[News] India - Religious Nationalism, Dissent, and the Battle Between Myth and History

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Wed Apr 27 16:20:22 EDT 2022


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Arundhati Roy on Religious Nationalism, Dissent, and the Battle Between
Myth and History
By Arundhati Roy April 21, 2022
------------------------------

*This lecture was delivered by Arundhati Roy, author of the recently
published *Azadi: Fascism, Fiction, and Freedom in the Time of the Virus
<https://www.haymarketbooks.org/books/1876-azadi>* (Haymarket Books), at
the University of Texas at Austin on April 19.*

*

Good afternoon, and thank you for inviting me to deliver the Sissy
Farenthold lecture. Before I begin, I would like to say a few words about
the war in Ukraine. I unequivocally condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine
and applaud the Ukrainian peoples’ courageous resistance. I applaud the
courage shown by Russian dissenters at enormous cost to themselves.

I say this while being acutely and painfully aware of the hypocrisy of the
United States and Europe, which together have waged similar wars on other
countries in the world. Together they have led the nuclear race and have
stockpiled enough weapons to destroy our planet many times over. What an
irony it is that the very fact that they possess these weapons, now forces
them to helplessly watch as a country they consider to be an ally is
decimated—a country whose people and territory, whose very existence,
imperial powers have jeopardized with their war games and ceaseless quest
for domination.

And now, I turn to India. I dedicate this talk to the increasing numbers of
prisoners of conscience in India. I ask us to remember Professor G. N.
Saibaba, the scholars, activists, singers, and lawyers who are known as the
Bhima Koregaon 16, the activists jailed for protesting against the CAA
(Citizenship Amendment Act), and Khurram Parvez, who was arrested five
months ago in Kashmir. Khurram is one of the most remarkable people that I
know. He and the organization he works for, the Jammu Kashmir Coalition of
Civil Society (JKCCS), have for years meticulously documented the saga of
torture, enforced disappearances, and death visited upon the people of
Kashmir. So, what I say today is dedicated to all of them.

All dissent has been criminalized in India. Until recently, dissenters were
called anti-national. Now we are openly labelled intellectual terrorists.
The dreaded Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, under which people are
being held for years without trial, has been amended to accommodate the
current regime’s obsession with intellectual terrorism. We have all been
branded Maoists—the colloquial term for us is *Urban-Naxals*—or *jehadis*,
and have had targets drawn on our backs, making us fair game for mobs or
legal harassment.

It has only been a few days since I left New Delhi. In these few days
alone, the momentum of the events unfolding there makes it clear that we
have crossed some kind of threshold. We cannot return to the shores we once
recognized as our own.

In March 2022, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won an unprecedented second
term to govern India’s largest state, Uttar Pradesh. The UP elections are
usually read as the “semi-finals” for the general election expected in May
2024. The election campaign was marked by saffron-robed godmen openly
calling for mass killing and a social and economic boycott of the Muslim
community.
We are currently in that dangerous place where there is no set of facts or
histories that we can agree upon, or even argue with.

While the BJP’s victory in the elections appeared to be robust, on the
ground the contest was closer than the number of seats they won suggest.
The result seems to have generated in BJP workers and leaders a peculiar,
untenable mix of anxiety and over-confidence. Very soon after the election
results were announced, Hindus celebrated the festival of Ram Navami, which
coincided with Ramzan this year. To mark Ram Navami, violent Hindu mobs
armed with swords and staffs rampaged through as many as eleven cities. Led
by swamis and BJP activists, they entered Muslim settlements, dog-whistling
outside mosques, chanting obscene insults, openly calling for the rape and
impregnation of Muslim women and the *narsinghar*—genocide—of Muslim men.

Any response by Muslims has led to the bulldozing of their property by the
government or burning by mobs. Those arrested, almost all Muslims, are
accused of conspiracy and rioting, and will likely spend years in jail. One
of those charged was in jail on a different charge long before Ram Navami.
Another, Wasim Sheikh, accused of pelting stones at the Hindu procession,
is a double amputee and has no forearms. Their homes and shops were
bulldozed by the government. In some cities crazed TV anchors rode inside
the bulldozers.

Meanwhile, BJP leaders who openly provoked Hindu rioters in the run up to
the 2020 Delhi massacre were recently acquitted by the Delhi High Court,
which held that there is no criminality when provocative things are said
with a smile. Some of them are back on the streets of other cities, stoking
similar violence. Yet the young Muslim scholar Umar Khalid is in prison.
His speech about brotherhood, love and nonviolence upholding the Indian
Constitution and delivered during the anti-CAA protests, is, according to a
police charge-sheet, a smokescreen for a conspiracy that led to the 2020
Delhi massacre. Apparently, Muslims conspired to riot and kill themselves
during Donald Trump’s state visit in order to besmirch India’s good name.

