The large-scale massacre of Muslims in February-March 2002 in Gujarat was a watershed in the history of independent India. So, too, was what followed. While investigating violations in situations of severe state repression, from Bastar to Kashmir, human-rights teams in India had never before been afraid of the masses. But the hostility of the ‘ordinary people’ that met investigators in Gujarat was palpable, particularly in villages such as Sanjeli and Anjanwa. These were agents of neither the ubiquitous state nor of villainous industrialists: these were ‘common people’, suddenly on the brink of attacking human-rights teams perceived as ‘minority appeasers’.
Given the collaboration of the state machinery in the killings in Gujarat, Muslims fled to areas where they came to make up sizable sections of the population. But there proved to be no safety, even in numbers. Sanjeli, for instance, in Dahod District, had 500 Muslim households, constituting about 40 percent of the population. After the 27 February 2002 burning at Godhra railway station of two train compartments carrying kar sevaks (volunteers) returning from Ayodhya, Sanjeli was attacked by a mob of more than 25,000 people – a horde that, for the first time, included the large-scale participation of Adivasis. The rallying cries were: Muslims despoil our women! and One hundred Bhil women violated in Sanjeli alone!
The massacres of Muslims in residential colonies such as Naroda-Patiya and Gulbarg Society in Ahmedabad were undertaken by mobs likewise numbering between 20,000 and 25,000, largely with the approval of the state’s Hindu community. This support likewise manifested itself in the subsequent assembly elections, and the “peoples’ verdict” of returning the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government to power. This victory was subsequently used as a sledgehammer with which to silence critics. In such a situation, it becomes impossible to refuse to see the participation of a sizable section of the common people in a fascist agenda.
The agenda is undoubtedly fascist, not merely fundamentalist. Within any religion, ‘fundamentalism’ literally connotes the strict maintenance of orthodox beliefs and fundamental doctrines. Christian fundamentalism would thus require a literal reading of the Bible, including a belief in the ‘virgin birth’ and the second coming of Christ. Islamic fundamentalism would look to a return to the principles and practices of early Islam, as patterned on the 7th-century community established by Mohammad at Medina. Similarly, Hindu fundamentalism could be a revitalisation of sorts – through the return to an imaginary ram rajya, or a golden age during the reign of Lord Ram.
Yet, ‘fundamentalism’ no longer refers to a mere return to fundamentalist doctrines, and has come to represent the aggressive promotion of a doctrinaire, rigid and centralised religion, increasingly intolerant not only of other faiths, but also of any deviant strand within its own. It also denotes an acceptance of the use of violent means in pursuit of furthering or protecting the faith. The Hindutva ideology represents a dogmatic Hinduism, which shows evidence not only of fundamentalism, but also of fascism.
Although there is no coherent body of political doctrine associated with fascism, the shared common features of fascist movements have been: aggressive and unquestioning nationalism; belief in the supremacy of one national, ethnic or religious group over others; disrespect for democratic and liberal institutions, which does not preclude using them to attain power; a profound hatred for socialism; insistence on obedience to a powerful and absolute leader; and a strong association with militarism and a demagogic approach, that appeals to and whips up the basest emotions in a mob, making it suggestible, hasty in judgement, easily swayed and carried away by the consciousness of its own force. It is these features of the movement, spearheaded by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), that urge comparisons with the Partito Nazionale Fascista (PNF) founded by Benito Mussolini, Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts in Britain, the Iron Guard in Romania, the Croix de Feu in France and the Nazi Party in Germany.
Since its formation in 1925, it has been the RSS’s agenda to transform a relatively tolerant and pluralistic Hinduism into an aggressive Hindutva, attacking minorities. Christians have also been targeted, but special virulence is reserved for Muslims. The Sangh has a rigidly hierarchical structure, with leaders appointed rather than elected. Though the Sangh is open to married men, the grihastha (householder) is considered on a lower footing than the brahmachari, the virile but celibate son of Bharat Mata embodied in the pracharak (preacher). The Sangh accepts no women members, although a separate all-woman Rashtriya Sevika Samiti was founded back in 1936 by K B Hedgevar and Lakshmibai Kelkar.
After the Allied victory, the West projected fascism as a national characteristic unique to the Germans and Japanese. In reality, fascism enjoyed a sizable following in all countries, including the United States, during the era preceding World War II. A number of industrial houses supported fascism, and were subsequently able to prosper both during the war and since.
