Face to face: Professor Jairus Banaji | Hard News
Professor Jairus Banaji, a Marxist historian and writer, divides his time between Mumbai and London where he is a Professorial Research Associate with the Department of Development Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies. After graduating from Oxford, he came back to India and worked for long years with the industrial workers in Mumbai. After a brief stint at JNU in New Delhi where he studied for his M Phil, he went to Oxford again for his doctorate. His latest book, Fascism: Essays on Europe and Indiacontains a series of essays by him, historian Dilip Simeon and others, to be published by Three Essays Collective in April 2013. He speaks to Hardnews on the multiple layers of emerging fascism in India and the urgent need for a united and secular struggle.
Q |At the recent Walter Sisulu memorial lecture in Jamia Millia Islamia in Delhi on March 18, you drew comparisons with Weimar Germany and the India of today. The rise of the Nazis… .
In India we seem to be living through what happened to the Weimar democracy in Germany in the 1920s, but in slow motion. You have a Centre (Congress and UPA) which is badly discredited by the scams it has allowed to happen and is under relentless attack from both the Left and far Right. There are these massive extra-parliamentary agitations which have exploded in the last two-three years, the Hazare mobilization, Ramdev, Kejriwal, etc. The upshot is that it undermines faith in the actual functioning of the democratic system. There is a subtext in the way in which Parliament is being surreptitiously identified as an inexorable bastion of corruption. And corruption in turn is almost equated with the functioning of Parliament. The subtext is the idea that the institutions of liberal democracy are breaking down in India, they are in deep crisis and there’s no obvious solution to this crisis. So, in a milieu of this sort, when you have these extra-parliamentary agitations being launched by the likes of Hazare and Kejriwal, this reinforces the idea that there’s a profound crisis of credibility in the system as a whole.
It’s important to distinguish two things. One is democracy, which has been under sustained attack from the Right. The other is the State apparatus, which is largely immune to immediate political control — whichever party is in power, there’s a set of practices that the State pursues which is independent of the will of any ruling party or coalition. The increasing authoritarianism of the Indian political system stems from a massively consolidated State apparatus. The State has had a free hand in the way it patrols whole areas of the country like Kashmir or the Northeast or deals with political movements like the Naxalites. Andhra Pradesh was the frontrunner in this field. The Andhra police had a free hand in dealing with the Naxalites and crushed the movement by systematic use of so-called ‘encounters’. All encounter killings are fake, they are simply extra-judicial executions. This practice was extensively used in Telangana and other parts of Andhra and has since been extended to other states. Narendra Modi, for example, has used this tactic to create an impression in the public mind that his own life is constantly under threat from potential assassins who, of course, are understood to be Muslims. In this case, it’s part of an elaborate public relations exercise to bolster his image as a leader whose life is under permanent threat from elements hostile to India. The fact is that around 25-30 encounter killings in Gujarat were fabricated to bolster this ridiculous impression.
Q |Can you elaborate on this strategy… .
The extreme Right in India seems to be working on two tracks. One is what I call the ‘organic’ strategy. ‘Organic’ because it flows from the nature of their politics. I mean their strategy of a semi-permanent communal mobilization. This fluctuates in intensity and isn’t always at the same strident pitch. But, in the whole period from the Ram Janmabhoomi movement at the end of the 1980s and early ‘90s till today, we have seen an expansion and contraction of this strategy of communal mobilisation. That in turn depends for its effectiveness on creating a milieu where a whole set of inert ideas are circulated. By ‘inert’ ideas I mean ideas that are not owned by anyone in particular. No one has thought them and they are just imbibed and absorbed from the surrounding culture. So one is talking about a whole set of communal stereotypes that the middle class has absorbed and then re-externalizes in its day-to-day conversations. In a city like Mumbai, for example, it’s outrageous to see that people from Muslim families looking for accommodation are systematically turned away on spurious grounds like, ‘We are a housing society of vegetarians’, and so on. It is completely illegal.
Nonetheless, it’s an illegal practice to which the government has turned a blind eye. This is a small example of how the trench warfare that the far Right has waged against Indian democracy is succeeding. This internal subversion of democracy is essentially a ‘war of position’ — they create trenches within democracy by infiltrating the State apparatuses (police, bureaucracy, Intelligence Bureau, and the like), sabotaging investigations into their own criminal activities, extending control over the media, undermining the criminal justice system, and so on. On the other hand, the war of movement, the more frontal attack on our democracy, consists in the activity of a terrorist underground whose members at least are certainly linked to the RSS, even if the cells themselves may not be directly controlled by the latter. I mean the spate of bombings that we’ve seen, the sole function of which is to generate panic in the country, the sense of a democracy under siege, and of course, allow perfectly innocent civilians of some other community to be blamed and branded as ‘terrorists’.