Through all of this, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose own political
career was jump-started by the 2002 anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat when he
was chief minister, remains an inspirational figure. Often silent, but more
often leading the dog-whistling, he is the messiah of these mobs and their
holy men who, fed on a steady drip of spurious history delivered by
WhatsApp, portray themselves as *victims *of historic oppression and
genocide perpetrated by Muslims, which must be avenged here and now.

We are currently in that dangerous place where there is no set of facts or
histories that we can agree upon, or even argue with. The narratives do not
overlap or even intersect with each other. It’s myth versus history. The
myth is backed by state machinery, corporate money, and countless 24/7
television news channels. Its reach and power is unmatchable. The world has
been here before, and we know by now that when debate and argument end, a
war of attrition begins.

Imagine what it must be like to be marked for death or incarceration. As a
community, Muslims are already being ghettoized, ostracized, and socially
and economically boycotted. Muslims are routinely accused of Love Jehad
(conspiring to make Hindu women fall in love with them in order to increase
the Muslim population), Corona Jehad (conspiring to deliberately spread
Covid, a replay of how the Nazis accused the Jews of deliberately spreading
typhus), Job Jehad (conspiring to get jobs in the civil services and rule
over the Hindu population)—to say nothing of food jehad, dress jehad,
thought jehad, laughter jehad. (Munnawer Farooqui, a young Muslim comedian,
spent months in jail for a joke he never made but was accused of *planning*
to make.)

Any argument, any tiny misstep can get a Muslim lynched and the lynchers
garlanded, rewarded, and assured of a bright political future. Even the
most hard-bitten and cynical among us find ourselves whispering to each
other *are they still posturing, or* *has it begun? Is it organized or out
of control? Will it happen at scale?*

India as a country, as a modern nation-state, exists only and solely as a
social compact between a multitude of religions, languages, castes,
ethnicities, and sub-nationalities legally bound together by a
constitution. Every Indian citizen belongs, in one way or another, to a
minority. Our country is a social compact between its minorities. In the
process of trying to create a political majority, that social compact is
being undone by an artificially constructed “aggrieved Hindu majority” that
is being tutored to believe that they are the only deserving citizens, the
First People, of the putative Hindu Nation, a majority that defines itself
against the “anti-national other.” India is being undone.

Few of us who make up this nation of minorities can put forward a neat,
unblemished history of ourselves in which we are blameless victims of
aggression. Our histories intersect, interlock, and aggregate. Together
they make us who we are. Other than the over-arching hierarchy of caste,
class, religion, gender, and ethnicity, our society is hierarchical at a
molecular level. There is micro-colonialism, micro-exploitation,
micro-interdependence. Every thread of this tapestry is an epic that calls
for scholarship, study, argument, debate, reflection. But to isolate a
single thread from this weave and use it to call for mass rape? For
genocide? Is that something to be countenanced?

When the Indian subcontinent was partitioned and hundreds of independent
princely kingdoms were assimilated, some of them forcibly, into either
India or Pakistan, hundreds of thousands of people—Hindu, Muslim, and
Sikh—turned on each other. A million people were killed. Tens of millions
displaced. Any single story of individual or community catastrophe and
misfortune, however true it may be, is false when it is told in ways that
erase the other stories. A dangerous lie. To flatten a messy history, to
rob it of nuance, to weaponize it, will have dire consequences.

All of us in the subcontinent have the choice of either working toward a
shared notion of justice, toward exorcising the pain and hate that gnaws
away at our collective memory, or enhancing it. The Indian prime minister,
the political party which he heads, and its mothership, the Rashtriya
Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)—the fascist organization of which he is a
member—have chosen to enhance it. They are calling up something deeply
wicked from the bowels of our blood-soaked earth. The fire they have lit
will not burn along a designated path. It may well burn the country down.
The blaze has begun. Alongside the Muslims of India and Kashmir,
Christians, too, are on the frontline of their assault. In this last year
alone, there have been hundreds of attacks on churches, statues of Christ
have been desecrated, priests and nuns physically assaulted.

We’re on our own. No help will come. It didn’t come to Yemen, to Sri Lanka,
to Rwanda. Why should we hope otherwise in India? In international
politics, only profit, power, race, class, and geopolitics determine
morality. Everything else is merely a posture, a shadow dance.
This battle will have to be waged by every single one of us. The blaze is
at our door.

