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Book Review: Interpreting fascism, one fascist at a time

by Javed Anand, 19 May 2013

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The Asian Age, 19 May 2013

In the past two decades or so, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the sangh parivar as a whole and its ideological affiliates have frequently been dubbed as “fascist forces”. Protagonists of Hindutva denounce the claim as “malicious canard”. Citing the Emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi, they argue that the real enemy of Indian democracy is the Congress Party.

To the untutored mind, the “fascist” charge might appear perplexing if not unconvincing. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its earlier incarnation, the Jan Sangh, were duly elected to power by voters in several states and even at the Centre. In Gujarat, Narendra Modi has received a popular mandate thrice over. Where is the fascist takeover?

Well, Hitler, too, assumed power through the democratic process. And once in power, he lost no time in dismantling democracy for a Nazi takeover.
For the contributors to Fascism: Essays on Europe and India, however, the fascist danger in India today is more real than ever before. And the essays “are an attempt to situate Indian communalism in the wider frame of fascist political cultures and their role in creating/consolidating a mass base for the extreme Right”. In a radical departure from the traditional left-wing, Marxist understanding of the phenomenon, presented here is an altogether different picture of European fascism, a scary picture that far too closely resembles communalism in India and the subcontinent.

The key that unlocks the door to the totalitarian utopia is a 1934 booklet, Fascism as a Mass Movement, written by German communist Arthur Rosenberg, translated and published for the first time by Jairus Banaji, editor of the book. Unlike hundreds of other books on the subject, “Rosenberg’s essay is about the origins and growth of fascism, not fascism in power”. More importantly, unlike most left-wing attempts to determine the “class character” of fascism, Rosenberg’s analysis focuses on how the key to its success in Europe lay in its appeal across classes, attracting the “most diverse social strata”.

Here is Rosenberg in a gist. Hitler or Mussolini did not conjure up ideas in their heads. Fascist ideas “were fairly widespread throughout Europe even before the (First World) War and exerted a strong influence on the masses”. “Authoritarian conservatism” across Europe promoted a “demagogic nationalism” that was ultra-patriotic and racist, targeting minorities to build a mass base. Hitler’s evil genius lay in his novel tactic of nurturing and deploying storm-troopers with the connivance of the state. With a virulent nationalist ideology, cadres (storm-troopers) and a complicit state apparatus in place, all that was needed to unleash a pogrom or genocide was “manufacturing the rage of the masses”. Of course, not everyone needed to engage directly in violence; a “widespread receptivity to mass murder”, an all-class coalition between “genocidal consensus”, “passive complicity” and “moral indifference” were sufficient.

Fast forward to India today. Replace demagogic nationalism with militant Hindutva, race with religion, Jews with Muslims, storm-troopers with Bajrang Dal et al, retain state connivance, identify causes to incite mass rage — Ram Janmabhoomi movement, kar sevaks killed in a fire in a train compartment, “ISI-aided jihadi terrorism” — and what do we get?

Having dug deep into archival material, Kannan Srinivasan’s essay, “A subaltern fascism”, recounts in frightening detail how, inspired by European fascism, leaders of the Hindu Mahasabha, such as Vinayak Damodar Savarkar and Balkrishna Shivram Moonje, set about their “Hinduise all politics and militarise Hindudom” agenda in the 1930s and ’40s with single-minded devotion. Their target: Muslims, not the British rulers. Moonje, incidentally, was the brain behind the founding of the RSS and was mentor of the first RSS chief, Keshav Baliram Hedgewar. If you want to understand the real agenda of Hindutva, look at the full picture: the inter-locking of the Hindu Mahasabha, RSS, BJP, Vishwa Hindu Parishad, Bajrang Dal and their numerous offshoots, argues Srinivasan.

Sumit Sarkar’s essay, “The fascism of the Sangh Parivar”, first published by the Economic and Political Weekly (January 30, 1993) in the aftermath of the demolition of the Babri Masjid and the countrywide communal violence it triggered, resonates with much of Rosenberg’s Fascism as a Mass Movement written six decades earlier (though not accessible until now to the English-speaking).

What, perhaps, would generate the most excitement even in sympathetic quarters is the essay by Dilip Simeon titled, “The Law of Killing: A brief history of Indian fascism”. Locating his analysis of developments in the subcontinent on a wider canvas, Simeon writes, “In an era of nation-states (following the dissolution of four major multi-national empires after the end of World War I), fascism has emerged as an immanent tendency — not always successful — of so-called nation-building projects.”

For him, “the nation-state denoted the disastrous marriage of territorial space and ethnic community”. Simeon argues that the very creation of nation-state assumes the existence of a homogenous majority to which the nation-state “naturally” belongs and which is left to deal with the “minority problem”. Transfer of population, ethnic cleansing?

Partitioned ostensibly to deal with the minority problem, we are now landed with multiplying the minority problem thrice over: in India, in Pakistan and in Bangladesh. Simeon rightly argues that the fascist threat is as real in each of the partitioned countries: if it’s Hindutva in India, it’s “Islamofascists” on both sides of its border. Not to recognise this, he argues, is tantamount to addressing the communal question within a communal vocabulary.

In his concluding essay, “Trajectories of Fascism”, Banaji finds something particularly ominous in the growing clamour for Modi as the next Prime Minister: “The RSS always seemed to discourage a leadership cult but this seems to be changing now... for the first time this political sector has found a figurehead around whom to build a Fuhrer cult”.

Is a fascist takeover of India inevitable? Not necessarily. “The distinctive feature of India’s fascism is that it has had to grow in a society where the mass of the population remains committed to democracy and no agenda for the overthrow of democracy can ever be affirmed overtly in those terms,” Banaji observes. Besides, while the “spinelessness of the judiciary... played a major part in the success of German fascism... luckily we still have a Supreme Court that is beyond the direct reach of regimes immersed in criminality, even if its Special Investigation Team (probing the 2002 crimes in Gujarat) can be subverted”.

If you value democracy, read this book.

P.S.

The above is reproduced here for The Asian Age for educational and non commercial use