Pete Souza

World News


Narendra Modi: Successful Fascist or Leader of the World’s Largest Democracy?

Both, actually. That’s a duality that the United States is prepared to accormodate as it looks to a revitalized India as a strategic asset if not an outright ally in its crusade to counter “Rising China.” And it drives US government efforts to shield Modi from the consequences of his alleged involvement in the 2002 fascist pogrom in Gujarat. The US State Department has declared that Narendra Modi, as India’s head of state, receives sovereign immunity from US lawsuits, even if they allege human rights violations he committed as an individual while Chief Minister of Gujarat.

Attorneys for the victims beg to differ, and a US Superior Court has charged the State Department to respond to their objections by December 10. For over a decade, Modi’s detractors have been attempting to force the spotlight on the fascist elements of his ideology and politics, and have failed to exact any meaningful political cost as he has risen to the position of ultimate power in India. Will his critics succeed in bringing him to book this time? Don’t count on it. The first indication that Narendra Modi is something more than the proud steward of “the world’s largest democracy” is embodied in the term “pracharak.” As helpfully glossed by the Indian Express:

Pracharaks are Sangh [“Organization”–ed.] wholetimers who leave their families, often stay unmarried and lead detached lives devoted to the organisation. When deputed to BJP or other RSS affiliates, they are called Sangathan Mantris (Organisation Secretaries); in BJP units, they are usually designated General Secretary (Organisation). The Sangh has over a hundred affiliated organisations, but most Pracharaks working in the BJP are either from the RSS or ABVP.

Narendra Modi began his political career and spent twenty years in the BJP as a pracharak, a “spreader of the doctrine” in other words an organizer and apparatchik for the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the Hindu nationalist social movement known as the RSS.

Pracharaks are expected to devote their lives to the cause of Hindu nationalism and, among other things, remain celibate.

Modi is “single” with airquotes or married* with an asterisk; as a young man he abandoned his wife to embark on a career as an RSS organizer, a state of affairs he deemed necessary to acknowledge only forty years later as he stood on the cusp of becoming prime minister, and the fact that he had habitually filled in his marital status on electoral documents with an equivocal dash could no longer be ignored. Palash Ghosh of the International Business Daily performed a signal service with his article on the historical roots of the RSS, which I will quote at length:

The RSS was founded in 1925 by Keshav Baliram Hedgewar, a doctor from the central Indian town of Nagpur in Maharashtra, who agitated for both independence from the British crown and the strict segregation of Hindus and Muslims.

What may surprise many in the West is that some of the most prominent figures of RSS deeply admired Fascism and Nazism, the two totalitarian movements that swept through Europe at the time.

As such, RSS was outlawed by the British (and was even periodically banned by the Indian government after independence). Indeed, Naturam Godse, the man who assassinated Gandhi in 1948, was himself a former RSS member who felt that the Mahatma made too many generous concessions to the Muslims.

In the decades prior to that momentous event, senior RSS members had direct links to both Benito Mussolini in Italy and Adolf Hitler in Germany. Part of the RSS’ fascination with these totalitarian regimes was their shared opposition to the British Empire — however, it went far beyond that. The RSS (as well as multitudes of other Hindu nationalists) admired the way Mussolini and Hitler reorganized their respective nations so quickly from the wreckage of war to build a powerful economy and military under the banner of patriotism and nationalism.

“There are only two courses open to the foreign elements, either to merge themselves in the national race and adopt its culture, or to live at its mercy so long as the national race may allow them to do so and to quit the country at the sweet will of the national race,” wrote [RSS founder Golwalkar—ed].

“That is the only sound view on the minorities problem. That is the only logical and correct solution. That alone keeps the national life healthy and undisturbed…The foreign races in Hindustan must either adopt the Hindu culture and language, must learn to respect and hold in reverence Hindu religion, must entertain no idea but those of the glorification of the Hindu race and culture, i.e., of the Hindu nation and must lose their separate existence to merge in the Hindu race, or may stay in the country, wholly subordinated to the Hindu Nation, claiming nothing, deserving no privileges, far less any preferential treatment not even citizen’s rights.”

If one were to replace “Hindu” with “German,” Golwalkar’s words would match Hitler’s rhetoric almost exactly.

