that the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist) was plotting to assassinate Modi, and that the Elgar Parishad was somehow a front for related Maoist organizing. In June 2018, the Pune Police arrested five activists in relation to the alleged plot. Letters supposedly substantiating this claim were leaked to the press, which created a frenzy.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrives to address the United Nations General Assembly on September 27, 2019 in New York City. (Drew Angerer / Getty Images)

Arrests related to this case have kept on piling up, even during the height of the pandemic; they now total sixteen. Several of those arrested were elderly citizens with serious medical conditions, and they were repeatedly denied bail even as COVID-19 tore through Indian prisons. (Finally, in late February, an eighty-one-year-old defendant, the poet Varavara Rao, was granted six months bail on medical grounds.) Meanwhile, the Hindutva leaders accused of instigating the initial violence got off lightly: Bhide faced no charges at all, and Ekbote was briefly imprisoned but quickly released on bail.

A close look at the profiles of those arrested makes clear that the overall case had little to do with the Elgar Parishad event or even the Bhima Koregaon violence. Only a few of those arrested were even present at Elgar Parishad. Rather, the Bhima Koregaon case was used as a pretext to arrest those who had long been a thorn in the side of the state, or in some cases, to return to prison those who had been acquitted of previous charges thanks to a lack of evidence against them.

Indeed, many of those accused have spent their careers fighting the unjust, repressive nature of the very laws that were used to bring charges against them.

Father Stan Swamy has spent decades detailing the ways the state indiscriminately arrests Adivasi (indigenous) youth. Another codefendant, Surendra Gadling, a Dalit lawyer, started his career defending those arrested under the “Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act” (UAPA) and other draconian laws; after the Bhima Koregaon violence, he spent his days defending the Dalit youth who were picked up by the police in their heavy-handed sweeps. Now he himself has been charged under the UAPA.

As they languish in jail, the case against them — always shaky — has become even flimsier. In early February, a report conducted by the Massachusetts-based digital forensics firm Arsenal Consulting exposed the evidence on which this case hinged as unreliable. Conducting a forensic examination of the hard disk of Rona Wilson, one of the defendants in the case, Arsenal Consulting found that Wilson’s laptop had been infected with malware that allowed a hacker remote access to his laptop. It even showed exactly when incriminating documents — including one referring to the assassination plot — had been planted on Wilson’s laptop. A recent article in the Washington Post notes that several outside experts have confirmed the validity of this report. Arsenal Consulting’s president, Mark Spencer, said that this was “one of the most serious cases involving evidence tampering that Arsenal has ever encountered,” especially since Wilson’s computer was compromised for roughly twenty-two months, giving the hacker ample time to deliver incriminating documents and cover their tracks. As the colleague of one of the codefendants noted in a recent press conference, it is clear now that the conspiracy is not to assassinate Modi but rather to frame the accused.

Continuing the Logic of Colonialism and of Congress

The use of draconian laws to target lawyers, poets, professors, and others as “Maoists” is not an exclusively BJP phenomenon. Rather, the BJP is making use of a set of legal instruments that were bequeathed to it by its predecessors in power: the Congress Party, whose decades-long hegemony the BJP decisively ended in 2014.

Congress was the party of Gandhi and spearheaded the movement for independence; however, once it became the governing party of independent India, it was happy to keep in place repressive policing structures initiated during British rule. Despite the mass base that Gandhi had helped to build, Congress was controlled by a coalition of urban and rural elite; in the run-up to independence, Ambedkar repeatedly characterized Congress as a party of Brahmins (the priestly caste but also dominant in national politics, media, and academia) and Banias (traditionally the trading caste from which many major industrialists emerged). After independence, there was little incentive for these groups to dismantle mechanisms of maintaining their power.

Just as the Black Lives Matter movement has turned attention to the origins of US policing in slave patrols, civil rights activists in India have brought attention to the fact that policing in India, even today, is governed by the Police Act of 1861, put in place by the British colonial government to sharpen coercive power in the aftermath of the 1857 uprising against their rule. The Constitution of India guarantees freedom of expression, assembly, and association, but in early decades of Congress rule, these freedoms began to be eroded, first through amendments and then through the original UAPA, passed in 1967, which sought to ban groups advocating secession from India. Since then, it has been amended several times by both BJP and Congress governments, its focus shifting from secession to “terrorism,” extremely broadly defined.

Congress governments did not hesitate to use these laws against activists, often in red-baiting ways. Indeed, in 2010, the Congress prime minster, Manmohan Singh, called Maoism the “biggest threat” to India’s “internal security” (strikingly echoing the words J. Edgar Hoover used to denounce the Black Panthers). Several of those arrested in the Bhima Koregaon case had previously been targeted by Congress governments. And the scholar Anand Teltumbde — one of those arrested in the Bhima Koregaon case — has, in his previous work, shown how the specter of Maoism has been invoked to tar those who have brought attention to atrocities against Dalits.

Replicating the Model

If the BJP did not pioneer the use of UAPA and other draconian laws, it has certainly perfected their application to bolster the party’s Hindu nationalist ideology. This became clear early on in the BJP’s second term, after its overwhelming victory in the 2019 elections. Buoyed by its electoral success, the party passed controversial, discriminatory new citizenship laws, which allowed fast-track citizenship for persecuted Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi, and Christian — but pointedly not Muslim — refugees. Protests erupted across the country, including in the national capital of Delhi, with protesters noting that the BJP would use these laws against Muslims to make them, in Golwalkar’s own words, “wholly subordinated to the Hindu nation, claiming nothing . . . not even citizen’s rights.” Striking back against the protests, the BJP used what sociologist Nandini Sundar called the “Bhima Koregaon model” for crushing dissent.

