The Rise of the Hindu Right

The Chief Minister of the Indian state of Gujarat, Narendra Modi, stands before a crowd of thousands of supporters, doing what he does best: breathing fire against Muslims. He tells the cheering crowds that the nearly 2,000 Muslims who were killed in state-sponsored progroms earlier this year deserved to die. They "lost" their chance, he says, when they did not condemn an attack by unknown terrorists on a train that killed 58 Hindu activists in February. The Hindu crowd cheers with enthusiasm, tossing marigold garlands onto the stage.

Anti-Muslim vitriol is the primary theme of this week's bellwether elections in Gujarat, which have the entire nation on high alert. Modi has based his campaign on an anti-Muslim, anti-Pakistan platform that emphasizes Hindu pride. His compatriot, Bal Thackeray, leader of the chauvinist Shiv Sena Party, recently went so far as to call for the formation of Hindu suicide squads "who can also create terror."

After one of Modi's recent election rallies, six were killed and dozens injured in religious riots.

The hardliner Modi may be the last hope for his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The BJP leads India's coalition government, but Gujarat is one of only three states where it holds power. And with national elections just two years away, the Hindu right has gone on the offensive.

Reign of Terror

Gujarat is the most visible stomping ground of Hindu supremacist ideologues, but the extreme right is wreaking terror in the lives of lower caste and Muslim Indians across the nation.

Several weeks ago in the northern state of Haryana, five Dalit (the so-called untouchable caste) men were lynched by a mob of Hindu activists, as police and several senior local administrators looked on. They had allegedly killed a cow, one of Hinduism's most sacred icons. The state refused to act until a post-mortem was done ... on the cow. But although it revealed that the men were actually tanning a dead cow, the village rallied around the killers, preventing the police from arresting them for days. Government officials used the killings to raise the call for a constitutional ban on cow slaughter. "In this code of Hindutva [Hindu nationalist ideology], a dead cow is more valuable than five living Dalits," fumed Amit Segupta, an editor at the national daily Hindustan Times.

However, it is the 150 million Muslims, who constitute India's largest minority community, that are the number one target of the Hindu right. When Hindu activists were killed in a fire set on a train in February, Hindu leaders and government officials immediately blamed "Pakistani-trained Muslims," despite the lack of evidence to support their claims. On the night of the fire, Gujarat Chief minister Narendra Modi instructed senior police and civil administration officials not to control the "Hindu reaction" to the incident.

During the ensuing weeks, Hindu mobs attacked Muslim-owned homes and businesses, burned Muslim men alive, and gang-raped and killed Muslim women across the state. Ashok Singhal, international president of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, a vitriolic Hindu Right party, called the massacres "a successful experiment" that should repeated across the country.

In November, a distinguished tribunal led by former Indian high court judges released the results of their investigation which concluded that last spring's attacks were "an organized crime perpetuated by the state's chief minister and his government," helped by "public exhortations and celebrations of violence" by rightwing groups. But no action has been taken against any government or police official. The BJP has made the train attack its rallying cry. It is used as proof that Hindus need to be protected from allegedly Pakistani-trained Indian Muslims. Their campaign posters depict Modi standing beside a burning railway car.

Inside the Saffron Brotherhood

While a recent cover story in the Indian weekly "Outlook" dubbed them the "loony right," the right-wing groups now wield tremendous political and cultural power. Under the national leadership of the BJP, which came to power in 1999, many of their demands have wheedled their way into policy and mainstream ethos. Many describe the BJP as simply the "parliamentary wing" of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (National Volunteer Corps), a founding party of the Hindu Right.

The RSS was established in 1925 for the express purpose of fostering Hindu nationalist pride. The party now has almost 50,000 branches across India. Its membership is almost exclusively Hindu men. Women are not allowed to join and members of other religions are understandably scarce. The group holds daily shakhas, military-style drills and lectures, in residential areas as a way to recruit recruits boys as young as 8. Most analysts describe the RSS as the breeding ground for a wider network of Hindu rightist groups, known collectively as the "Sangh parivar" or "family of organizations."

Although the RSS insists it is not a religious or political organization, it is firmly rooted in supremacist ideology. RSS founders drew their inspiration from the success of Nazi Germany and fascist Italy, and its shakhas are consciously patterned after fascist training centers. D. R. Goyal, who was recruited as a high level RSS organizer in 1941 and authored "The RSS," the first insider account of the "saffron brotherhood," wrote, "The system that operates in RSS organizationally is that of following one leader: the fascist principle of die Fuerer." And their main goal is to terrorize all those of a different religion, be it Muslims or Christians.

Hindu Right Ascendant

India proudly touts itself as the largest, most culturally heterogeneous democracy in the world. But the pluralist secularism enshrined in the Indian Constitution is being steadily whittled away by the political resurgence of Hindu supremacists. According to the progressive writer Aijaz Ahmad, India is facing "a revolution of the far right", difficult to temper because it is "not a frontal seize of power, but a hurricane from below ... led by a well-disciplined counter-revolutionary elite."

The RSS counts among its members Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and dozens of other government officials. In fact, it helped form the ruling BJP in 1980. Under the BJP, the Hindu right has managed to infiltrate various Indian institutions, including the educational system.

Several months ago, thanks to a Indian Supreme Court ruling, the government-appointed education council won the right to re-write the national school syllabus. But when they began releasing textbooks in October, they were met with a firestorm of criticism for their shoddy facts and grammar, to say nothing of their blatant pro-Hindu bias. In one of the history books, a section on religions in India allots a mere three lines to Islam, following several pages devoted to Hinduism and Buddhism. The textbooks not only get dates and events wrong, but leave out significant events, such as the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi by an RSS member.

But even while several state governments and private schools have refused to adopt the textbooks, the education council has rebuffed requests to retract them. The Gujarat state president of the BJP, Rajendrasinh Rana, says the textbooks simply emphasize "the common factors of pride in our country." On the day Parliament began debating the revisionist curriculum, almost 200,000 students rallied in Delhi in support of the "Indian-ization of education."

Hindustan Times Editor Amit Sengupta runs down the list of "institutions (the Hindu Right) have effectively destroyed and homogenized: the police, the bureaucracy, education, the health and family sector." He points out that there are increasing reports of people starving to death in states across India, but says "the removal of poverty is not a priority." The government has 60 million tons of buffer stocks of food grains, but admits that its public distribution system has broken down.

Pitfalls of Extremism

The BJP's singular focus on nationalism, say party critics, has eclipsed basic issues of governance. "The BJP has every element of a successful party: it has funds, it is organized," says high court lawyer Girish Patel. "Yet we have never seen such a non-performing government. When BJP wins the elections, then their defeat starts, because you cannot bank upon riots, then you have to govern." Sengupta compares today's India to the last days of the Roman empire. "There's an absolute sense of anarchy. There's a murky war going on within the party for power," he says. "The BJP has no trump card except sectarian violence."

However, if the BJP succeeds in the Gujarat elections, many believe it will give a green light for the right to push forward its extremist agenda. Syndicated columnist Praful Bidwai predicts that if Narendra Modi wins in Gujarat, he will run for prime minister in the 2004 national elections. With an extremist religious fringe plotting to take control of the nation, India is walking a thin line between democracy and fascism.

Freelance writer Miranda Kennedy reports from Gujarat. She is a former editor at Ms. magazine and a former producer for Amy Goodman's Democracy Now radio show.


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