Unfortunately, the left has offered little insight into the phenomenon of the mobilisation of people for a fascist agenda. Marxism defines fascism as “the open terrorist dictatorship of the most reactionary, most chauvinist and most imperialist elements of finance capital”. Even the German Communist Party – other than using terms such as “fear psychosis”, or stating that fascism had “corrupted” and “hypnotised” the masses – had little to offer by way of explanation as to why the German economic crisis of the 1930s had not led the masses to turn to the revolutionary, rather than the fascist, forces. The left in India suffers from the same flaw, offering little more than rhetoric in the analysis of fascism evident in Hindutva. Indeed, the Indian left appears to be in no position to devise strategies to counter the menacing shadow of fascism in the country.
The biggest lacuna of Marxist thought has been its failure to explore the role played by impulses that do not originate in the conscious mind. The appeal and growth of fascism cannot be understood without dipping into the well of the unconscious. Marx was a sociologist, not a psychologist. In any case, scientific psychology did not exist at the time, and the so-called subjective factor of history, in Marx’s sense, remained un-investigated. It was not until a half-century later that Freud’s articulation of the ‘unconscious’ – the path-breaking postulation that consciousness is only a small part of the psychic life; the dissociation of sexuality from procreation; and the recognition of repression of childhood sexuality – finally created analytical tools with which to explore the irrational in human beings.
The success of Joseph Goebbels-like propaganda is not based on appeal to the rational mind, the establishment of facts through scientific data. There is little factual reality, for instance, behind the successful implanting in a sizable section of the Hindu community such beliefs as ‘Hindus are being persecuted in their own country’, ‘Muslims have four wives and 64 children’ or ‘Hindus will soon be a minority in India’. In the face of data (including that officially compiled by the government of India), one particular erroneous conviction held by the majority Hindus played a crucial role in the post-carnage 2002 Gujarat elections: the certainty that, in all prior riots in the state, most of the victims had been Hindus. This explains the encomiums – such as lauh purush (Iron Man) – that have subsequently been showered on Narendra Modi, as the first chief minister to have ensured that, in the 2002 riots, more Muslims were killed than Hindus.
Repression and oppression
The work of Wilhelm Reich, based on the experience of the rise of fascism in Germany during the 1930s, offers a possible way in which to comprehend the appeal of the Hindutva brand of fascism for a sizable section of people in India. Taking psychoanalytical tools beyond the confines of individual clinical psychology, and building upon the sociological groundwork of Marx, Reich explored the sociological reasons for the suppression of sexuality by society, and the concomitant repression by the individual. He postulated that the suppression of sexuality could have a crippling effect on both rebellious impulses and critical faculties, and could eventually lead to the development of a docile and obedient personality, one that is attracted to authoritarian order. Such a theory could provide a pointer as to the phenomenon of Hindutva fascism in India.
Along with suppression of sexuality, there is valorisation in Hindu society of brahmacharya, which emphasises mental and physical restraint, including celibacy. Hindu scriptures are replete with aphorisms extolling the virtues of brahmacharya. But the belief that a drop of semen is the equivalent of thousands of drops of blood is not confined to Hindus alone; rather, it is a deeply embedded cultural belief shared by many in the Subcontinent. The sheer number of flourishing roadside practitioners of various forms of medicine geared to treating weakness in men bears testimony to the widespread prevalence of this belief. Allopathic medical practitioners testify that, confronted with patients who feel ‘weak’ after their wedding, the only options are either to give a placebo or to advise against having sex for an extended period of time.
In general, India’s arid education system; worries about employment; family pressures to marry, produce children and fulfil duties towards parents – all of these together leave little space for the development of an autonomous, well-rounded personality. The personality of the Indian boy/man is a far cry from the existential man of Sartre and Camus, who deals with the world’s many complexities and ambiguities, makes choices and takes responsibility for his actions. The decisions that are considered ‘major’ and ‘individual’ in the Western worldview – those of job, the times and partners for marriage and children – in Indian society are all taken predominantly by elders.