According to this model, when violence breaks out — as it did in Delhi, where Muslim neighborhoods bore the brunt of the attacks — blame is immediately shifted to a vague conspiracy of Maoists, students, and anti-national Muslims. Like in Bhima Koregaon, cases are filed and proliferate in what one analysis called “blank checks, to be encashed by the police” at any time. Again, the state uses this as an opportunity to target those who have long been irritants to them — in this case, Muslim and feminist student organizers, among others. And because draconian laws like UAPA are invoked, those arrested rarely get bail, no matter how flimsy the evidence against them. Merely being charged is punishment enough; the state knows this and cashes its checks accordingly.

Thus, it was no surprise that the BJP recently tried to impose the same model when faced with massive protests against the passage of three neoliberal agricultural laws. The BJP has taken over Congress’s former role as the party of Brahmans and Banias, and — in the words of the anti-caste scholar and activist Kancha Ilaiah — the newly passed farm laws are meant to enrich the latter, at the expense of Shudras (the caste traditionally responsible for agricultural work in India). The BJP, of course, denies these caste cleavages and seeks to portray the protesters as “anti-national.” Since many of the protesting farmers are Sikh, the BJP has tried to paint the entire protest as unpatriotic, instigated by “outside agitators” whose end goal is to establish Khalistan, or a separate Sikh homeland. (Maoists, always an easy target, are also blamed.)

During a huge protest rally in Delhi on India’s Republic Day, January 26, there were clashes between protesters and the police, and some protesters found their way to Red Fort, a symbol of state power, where someone in the crowd hoisted a Sikh flag. Farm leaders — and many opposition politicians — are convinced that the BJP encouraged, and perhaps even orchestrated, the clashes and the hoisting of the flag, so that they could then paint the clashes as “anti-national.” The BJP, of course, denies such claims.

In any case, it is clear that the government is trying to apply the “Bhima Koregaon” model. This was seen, most egregiously, in the arrest of a young climate activist named Disha Ravi, who had made minor edits to an online tool kit used to garner national and international support for the farmers’ protests. After Greta Thunberg tweeted a link to this tool kit, BJP leaders began to paint it as some kind of nefarious international conspiracy to defame India — despite the fact that such online organizing tools are used routinely by a wide range of civil society organizations, as well as by the BJP itself.

After facing fierce attacks on social media, Ravi was whisked away from her home in Bengaluru in southern India and put in police custody in Delhi. Unlike in other cases, however, she was quickly granted bail, the judge recognizing the absurdity of the charges against her. A recent analysis by Naomi Klein points to the hypocrisy of the BJP’s accusations, as well as the disturbing complicity of Big Tech in Ravi’s arrest — the police have openly boasted about getting Google’s support in this case.

Similarly, last month a Dalit labor activist, Nodeep Kaur, was granted bail after having been targeted by police for her success in rallying worker support for the farmers’ protests. Though her bail counts as a small victory it is overshadowed by the violence, sexual assault, and casteist abuse she faced while detained. Hundreds of protesting farmers, too, have been arrested.

Resisting the Model

And yet the protests continue. Unlike those against the citizenship laws, which the government crushed, partially through arrests, partially through the guise of COVID-19 safety, the farmers’ protests have continued to grow, now stretching on for well over a hundred days. The government has found itself unable to change the narrative to its preferred framing of “outside agitators” versus loyal (Hindu) citizens.

In part, this may be due to the nature of the issue: agriculture remains the largest employer in India, and there is a widespread understanding that the farm laws will hurt both landowning farmers and agricultural laborers, cutting away their already-dwindling livelihoods for the benefit of large corporate interests. As a result, the protests have found broad cross-class and cross-caste support. Further, agricultural leaders with mass followings, like Rakesh Tikait, have taken on increasingly prominent roles in the movement, helping to swell its ranks. The sheer enormity of the protests across several states and its popularity, even with many who had previously supported the BJP, make it more difficult for the state to crush.

This is not to say that the state’s repressive tactics have lost their edge, or their ability to inflict pain. The nature of laws like the UAPA makes it easy for the state to punish protesters, who get trapped in an endless present of bail hearings, court orders, defeats, and appeals.

Even more disturbing, the cases that make national and international news are just the tip of the iceberg; they represent arrests that, for various reasons, have caught the eye of a well-connected civil society. But as those caught up in the Bhima Koregaon case have shown through their own research and advocacy, thousands upon thousands of people — disproportionately marginalized Dalits and Adivasis — are locked up on questionable grounds. As Anand Teltumbde has noted, “the enmity of the state” toward those it brands as Maoists “is merely an expression of its age-old caste hatred for the subordinated.”

And yet despite the terrifying strength of the state and its punitive apparatus, there is something surprisingly brittle — and so fragile — about the BJP’s Hindutva vision. It constantly boasts about the strength and unity of a millennia-old civilization, and yet seems shaken by the innocuous tweet of a teenage climate change activist in Sweden. Ambedkar’s polemical 1936 statement, “Hindu society as such does not exist,” still rings true.