India is ruled by men who have ridden to power on the daylight mass murder
of thousands of Muslims, on a series of false flag attacks and hysteria
manufactured by phantom assassination plots. Certainly, there is opposition
to this hatefulness from ordinary people of every caste and creed, from
those who rose against the anti-Muslim Citizenship Amendment Act, from the
historic farmers’ movement last year, and from regional political parties
in West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, and Maharashtra that have gone
toe-to-toe with the BJP and defeated it. It would be fair to say that the
majority of Indians do not approve of what is happening.

But their disapproval is manifested for the most part by distaste, by a
karmic shrug and a turning away that is entirely ineffectual before the
burning ideological fervor of a well-paid fascist cadre. The Indian
National Congress, the sole national opposition party, only offers us
weakness and the inability to take a moral position—to even say the word
*Muslim* in public speeches. Modi’s rallying call for a “Congress mukt
Bharat”—an India free of the Congress Party, is really a call for a
government without an opposition. Whatever else we may wish to call this,
*democracy* is not the word that comes to mind.

While India exhibits all the trappings of an electoral democracy—a
constitution that calls us a secular, socialist republic, free and fair
elections, a parliament run by a democratically elected ruling party and
opposition, an independent judiciary and a free media—in truth this state
machinery (including to an increasing extent, the judiciary, the civil
services, the security forces, the intelligence services, the police, and
the election apparatus) is being, if not outright taken over, then deeply
influenced and often overwhelmed by the most powerful organization in
India, the overtly fascist, Hindu nationalist RSS. The RSS, founded in
1925, has long campaigned to have the constitution set aside and for India
to be declared a Hindu Rashtra—a Hindu Nation. RSS ideologues have openly
admired Hitler and equated the Muslims of India with the Jews of Germany.

Aryan supremacy, the idea that some humans are divine and godlike, while
others are sub-human, polluted, and untouchable, is, after all, the very
basis of Brahminism, the Hindu caste system, which is the organizing
principle of Hindu society even today. Tragically, many among even the most
oppressed have rallied to the cause of the RSS, swept up by the tsunami of
propaganda that has left them voting for their own subjugation. In 2025,
the RSS will mark its hundredth year. One hundred years of evangelical
dedication has made it a nation within a nation. Historically the RSS has
been tightly controlled by a coterie of west coast Brahmins.

Today it has fifteen million members, among them Modi, several of his
cabinet ministers, chief ministers, and governors. It is a parallel
universe now, with tens of thousands of primary schools, its own farmer,
worker, and student organizations, its own publishing wing, an evangelical
wing that works among forest-dwelling tribes to “purify” them and “return”
them to Hinduism, a range of women’s organizations, a
several-million-strong armed militia inspired by Mussolini’s black shirts,
and a plethora of unimaginably violent Hindu nationalist organizations that
perform the role of shell companies and provide what is known as plausible
deniability.

As India hemorrhages jobs and devolves into economic chaos, the BJP has
grown steadily wealthier and is now the richest political party in the
world, underwritten by a recently introduced system of anonymous electoral
bonds that enable an opaque system of corporate funding. It is supported by
the several hundred corporate-funded TV news channels in virtually every
Indian language that are mass marketed by an army of social media trolls
who specialize in disinformation.

For all this, the BJP still remains merely the front office of the RSS. Now
the nation within the nation is preparing to move out of the shadows and
take its place on the world’s stage. Already foreign diplomats have begun
to troop to the RSS headquarters to submit their credentials and pay their
respects. University campuses in the United States are the new battleground
in this desperate quest for legitimacy. The danger is that those leading
the charge believe that what cannot be fairly won can perhaps be purchased
in an unfettered capitalist economy.

The 2025 RSS centenary celebration will be an important marker in India’s
history. The year before, we will have a general election. This perhaps
explains the sudden acceleration of violent activity.

Meanwhile Modi the Messiah is omnipresent. His face is on our Covid vaccine
certificates. And on the bags of flour and salt delivered in lieu of jobs
to the millions of newly unemployed. How can people not be grateful?

How can they, who witnessed the mass cremations and shallow graves and saw
the holy Ganges flow thick with bodies, its banks lined with shallow
graves, during the second wave of the pandemic not believe what they are
told to believe—that, if it weren’t for Modi, things would have been worse?

Our hopes have been cauterized, our imaginations infected.

If the RSS wins this battle, its victory will be pyrrhic. Because India
will cease to exist. Elections will not reverse the tide. It’s too late for
that. This battle will have to be waged by every single one of us. The
blaze is at our door.


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