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Fascism in its liberal womb

by Pothik Ghosh, 17 November 2008

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Economic Times, 17 November 2008

There is, in essence, only one fascism and yet it would be politically perilous for Indians to not distinguish between its two forms — Hindutva
and Islamism.

There can be nothing more precarious in the life of a liberal democracy than the evacuation of politics from law. India currently faces precisely such a crisis, evident in the alleged emergence of Hindutva terror, its insidious denial by mainstream ‘social’ and political outfits of the Hindu Right and, ironically, even the terms in which the secularist camp has sought to counter their propaganda. It is, in fact, the liberal-secular aspect of the problem that is, at once, most interesting and disturbing.

A sizeable section of Indian liberals has, in ascribing double standards to the sangh parivar that has been maligning the Maharashtra anti-terrorism squad’s investigation into the September 29 Malegaon bomb blast, unwittingly come to share the political-ideological assumptions of Hindutva.

Sangh parivar outfits, after having viciously opposed all attempts to call into question the fairness and neutrality of police-investigative procedures into acts of what they call “jehadi terror”, have suddenly done a U-turn to accuse the Maharashtra ATS of being politically pliable and its line of probe into the Malegaon explosion ideologically compromised. Even the BJP has, as is its equivocal wont, carefully allowed only some of its senior leaders to lend their voices to this pernicious cultural-nationalist chorus.

Yet, accusing Hindutva groups of hypocrisy and double standard would close more democratic doors than open them. Such accusation may or may not help the anti-BJP forces score a few electoral brownie points now. But they would certainly discredit, in advance, all criticism and questioning of state institutions for all times to come. To get caught in debates about the desirability of interrogating and criticising state institutions is to miss the point.

What matters is whether critical interrogation of state instrumentalities, or the criticism of such criticism, has been prompted by the political desire to render the state and its institutions accountable to a people who embody the values of our Constitution. That would be democracy.

The politics of Hindutva, which seeks to make state institutions amenable to the will of a mass at odds with the constitutional principles of liberalism, is majoritarianism. And yet in the absence of a politics that would enable people to make that distinction, democracy and majoritarianism are easily conflated. Sangh parivar organisations have accomplished precisely that with great success.

In such circumstances, direct organisational links between the Malegaon accused and the sangh parivar, even if they do exist, are of little consequence. What is both important and indisputable is their ideological kinship. That, more than any organisational tie, is a characteristic feature of fascism.

Fascism cannot, however, be effectively battled as long as its opponents remain unaware of the gaps in the legalistic discourse and practice of liberal democracy. It is in those fissures that the pestilence of fascism, irrespective of whether it takes the form of Islamism or Hindutva, silently breeds. That said, it would be ideologically troublesome and politically perilous for us here in India to tar the two forms of fascism — Hindutva and Islamism — with the same brush. If anything, such an equation would only reinforce the problematic legal, anti-political praxis of liberal democracy.

We need to distinguish one from the other, even at the risk of appearing undesirably divisive. For, in the long run, more harm than good would be
done if this difference is obscured now for some tenuous gains on the Hindu-Muslim brotherhood front. The point of this comparison is not to legitimise the idea of ‘lesser evil’.

The point is to recognise the difference in political structures and processes constitutive of each of those strains of terror, if only to come up with a composite solution to the larger problem of civic violence of which both Islamism and Hindutva have become indivisible halves. There is absolutely no doubt that both the Islamists and the footsoldiers of Hindutva seek to close the liberal space through their terroristic campaigns, both covert and overt.

But what is more germane is that while the former seeks to subvert liberal democracy by challenging it from the vantage point of opposition and resistance, the latter strives towards the same goal by using the language of liberal statecraft and manipulating its institutions. It would, indeed, be a pity if dubious and equivocal concepts such as “nationalist alienation”, which the BJP has of late been offering by way of ideological apology for acts of ‘cultural nationalist’ violence, obscure the real condition of majoritarian fascism.

The recognition of this difference in methods is crucial because it serves to illuminate a rather intractable problem posed by demographics that liberal democracy cannot discern, leave alone resolve, as long as it posits itself in legal-ethical terms. In this paradigm of liberal democracy the political order gravitates towards the default situation, wherein the status quoist reality of citizenship comes to be seen as a complete realisation of its normative ideal.

In such circumstances, citizenship is conferred only on those who enjoy and/or subscribe to the majority community’s notions and ways of socio-economic and cultural existence. For, in a liberal-democratic order, only those who can create and access a certain form of material and cultural life and/or subscribe to it — as opposed to all those who do not have such capacity and/or inclination — are eligible for citizenship and the rights that come with it.

That virtually legitimises majoritarianism, even as it frames the opposition of social groups either excluded or repressed within the status quo in some kind of minoritarian idiom, which is naturally rendered illegitimate. That is the reason why fascism, when it is manifest through Hindutva, is seen by a whole clutch of committed liberal democrats through a prism tinged with partial, if not total, acceptability. The same bunch, not surprisingly, displays no such ambivalence while characterising Islamist fascism as the greatest evil of our times. There is a desperate need for a more agnostic (read political) approach to liberal democracy. Nothing short of that would help us transcend our fascist condition and the liberal discourse that makes this enormity possible.