The RSS doctrine is Hindutva, literally “Hindu-ness,” the idea that the preservation and advancement of Hindu identity is key to India’s revival. Like the Deoband and Barelvi schools of Islam, the RSS emerged as an Indian self-strengthening movement resisting the imposition of British rule and values during the colonial period. Rejection of the Muslim contribution to Indian civilization (made as a result of Moghul conquest and rule that the British eerily recapitulated) was also integral to RSS identity politics. So, after the British were gone, RSS was still around, excoriating Muslims as an alien cancer and repudiating the Congress Party’s secularism as an attempt to institutionalize Muslim privilege at the expense of Hindu interests. In fact, “secularism” and its legal expression, “constitutionalism,” especially as they enable the myriad government setasides for both Muslims and so-called Other Backward Caste Hindus, are derogatory epithets in the RSS catechism.

The political affiliate of the RSS is the Bharatiya Janata Party or BJP, Modi’s current outfit. He’s been advancing the RSS electoral agenda since he was seconded to the BJP some forty years ago. Concerning Modi’s political agenda, one of Modi’s many critics in the “left” “secular” Congress-leaning media wrote:

For Modi, as RSS pracharak, history is an act of cleansing, and ethnic cleansing is merely a way of restoring what the fascist regards as normative and normal. For Modi, the old pracharak, Muslims were “dirt.” They were an irritating reminder to the Hindu majority that minorities still defined the polity. Like many Hindus, Modi actually believed that electoral democracy makes a majority feel deprived, guilty about the way it feels about minorities. Such a majoritarianism feels that too much attention and privilege is paid to Muslim minorities. For such a group, democracy becomes a source of stress. What is worse, secular arrogance makes such a majority feel guilty and embarrassed. Modi understood these majoritarian sentiments, shared them and harnessed them. He created legitimacy for communalism. He used communalism as a vector to return to electoral power.

In one of those headscratchers for advocates of bourgeois democracy, the BJP found its road to electoral success paved with orchestrated anti-Muslim violence, starting with the destruction of a mosque in the city of Ayodha, in northeastern India. Hindu nationalists claimed, on historically rather dubious grounds, that the mosque indecently occupied the site of the birthplace of the God-King Rama, and had engineered provocations at the mosque since the 1940s. In the 1980s, the RSS, BJP, and another RSS affiliate, the VHP (Vishwa Hindu Parishad, an organization devoted to “defense of Hinduism” and, in particular, reconversion of Hindus, particularly untouchables, who were converting to Islam and Christianity at a rate deemed alarming), turned the Ayodha mosque issue into a rallying cry commanding the attention of activist Hindus, known as “kar sevaks” or volunteers.

On December 6, 1992, 150,000 Hindus convened by the three organizations rallied before the mosque. After some incendiary rhetoric, kar sevaks tore the building down, sparking communal violence which claimed 2000 lives across the country. Afterwards, persuasive evidence was presented that the storming of the temple was not a spontaneous exercise in Hindu extremism, but had been carefully planned over a period of ten months by RSS and its affiliates. The Hindu electorate was energized, not repelled by the BJP’s association with this extremist agenda, and delivered big gains to the party in the subsequent Lok Sabha (lower house) national elections for India’s parliament, which signaled the emergence of the BJP as a viable national force after decades of Congress Party dominance.

Modi was a key player in the BJP’s rise to prominence at the regional and, subsequently, the national level. While deeply invested in the Hindutva/RSS worldview, he is also reportedly a politician of unparalleled skill and ruthlessness who believes that he knows what’s best for the RSS as well as the BJP. Modi eventually won three consecutive terms as Chief Minister of Gujarat, a province on India’s west coast abutting Pakistan with a Muslim minority of about 10%. Modi concentrated power in his hands by personally taking on most of the key government portfolios, and by purging his RSS rivals. Modi allegedly sidelined his chief opponent, the RSS pracharak Sanjay Joshay, with a sex tape that torpedoed Joshay’s reputation for probity and celibacy—and was later dismissed as a forgery.

As Chief Minister of Gujarat, Modi presided over the next crank of the BJP’s anti-Muslim meatgrinder, the notorious pogrom of 2002. Ayodha was once again the trigger.

