/ 25 January 2024

India’s ‘Kristallnacht’ cues fascism

Indian Premier Inaugurates Grand Ram Temple In Ayodhya
True colours: The Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi attended the inauguration of the Ram temple, built at the site of a demolished 16th-century mosque, in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh, on 22 January. (Photo by Imtiyaz Khan/Anadolu via Getty Images)

On the nights of 9 and 10 November 1938, the Nazi party, supported by the Sturmabteilung  (SA) paramilitary and Schutzstaffel (SS), along with the Hitler Youth, and various ordinary Germans, attacked Jewish businesses. 

This overture to the unspeakable horrors to come came to be known as Kristallnacht (crystal night) in reference to the shards of glass that were left behind after two nights of frenzied attacks on synagogues and Jewish-owned businesses, shops and homes across Germany. 

More than 267 synagogues were destroyed along with 7 500 shops and businesses, and more than 30 000 Jewish men were imprisoned. 

Although there had been outbreaks of anti-Jewish sentiment preceding Kristallnacht, these two nights inaugurated an overt shift to the normalisation of the genocidal intent of Adolf Hitler and his Nazi party. 

On the morning of 22 January, hordes of Hindus from across India joined Prime Minister Narendra Modi, his fascist paramilitary forces, his caste-promoting Brahmanical Hindu priests, and an assortment of celebrities, as they descended on Ayodhya to celebrate the opening of a temple dedicated to the god Ram. 

Naturally, the Ambani family, who have risen to become the richest in India on the bones of the many thousands killed in Modi’s fascist ethnic cleansing project, were there, along with many cricketers and actors.

This Ayodhya temple was built on the ruins of the Babri Masjid, which was built in 1527 and destroyed by the goons of the Hindu fascist movement, led by the paramilitary organisation of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, in 1992. It led to the slaughter of more than 2 000 Muslims. Modi was directly implicated in this progrom.

In many societies, fascist impulses stalk decency from the margins. In the US, it is possible that the proto-fascism of Donald Trump might recapture the White House. But it is unthinkable that the popular cultural icons of American society, people such as Beyoncé and Bruce Springsteen, could ever support a figure like Trump. 

However, in India, outright fascism, which is open about the inspiration it has taken from German fascism, has been wholly normalised. It is not just opportunistic minor celebrities looking for another gig who have flocked towards its growing power. 

The likes of Indian superstar actor Amitabh Bachchan, who incited violence against the Sikh community in the 1984 riots, in which between 7 000 and 18 000 Sikhs were killed, has eagerly jumped onto the Modi bandwagon and fully endorsed the Hindutva project. So has the famous cricketer Sachin Tendulkar.

The opening of the new temple came a few days before India celebrated Republic Day on 26 January, a day which marks the adoption of the Indian constitution in 1950. However, the events in Ayodhya demonstrate all too well how far India has declined into fascism and how far it has strayed from the ambitions of the secular democratic state that was envisioned by many of the independence leaders. 

Early warnings went unheeded. As the newly independent state of India was being formed, Dr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar of the Independent Labour Party understood all too well that if India did not make deep social and economic changes in the interests of the oppressed majority, it would find that the words of the constitution were just that — nice words and ideas with very little resonance and power in society. 

Ambedkar wrote: “On the 26th of January 1950, we are going to enter into a life of contradictions. In politics we will have equality and in social and economic life we will have inequality. 

“In politics we will be recognising the principle of one man, one vote and one vote, one value. In our social and economic life, we shall, by reason of our social and economic structure, continue to deny the principle of one man, one value. 

“How long shall we continue to live this life of contradictions? How long shall we continue to deny equality in our social and economic life? If we continue to deny it for long, we will do so only by putting our political democracy in peril. 

“We must remove this contradiction at the earliest possible moment or else those who suffer from inequality will blow up the structure of political democracy which this Assembly has so laboriously built up.”

His prophetic vision has proved all too accurate now that the democratic vision of India lies in tatters. Decades of economic inequality, religious supremacy, caste discrimination and patriarchal oppression have crushed the hopes of most of Indian society. 

Ram Temple In Ayodhya Opens To The Public
Devotees at a tent city during their visit to the Ram temple. (Prakash Singh/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Just as Hitler was able to incite fascism in a demoralised and economically destroyed Germany, so too has Hindu fascism been able to fester in this social crisis. 

As with all fascist politics, it has made alliances with the true oppressors of Indian society — the high-caste capitalist class — while turning popular anger on minorities such as Muslims, Christians, Dalits and LGBTQIA+ communities. Fascism is inherently patriarchal and women have also been under attack.

The narrative of the feminised and docile Indian man embedded within the colonial narrative of India became a key rallying point for the work of the Hindu fascist narrative, which argued that Hindu men needed to regain their physical power, and the more militant aspects of their history, to defend themselves from imagined threats — and especially Muslims. 

Paramilitary camps promoted more martial stories of India’s past. And, like most Islamophobic narratives, the Hindu right has used popular cinema to make Muslims out as villains, both in the retelling of historical stories, as well as by casting them as terrorists or arch enemies of the Indian state in contemporary narratives. 

All this work, carried out over decades, has culminated in Modi cementing his power and ambitions for a Hindu state. The idea of a secular and inclusive Indian state has been destroyed and many Muslims feel that while they might be citizens in law, their citizenship has been effectively revoked in practice.

Everyone must fight fascism every­where but, because Hindu fascism is carried out in the name of Hindus, there is a special obligation on those of us born into Hinduism, whether they are practising or not, to take a clear and uncompromising stand against the fascism that now has India in its grasp. 

We have reached the point where silence is complicity.

Dr Vashna Jagarnath is a historian and labour activist.