The increasing authoritarianism of the State contributes to the success of this strategy at both levels. It undermines democracy and lends credibility to the repeated calls for a ‘strong’ State. The militarization of large parts of the country and the fact that the army is given a free hand in dealing with those regions reinforces the rise to power of the extreme Right. It spells the death of democracy in the country at large, a creeping atrophy of our constitutional rights.
Control of the media is a major part of the strategy of the extreme Right. You have hardcore RSS cadre appearing repeatedly on prime-time shows of all the major TV channels. As if these guys are simply innocuous elements and not propagandists for a well-honed communal machine! The analogy would be to have the British National Party (BNP) activists in Britain — hardcore racists, even nostalgic fascists — being routinely invited on news channels, say the BBC, to express their ‘views’. People don’t see it like that here precisely because the extreme Right here has been massively mainstreamed by the media.
Let’s be clear here: it’s not as if the ‘Hindu community’ or the ‘Muslim community’ are real entities. They are imagined communities, and they are imagined in a way which presupposes the grip of an unyielding seriality. The mass of any population remains unorganized into groups of their own making, groups they have formed as an expression of their own collective aspirations. In this state of complete dispersion, most ordinary people feel hopelessly isolated, powerless, and indifferent or even hostile to each other. It is this state of isolation and powerlessness that the SanghParivar preys on, offering the ‘masses’ the illusion that their mobilization by the VHP, etc. is a form of empowerment, when it is actually just manipulation by powerful organized groups that have their own agenda. The kind of manipulation that leads to the savage pogroms that we saw in Gujarat in 2002.
Q |Do you think that people who see Modi as a threat to democracy are close to the truth?
Yes, the threat is absolutely real. A new model is emerging of the far Right in this country. It is not part of the RSS tradition to encourage personality cults. Their sarsanghchalaks have never projected themselves the way Modi is being projected now, as a sort of supreme leader, a desi Duce or Fuehrer. This concerted drive for a personality cult represents a new current within the politics of the extreme Right, a further development of electoral fascism. Modi realizes that communal mobilization, the RSS’s organic strategy, has paid rich electoral dividends. The violence of 2002 was precisely concentrated in districts of Gujarat where the BJP had the most to gain in terms of increasing their vote share. But Modi also knows that there was a strong backlash to that ghastly explosion of orchestrated violence and that he won’t be able to retain credibility with the same sort of strategy. He is a master of masks. His current mask is that of the great architect of a developmental state, rather like the way Mussolini projected himself in Italy, where, as you know, fascism broke the power of the feudal, mafia-dominated South and extended the sway of the industrial North in a modernizing Italy. So, all this bosh you hear about Gujarat’s ‘development’ is the same kind of authoritarian discourse about modernization. All it boils down to in the end is a rampant, unfettered development of capitalism, one led by private capital and both encouraged and given a completely free hand by the State.
It’s astonishing that no journalist has properly investigated the favours Modi has showered on business tycoons like Gautam Adani. Those are a scam waiting to be exposed. Years ago he gave a large stretch of the coastline in the Gulf of Kutch to Adani for port development. Adani is said to have resold a major part of this land soon afterwards. The regrouping of the big industrial houses around Modi expresses an explicit endorsement by industrial capital that they want an authoritarian State and that they feel they have more to gain from the emergence of one than from a democracy under siege that’s anyway being constantly battered from all sides. It’s as if industrial capital is openly saying, ‘We’ve lost faith in Indian democracy’. Modi symbolizes the kind of deeply authoritarian political leader who would be willing to do away with the trappings of democracy. Anyway, if you look at Gujarat, what isthe actual state of democracy there?
It has been hollowed out from the inside. You have a public culture which basically represents what historian Claudia Koonz calls a ‘degraded democracy’. There is a frightening lack of remorse in the mass of the population for what happened in 2002, which, if you look at the scale of the pogroms, exceeds anything that happened in Weimar Germany or even the early Nazi State, in terms of the number of victims and the sheer brutality of the violence. A large part of the Gujarati people were complicit in the violence in a passive way, in the sense of approving it in a serial dimension, a dimension of passivity. From one standpoint it doesn’t particularly matter whether they were actually actively involved in the violence or simply approved it in an inert and passive way; the fact is that they are equally guilty on both counts. But even more guilty are the civilian commanders who made this happen and let it happen — what international criminal jurisdictions like the International Criminal Court (ICC) call ‘command responsibility’.