A Muslim mob attacked a train carrying 2000 Gujarati kar sevaks returning from the conduct of a Hindu ritual at Ayodha on February 27, 2002. Somehow the train caught fire near a town called Godhra and 59 people burned to death, most of them women and children. In an exercise of Indian muddy-watering disguised as justice that will become increasingly familiar as Modi’s career advances, two governmental commissions, one convened under the BJP and one under its rival, delivered diametrically opposite conclusions ( “Muslim arson” according the BJP side; accidental overturning of a cookstove on the train according to the anti-BJP side.)

Communal violence predictably erupted across Gujarat, with a death toll of nearly 1000, primarily Muslims, over three days with the usual grim litany of horrors: beating, raping, mutilation, burning, and hacking . However, Westerners who get their ideas of Indian politics from Danny Boyle movies may be surprised to learn that this was not simply a case of bigoted Hindu lumpen massacring their Muslim opposite numbers. Violence was reportedly directed by RSS-affiliated activists dressed in the movement’s trademark khaki shorts and saffron tops. More disturbingly, they had voter rolls to assist them in identifying Muslims for attack. And attacks were not just directed against conspicuously Muslim individuals and institutions. Muslim-owned establishments, even those bearing non-Muslim or Indian names and catering largely to Hindus (like the “Tasty Bakery”), were targeted. From a contemporary account by the Indian outlet, Rediff:

The manner in which people, irrespective of economic status, were targeted has raised suspicions about the possible misuse of electoral rolls to identify them.

Similarly, according to the victims, licences and other relevant papers from the civic bodies were used to target hotels and other business establishments owned by them.

“All my five hotels, including Renbasera, which is meant for poor people, were attacked,” one businessman said.

According to some people, in previous riots attempts were made to oust them from colonies like Meghaninagar. “They succeeded to a large extent during the 1985 violence, yet the posh Gulmohor Society was ours. Now, that’s also gone,” said one.

Many people alleged that the voters’ list was virtually used as a killing tool by frenzied mobs. “They hardly failed to lay hands on their targets, thanks to documents like the voters’ list,” a senior police officer admitted on condition of anonymity. “The mission was accomplished with clinical precision.”

“The voters’ list certainly made their task easier and the motivated mob knew exactly who stayed where,” a woman at the Sanklitpur relief camp in Juhapura said.

Even business establishments run by Muslims in partnership with Hindus were not spared. “The message for Hindus friendly with Muslims was clear — do not do business with them,” said Ibbal Tadah, an insurance surveyor in Juhapura area.

Then there is the suspicion of state connivance, as alleged by the Congress and other opposition parties, reflected in the traffic police virtually staying away from the roads on February 28.

Similarly, the fire brigade was hardly in action when Ahmedabad was burning. In many places, shrines were razed and houses burnt at locations hardly a stone’s throw away from police stations.

Meanwhile, with each successive riot, there has been a definite pattern in the relocation of population. “Each Hindu pocket is becoming more concentrated with its own people, while the story is the same for Muslim-dominated locations,” a police officer said.

A report by an Indian Editors Guild factfinding mission pointed out rioters were also able to enter otherwise secure government areas and torch Muslim property records:

The Old Secretariat is a protected area. Yet the Gujarat State Wakf Board [which oversees religious and charitable foundations endowed by Muslim philanthropists—ed.], located just below the Directorate of Information, and the Gujarat Minorities Finance and Development Corporation housed in the Block opposite, both Government offices, were attacked and torched by a mob during office hours on February 28…No arrests had been made until April 2, the day of our visit. Records pertaining to dargahs, mosques, madrassas and kabristans were lost in the fire.

Over 100,000 Muslims fled to refugee camps, which Modi refused to support since doing so, according to him, would serve as acknowledgment of government responsibility for the riots. The riots fit into an effort to marginalize Muslims in the province’s political and economic life. A few months after the riots, an observer wrote:

This time around, it was cosmopolitan Muslims, including judges and professors, who preferred to live with the rest on Main Street, out there in the “mainstream,” that were particularly vulnerable. A liberal, forward looking Muslim spoke feelingly to the Editors Guild team. He said he had fought the orthodoxy and had spent years exhorting members of his community to take to modern education, compete for opportunity and stake their future on the assertion of their civic rights. And now his world had crumbled, hopefully only temporarily. Now when he went to the ghetto what he heard was, “if only Latif [a local mafia figure often invoked by the BJP as a “bad Muslim” bugbear –ed.]had been around, this would not have happened.”