The end result is a non-assertive, amorphous personality – one that can take the shape of the obedient son, but who can also get pushed around in the workplace. This personality also has a converse, authoritarian side, most often manifested in the role of the ‘strict father’ and ‘master-husband’, who keeps his wife and children under rigorous control and sees to it that they serve his parents well. Fascism enmeshes with and appeals to both aspects of this personality. It offers a simple ‘good-bad’ binary that is well suited for this personality. This binary removes the individual from the burdens of independent thinking, the usage of critical faculties, the formation of personal opinions and the exercise of choices that would bring with them responsibilities towards action. Instead of anxiety-causing complexity and uncertainty, there is simplicity and certainty. Ambiguities are replaced with comforting moral clarities: Muslims are bad, Hindus are good or Muslims are good, Hindus are bad or Christians are believers, Muslims are infidels. The burden of making choices and taking personal responsibility is also lifted, as the father-fuehrer-leader offers absolution:Kill the dirty Muslims/Hindus/Jews. We will take responsibility. The authoritarian aspects likewise receive fulfilment in the degradation and humiliation of the opposing community.
The manifestation of the good-bad binary can also be seen in the goddess-whore paradigm, which retains a strong grip on the Indian psyche. The Sati Savitris are always in sharp contrast to Surpanakhas, the sister of Ravan who sought to entice Lakshman (and therefore deserved to get her nose chopped off), or the ubiquitous non-Hindu ‘Lily’ and ‘Mona’ vamps of Indian cinema, who likewise get their comeuppance in the end. This deeply embedded binary construct plays a crucial role in mobilisation for a fascist agenda.
Conservative Indian society, whether in the Hindi heartland, peninsular India or elsewhere, offers little space for any expression of sexuality, or for interaction between boys and girls. At the same time, the reverence for brahmacharya among males, along with beliefs about loss of semen leading to weakness of the body, mind and spirit, acts as a block to healthy masturbation. Even when ‘indulged’ in, the act comes ridden with anxiety and fears about the consequences. Sexual fantasies, half-remembered dreams, nebulous near-incestuous memories involving the ‘pure’ mother and ‘virgin’ sister engender feelings of guilt and perversion. Such anxiety-provoking feelings are also inevitably suppressed from the consciousness, leading to further repression in the psyche. In turn, such frustrations can more easily be projected onto the ‘other’, who becomes the repository of all that is ‘impure’, ‘sexual’ and ‘evil’. Under the right circumstances, this projection will become violent.
It is no coincidence that riding the Hindutva chariot is primarily a male phenomenon, barring a couple of notable Sadhvis. This machismo seems to tap directly into the large masses of sexually deprived and repressed young men – their energies, it would seem, effectively channelled towards the larger Hindutva project. The connection between repressed sexuality and the whipping-up of violent reaction against other communities was never more apparent than in the spring of 2002 in Gujarat. Long before any killing began, symbolism over women’s bodies was being used to polarise the Hindu and Muslim communities. Muslim men were demonised as ‘marauding aliens’ lusting over Hindu women. Leaders of the Hindutva brigade in Gujarat would systematically stir fears about Muslim men carrying away Hindu women to add to their harems. Over the past decade, public meetings, speeches, pamphlets, schools, cultural groups, ashrams, philanthropic institutions, babas, sants and maharajs have all been used by the Sangh Parivar to spread venom against Muslims. This tendency was ratcheted up to a fever pitch following the Godhra train burning, with rumours about Hindu women being abducted, raped and mutilated playing a crucial role in the subsequent mobilisation.
Between 28 February and 1 March, leading Gujarati dailies such as Sandesh and Gujarat Samachar carried incendiary and fabricated news such as: “10-15 Hindu women were dragged away by a fanatic mob from the railway compartment”, “Wicked villains of this mob kidnapped some ten behno [sisters] whose whereabouts are not yet known”, “Helpless women were struggling to escape from the grip of saitans [devils]”, “Out of kidnapped young ladies from Sabarmati Express, dead bodies of two women recovered – breasts of women were cut off”. As they were meant to do, such headlines inevitably inflamed communal tensions, feeding into righteous indignation and moral outrage, and providing an apparent justification for the massacre of Muslims that followed.
As with the construction of the black male in white-supremacist discourse, in the Hindutva agenda the Muslim male is projected as an over-sexed, beast-like creature, lusting after (and, thus, threatening) Hindu women. The stereotyping of individual women into the categories of ‘whore ‘ and ‘goddess’ likewise contributes to women of other communities (Muslim and Christian) being considered amoral – enjoying sex, unlike ‘dutiful’ Hindu women. Sexual violence against Muslim girls and women thus becomes a righteous moral act to save the ‘honour’ of ‘our’ mothers and sisters; at the same time, it also emasculates the rapacious Muslim males, ‘dishonouring’ the entire community.