Q |At the same time we have other political formations which say they are secular. For instance, Nitish Kumar has openly said that he will not allow Modi in Bihar. Similarly, we have Mulayam Singh Yadav and others. Don’t you think this is a big obstacle?
In her book India Working, Barbara Harriss-White argues that the reason why fascism isn’t likely to succeed in India is precisely because the country is so deeply fragmented. It is fragmented on geographical, cultural, political and economic lines. That fragmentation is the biggest obstacle to fascism, for fascism presupposes an enormously centralized State and a political regime which is just not feasible with the kind of diversity we see in India. To some extent this is correct. But we can never predict the future. The fact is that the whole plethora of organizations around the SanghParivar and the hate campaigns they engage in as their incessant labour on the masses are a major threat to the kind of democracy we’ve had since Independence. They are much more powerful today than they ever were in earlier decades.
1984 was a political catastrophe. The pogroms against the Sikhs sent out a loud and clear message that State complicity in communal violence is okay. Those pogroms were a shameful indictment of India’s democracy. But I don’t think the violence of 1984 can be read in exactly the same way as the violence in Gujarat in 2002 or in Kandhamal later. These and numerous other episodes have been part of the RSS’s strategy of a permanent communal mobilization, of their continuous invocation of the Other, part of a more purely fascist political agenda to remould the nature of the Indian State and uproot her democracy.
Q |As for the Left forces in the country, does it also speak of their failure?
Yes, absolutely! Partly because they don’t think that India is facing a fascist threat. They don’t see communalism as the main form in which fascism works in this country. All the hard work of contesting Modi and the Gujarat government for the crimes of 2002 was done by the smaller non-party entities, committed and hard-working secular groups like Citizens for Justice and Peace. The hard work of bringing the cases together which led to some convictions in the end was all done by the non-party Left. This is an indication that the Left parties don’t see the threat of fascism as something they should prioritize and think seriously about. Surely, fascism is a much graver threat to India’s future than the penetration of foreign businesses into retail or the precise level of foreign equity in insurance, etc. We should leave the xenophobia to the Right and concentrate on building a culture of opposition to capitalism as such and a culture of resistance to the fascism that is now emerging from its abysmal social deficits.
Q |Is it like the split in Europe between the Communists and Social Democrats… .
Well, in a sense, yes… If you see the Congress as a centrist political formation that is still formally committed to a democratic India and a secular Constitution, then it’s important not to evolve our own version of what was called the theory of ‘social fascism’. Under Stalin’s domination in the late 1920s the Comintern forced the German Left to argue that there was no difference between the Nazis and Social Democrats. This disastrous ‘theory’ forestalled any combination between those political forces by way of a united opposition to the fascists. In India, our version of this would be that there’s no difference between the BJP and the Congress, no difference between the fanatically extreme nationalism that descends from the Hindu Mahasabha and RSS traditions, and the vision of India’s future that was embodied in Gandhi and Nehru.
Q |There is a critique that the Congress engages in the politics of soft Hindutva… .
The phrase ‘soft Hindutva’ isn’t helpful. This doesn’t mean that the Congress has never had communal elements in its ranks (Nehru at one time felt hopelessly isolated within the UP Congress), or is not capable of playing the same kind of politics it did for a time in the 1980s. But the Congress as a party remains at least formally committed to a secular vision of India, to having India remain a secular State. The Sangh Parivar in contrast is overtly committed to the sort of fascist utopia which it calls ‘Hindu Rashtra’, an ethnocratic state based on discriminatory principles, on the subordination of minorities and notions of majoritarianism, apart from everything else that such a state would mean for women, workers, Dalits, intellectuals, young people, sexual minorities and numerous others.
Q |So you are basically saying that the Left needs to forge an alliance with the Congress… .
It is crucially important for all secular forces to create a platform which mounts an effective political resistance to fascism in this country. The Left, if it has to have a viable strategy, needs to identify stable secular and democratic forces in the country and construct a strong, wide-ranging alliance with them. Also, we have a country with massive dispossession, staggering levels of deprivation, homelessness, malnutrition, lack of a public health system, manifold forms of oppression, and so on. These are issues crying out for political intervention and who else has the potential to campaign around them if not the Left? It is for the Left parties to craft sustained campaigns around these issues. That is the only way they will be able to regain credibility and emerge as a truly living political force.