In 2014, Reuters’ John Chalmers and Frank Jack Daniel reported from Juhapura, a Muslim ghetto in Ahmedabad:

Separation of communities is common across India. Nowhere is it as systematised as it has become in Gujarat.

Husain is one of roughly 400,000 people living in Juhapura, a teeming Muslim township within Ahmedabad, Gujarat’s largest city. Many of them moved there after the 2002 riots. Local Hindus jokingly refer to it as “Little Pakistan.”

Memories of the 2002 rioting have not faded for the many residents of Juhapura who lost relatives, homes and businesses. And its legacy has been increasing segregation.

In particular, a property law unique to Gujarat has perpetuated segregation, creating ghettos such as Juhapura and a sense of apartheid in some urban areas.

The “Disturbed Areas Act,” a law that restricts Muslims and Hindus from selling property to each other in “sensitive” areas, was introduced in 1991 to avert an exodus or distress sales in neighbourhoods hit by inter-religious unrest.

Modi’s government amended the law in 2009 to give local officials greater power to decide on property sales. It also extended the reach of the law, most recently in 2013 – 11 years after the last major religious riots.

The state government says the law is meant to protect Muslims, who account for just under 10 percent of the state’s 60 million people. “It prevents ethnic cleansing and people being forced out,” a senior government official who requested anonymity told Reuters.

Critics say the act’s continued enforcement and the addition of new districts covered by it – about 40 percent of Ahmedabad is now governed by the law – means it is effectively being applied as a tool of social engineering.

The Indian Express newspaper said in a recent editorial: “More Muslims and Hindus have moved into separate spaces in Gujarat, finding trust and assurance only among neighbours of their own community, and it has ended up entrenching segregation and shutting Muslims out of the mainstream.”

Indeed, those taking note of the heightened ties between India and Israel after Modi’s elevation to Prime Minister will find something to ponder in the politics of communal exclusion in Gujarat. Government preplanning of the 2002 pogrom has been alleged; prompt planning and coordination of the pogrom by RSS affiliates after the Godhra train outrage is an acknowledged fact:

In a startling revelation, Professor Keshavram Kashiram Shastri, 96-year-old chairman of the Gujarat unit of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, told that the list of shops owned by Muslims in Ahmedabad was prepared on the morning of February 28 itself. A scholar of the Mahabharat and a highly respected literary figure of Gujarat, Shastri said in a tape-recorded interview, “In the morning we sat down and prepared the list. We were not prepared in advance.”

Clearly, the RSS affiliates in Gujarat regarded the Godhra tragedy as an indication of Muslim criminality and, perhaps worse, presumption that must, as matters of Hindu supremacy, justice, policy, and political calculation, receive immediate, unrestrained, maximal, and conspicuous punishment. As to Modi, for whom membership in the RSS family was a matter of intense personal as well as political identity, his role in the Gujarat pogrom has been a subject of considerable scrutiny and legal gyrations over the last decade, complete with allegations of collusion, coverup, evidence destruction, and witness intimidation, which gave the US sufficient grounds to deny him a diplomatic visa (and revoke his tourist and business visas) in 2005.

(Awaaz Network)
(Awaaz Network)

In 2007, an Indian media outlet, Tehelka, covertly recorded interviews with several participants in the 2002 pogrom. One mob leader described Modi’s fury at the deaths of the kar sevak activists at Godhra:

In Godhra, he gave a very strong statement…He was in a rage…He’s been with the Sangh from childhood…His anger was such…he didn’t come out into the open then but the police machinery was turned totally ineffective…

Another mob leader stated that Modi gave him three days to conduct the pogrom before the army came in and restored order:

TEHELKA: What was Narendra Modi’s reaction when the Godhra incident happened?

Haresh Bhatt: I can’t tell you this…but I can say it was favorable…because of the understanding we shared at that time…

TEHELKA: Tell me something…Did he…

Bhatt: I can’t give a statement…But what he did, no chief minister has ever done…

TEHELKA: I won’t quote it anywhere…For that matter…I am not even going to quote you

Bhatt: He had given us three days…to do whatever we could. He said he would not give us time after that…He said this openly…After three days, he asked us to stop and everything came to a halt…

TEHELKA: It stopped after three days…Even the army was called in.