Not that women have not been actively utilised by Hindutva militancy, but overt participation of women in riots and killings is still a relatively new phenomenon. Maya Kodnani, a female MLA in the Gujarat Assembly, played a leading role in the 2002 massacres in Ahmedabad. There were several instances of rapists being supported or even actively instigated by women in the carnage against Muslims in Gujarat. Growing evidence points out that militant Hindu nationalism often offers greater independence and autonomy for women than is permissible in the general model of domestic femininity. Hinduism’s many references to non-demure goddesses slaying enemies provides space for training in armed combat, as well as travelling across the country in the cause of the Hindu nation – ultimately presenting a life significantly less controlled by family and society.
As the goddess-whore binary alludes, Hindutva fascism does not focus on women’s sexuality alone. The idea of ‘woman as mother’ also plays a crucial role in the shaping of the male psyche, and fits snugly into fascist ideology. Given the particularly intense and intimate mother-son relationship in India, the impact of the mother may be even more significant than in other societies. It also contributes to evoking particularly strong feelings with respect to perceived threats to the mother.
The emotional core of the feelings towards both the mother and the motherland has been used to great effect in the mobilisation for the Hindutva agenda. The existence of Babri Masjid as a phallic symbol – which colonises Mother India and emasculates the virile sons who failed to protect her – was forcefully played upon by BJP leader L K Advani in order to spread hate during the Ramjanmabhoomi Rath Yatra. The speeches by various leaders throughout the yatra, as well as at Ayodhya, went along the following lines: the Invader Babar the Cruel raped our mothers and sisters, and destroyed the original Ram temple; the Babri Masjid baitha (a sexually charged ‘astride’) Bharat Mata is an insult and humiliation to Hindu virility and manhood. In the vernacular, these words and phrases sounded even cruder, and likewise had an even greater emotional impact.
Starting the yatra from Somnath on the Gujarat coast, invoking the plunder of the temple (the looting and destruction of which had nothing to do with Indian Muslims), and ending it at Babri Masjid, was a masterful exercise in invoking past traumas as though they were occurring in the immediate present. RSS leaders repeatedly emphasised to their cadre that the existence of the standing, ‘erect’ Babri Masjid proclaimed to the world the defiling of Hindu women by Muslims and the rape of the ‘motherland’ by Babar – and that the demolition of the mosque would restore both Hindu male virility and symbolic Hindu feminine purity. The conflation of contemporary stories with those of historical Muslim rulers (Taimur, Genghis Khan, Babar) invading Mother India and violating ‘pure’ Hindu girls and women inevitably led to an intensification of anti-Muslim anger – as attested to by the killings of Muslims in towns and cities along the yatra’s route.
It is no coincidence that Hindutva is currently being propagated as “cultural nationalism”, a not-too-distant cousin of the National Socialism of the Nazi Party. The attempts to demonise the Muslim community sound astoundingly similar to Goebbels’s propaganda against the Jews: “If someone cracks a whip across your mother’s face, would you say to him, ‘Thank you! He is a man too!’ One who does such a thing is not a man – he is a brute! How many worse things has the Jew inflicted upon our mother Germany, and still inflicts upon her! He has debauched our race, sapped our energy, undermined our customs and broken our strength!”
Almost a century after the rise of the right in Europe, the left the world over remains closed to the discipline of psychoanalysis, looking at it solely as a bourgeois pseudo-science. It is equally unfortunate that psychoanalysis remains largely confined to the individual psyche and the therapist-patient paradigm. Perhaps it is time to pull down the walls, take psychoanalysis out of the closet, and recognise that the irrational in the human psyche influences not only individual behaviour, but also impacts mass psychology and the broader canvas of events. It is a little-known but curious fact that Mohandas Gandhi, in his anguished search for a resolution to the vexed Hindu-Muslim problem, attended the 1925 meeting of the Indian Psychoanalytical Society in Calcutta.
Most of us have the anxieties, insecurities, feelings of rage and anger that are part of human existence. At the other end of the spectrum, however, remain positive feelings: those of belonging to a community, of love for the earth and for fellow human beings. It is the interface of politics and psychoanalysis that can unravel the processes through which both negative and positive feelings in the psyche become mobilised for a fascist agenda.
~ Rakesh Shukla is a Delhi-based Supreme Court lawyer and student of Psychoanalysis