Bhatt: All the forces came… We had three days…and did what we had to in those three days…

One of the worst massacres occurred at the Gulburg Society, a primarily Muslim housing estate in a Hindu section of Ahmedabad. Almost 200 Muslims sought shelter inside the house of Ehsan Jaffri, a Muslim and ex-member of Parliament. The mob started to gather at 10:30 am, stormed the compound at 11:30 am, then engaged in five hours of butchery and rape that included slashing Jaffri, dousing him with kerosene, and burning him alive. No police appeared. At least sixty nine people died. In 2009, a witness testified at an inquiry that Jaffri had desperately tried to phone Modi and other Gujarat politicians during the siege.

Sandhi (48) said she was standing near Jaffery in his house, while he was making frantic calls to officials and senior politicians like Advani, Modi, Chaudhary and Sheikh, seeking protection. Two key witnesses — Imtiyaz Pathan and Rupa Mody –had also testified before the court that Jaffery called Modi and other senior officials for help.

Jaffri’s widow subsequently demanded phone records for some of Modi’s aides, alleging they had visited the district with him the day before to coordinate the attack. Despite these apparent smoking or smoky guns–and thanks to a solid phalanx of political, media, and legal defenders–nobody was able to lay a glove on Modi as an initiator and enabler of the pogrom. Modi urged everybody, Muslims included, to “move on” after the riots, and calculatedly made a name for himself as a business-friendly technocrat, not a wild-eyed ultranationalist.

By most accounts, Muslims in Gujarat now “know their place“; they are thoroughly cowed by memories of the massacre and the BJP’s conspicuous local and national political success and are, for the time being at least, resigned to their subordinate status in the state. As the Congress Party floundered, Modi clearly became the electoral man of the hour, and India and the world were both eager to forget the murderous ugliness that had marked his tenure in Gujarat. Modi’s riot-related difficulties apparently ended with his receipt of a “clean chit” of exoneration from a governmental commission in 2012. The composition and probity of the commission were of course questioned by Modi’s opponents; judging from descriptions of the commission’s report, which included generous conclusions like this, they have a point:

[As to the allegation that] Mr. Modi had told the police during the riots to allow the Hindus to vent their anger over the massacre of 56 kar sevaks in the Godhra train burning incident…[The report says] “[E]ven if such allegations are believed for the sake of argument, mere statement of alleged words in the four walls of a room does not constitute any offense.”

With Modi poised to become Prime Minister in 2014 James Mann delivered the requisite whitewash in the Wall Street Journal on behalf of the Western world, ascribing the visa ban to inexplicable application of some weird religious freedom statute.

Well-intentioned U.S. policies sometimes work out in absurd ways, but this is hard to top: In a few weeks, India, the world’s largest democracy, will probably elect as its next prime minister a politician who for nearly a decade has been prohibited from setting foot on U.S. soil…The State Department invoked a little-known U.S. law passed in 1998 that makes foreign officials responsible for “severe violations of religious freedom” ineligible for visas. Mr. Modi is the only person ever denied a visa to the U.S. under this provision, U.S. officials confirm.

The most revealing perspectives on Modi, both in 2002 and today, are supplied by three Indian journalists, admittedly of the “secularist/constitutionalist/pro-Congress” bent, who had visited Gujarat shortly after the riots as representatives of the Editors Guild in May 2002 to investigate the role of the media in fanning communal hatred. Their report describes an atmosphere of brutality, intimidation, and impunity, presided over by Mr. Modi, who blithely tap-danced away from culpability thanks to the loyal savagery of the RSS/BJP/VHP apparatus.

On the issue of incitement—Modi had first deemed the train fire a terrorist attack orchestrated by Pakistan, then allegedly explained away the subsequent violence as “Newtonian action/reaction”—there was apparently an awkward moment:

Responding to queries regarding various statements attributed to him by the media, Mr. Modi denied citing Newton’s law. Nor had he spoken of “action-reaction”; he had wanted neither the action (at Godhra) nor the subsequent reaction. When we cited footage in Zee to the contrary (Annexure 4A), there was no reaction from Mr. Modi.

None of the three authors, Aakar Patel, Dileep Padgaonkar, or B.G. Verghese are, it is safe to say, fans of Mr. Modi. Shortly after the visit, Verghese wrote:

The rest of the country witnessed a storm of anger and protest against what was widely seen as a planned genocide in furtherance of the Parivar’s [umbrella term for the constellation of Hindu nationalists organizations with the RSS at its center–ed.] warped agenda. This was spearheaded by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and other front organisations and orchestrated by the BJP chief minister, Narendra Modi…

As the evidence piled up—and was ignored by Indian voters–some of the Indian media elite reacted to Modi’s rise to ultimate power with disbelieving horror. The second author of the Editors Guild report, Dileep Padgaonkar, a stalwart of the liberal secular order who edited the Times of India for a stretch, delivered a half-amusing half-disconcerting, and totally desperate mea culpa cum beat-sweetener on the occasion of Modi’s elevation in 2014. In “A Missive to Distraught Liberals” addressed to the “Sentinels of the Republic,” Padgaonkar wrote:

We goofed. Every assumption we made during the election campaign has been savaged…We missed no chance to harp on Modi’s RSS background. Time and again we raked up the 2002 violence in Gujarat. We pooh-poohed the ‘clean chit’ the Supreme Court-appointed Special Investigation Team and a lower court in Ahmedabad had given Modi. We picked gaping holes in his much-vaunted development model…On all these counts, we came a cropper.

So why did we lose the plot? The plain answer is that we misread the nation’s mood…

An equally miserable failure of ours was to underestimate the spell Modi cast on the electorate…He also tapped into voters’ yearning for a leader endowed with the will and aptitude to bring prosperity to the people, ensure clean and effective governance, provide security and instil national pride in citizens.

To reassure observers who might worry that there are limits to abject, self-destructive groveling, Padgaonkar promised to internalize the lessons of his defeat:

What we need is to acknowledge the flaws in our idea of secularism. Correctly or otherwise, it has been perceived as a hostile attitude to even the most uplifting traditions of India’s myriad religious and spiritual traditions. And, by that token, it has been equated with an indulgent attitude to Muslim extremism. A course correction is in order.

In contrast to this demoralized liberal rout, the third author, Aakar Patel, a Gujarati, offered Rediff a clear-eyed appraisal of Modi:

I think he is the most talented politician of our time. A brilliant public speaker, charismatic, very hardworking, uninterested in most things outside politics and government.

He is neither well-read nor well-travelled and as a writer is not particularly interesting. He is also a published poet.

You had mentioned how as chief minister, he held most of the key portfolios? Is it because he wants absolute power or is it insecurity?

Both. For over a decade (till he became the BJP’s PM nominee), he has held most of the top portfolios.

In 2006, he was personally Gujarat’s minister for finance, home, industries, energy, administration, mines and minerals, ports, petrochemicals and any other important ministry you can think of.
He doesn’t think anyone else has his brilliance or integrity. And he cannot bear to stand a rival.

Or is it because he genuinely believes that when power is concentrated in one person, the government functions better?

He also believes in this principle — so long as he is the man with power.

Do you see him redefining his relationship with India’s Muslims if he did come to power?

He has the atavistic RSS attitude to South Asian Muslims as traitors (Indian Muslims) and enemies (Pakistanis). He cannot shake this off because he is a man of little education and strong convictions.

What is his relationship with the pillars of democracy? The legislature? The executive? The media?

He has contempt for the legislature in Gujarat and here his record is pretty clear. He is a demagogue in the classical sense and is democratic to that extent.

He doesn’t understand the democratic idea of minority rights or of legitimacy.

So far as the media goes, he doesn’t think he needs it and because of its attention, he can reach his audience over the head of the media, which is something he has done successfully for the last 12 years.

The optimistic scenario for Modi’s rule of India is that he will devote the bulk of his attention and energies to pursuing India’s Hindu renaissance through rehabilitation of its rickety economy and foreign policy. The pessimistic scenario is that Modi, either frustrated by his failures or emboldened by his successes, will turn on the institutions and minorities he sees as the final barriers to the implementation of his Hindutva fascist vision.