In February 2020, over a hundred thousand Indians crowded into the Sardar Patel cricket Stadium in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, in western India. Here, Prime Minister Narendra Modi welcomed President Donald Trump on his first visit to the subcontinent. The event was called “Namaste Trump,” to mirror Trump’s “Howdy, Modi!” rally held in Houston the previous September. Despite all the showmanship, Trump’s visit to India did not amount to much. However, the leaders did agree to a $3.5 billion arms deal, mostly consisting of the sale of American-made helicopters. This followed an earlier authorization of a $1.87 billion deal for Raytheon-manufactured short-range missiles. Meanwhile, the Indian Army continued its occupation of Kashmir, widely considered to be the most militarized place on the planet. Trump obviously had no qualms selling arms to Modi and his murderous Hindu nationalist government. How will this change under a Biden administration?
The History and Structure of Hindu Nationalism
Hindu nationalism has its roots in the first half of the twentieth century, during India’s struggle for independence from Britain. The notion of Hindutva, or “Hindu-ness,” originates in the writings of Vinayak Damodar Savarkar. An independence activist and contemporary of Mohandas Gandhi, Savarkar’s advocacy of violence as a means to an end rivalled and contrasted sharply with Gandhi’s famous pacifist techniques of resistance. For Savarkar, a Hindu is someone whose ancestors and religion were “born” in India, the land beyond the Indus River and between the Himalayas and the Indian Ocean. Savarkar included not only Hinduism, but also Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism among the indigenous religions of India (conspicuously, Islam is not included, due to its origin in the Arabian peninsula). Thus Hinduness includes but is not limited to religious Hinduism, making it a geographical, cultural, ethnic, religious, and political concept.
Hindutva is the ideological basis of Hindu nationalism. Its aim is to create a Hindu Rashtra, or Hindu polity; a nation of and for Hindus, in the expansive sense of the term. Muslims (and Christians) are not truly Indian, since their Holy Land is in the Middle East. Their loyalty to the Motherland is suspect, the thinking goes, so they are an obstacle to the creation of the Hindu Rashtra. For Hindu nationalists like Savarkar, Muslims belong in Pakistan, not in India. Hindutva is thus opposed to the secular, pluralist vision of India as put forth in the country’s constitution. In Hindutva: Who is a Hindu? Sarvarkar invokes the language of the classical Indian philosophical notion of Self to explain his conception of the relationship between Muslims and the Indian state: “Nothing makes Self conscious of itself so much as a conflict with not-self. Nothing can weld peoples into a nation and nations into a state as the pressure of a common foe. Hatred separates as well as unites.” Writing under colonial rule, Savarkar went so far as to maintain that Muslims are a worse problem for India than the British.
Fascism in India bears many parallels to German and Italian fascism: a hierarchy of citizenship/humanity, the scapegoating of an internal enemy, hyper-masculinism and the rigid bifurcation of gender roles, (para)militarism, youth involvement in the military via youth organizations, a massive propaganda apparatus, anti-communism, and an ethno-nationalist ideology riddled with historical falsehoods. In fact, Hindu nationalist thinkers openly compared themselves to the Nazis. Savarkar in 1938 wrote that “if we Hindus in India grow stronger in time Moslem friends of the League [All-India Muslim League — a political party representing Muslims] type will have to play the part of the German Jews.”
In India today, Savarkar’s legacy is pursued by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a right-wing paramilitary mass organization with at least six million members. The RSS’s historical leader, M.S. Golwalkar (who headed the organization from 1940-1973), spoke openly in his We or Our Nationhood Defined: in “Hindustan, the land of the Hindus, lives and should live the Hindu Nation…All others are either traitors or enemies to the National Cause…to keep up the purity of the Race and its culture, Germany shocked the world by her purging the country of the Semitic Race — the Jews…a good lesson for us in Hindustan [India] to learn and profit by.”
The Hindu nationalist vision is not just an idea. The RSS offers military training and discipline to its members. It is responsible for, among other things, the demolition of the five-hundred-year-old Babri Masjid mosque in Ayodhya in 1992 and the ensuing violence that resulted in around 2,000 deaths; the Gujarat riots of 2002, leading to another thousand-plus deaths; the Kandhamal riots of 2008 which involved forced conversions and the immolation of some 400 churches and over 5,000 houses. It also had links with the assassination of Gandhi in 1948 (the assassin was an RSS member).
Modi’s party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), is closely linked to the RSS. The party belongs to the Sangh Parivar umbrella movement, which gathers together the broad “RSS family” that includes student groups and religious organizations committed to Hindutva.
The Expansion of Hindu Nationalism
The RSS family has expanded its activities all over India in recent years. These need to be viewed in light of their ideological mission of a Hindu Rashtra. Animated by this goal, they are engineering demographics in order to craft an ethno-religious-state. Their recent activities, such as the abrogation of Article 370, the Citizenship Amendment Act, and the National Register of Citizens, only make sense in light of this.
The Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), signed into law in 2019, makes it easier for refugees fleeing religious persecution in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan to become Indian citizens. This law applies to Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Jains, Parsis, and Sikhs, but not Muslims. The logic behind this, according to the BJP, is that since the three countries in question are Muslim-majority, Muslims cannot be persecuted. Not only does this ignore that there are in fact Muslim groups discriminated against in those countries, it also violates India’s secular constitution, in which religion cannot factor into citizenship. Notably, this law excludes Rohingya refugees, a largely Muslim minority group that is facing genocide in Myanmar.
The CAA comes alongside the National Register of Citizens (NRC); the purpose of which is to identify the people living “legally” and “illegally” in India. In other words, to separate the wheat from the chaff. If not listed on the original NRC of 1951, people must prove that they are citizens with some sort of documentation, such as a birth certificate, voting record, or prove that they descend from people who are citizens. In a society with high illiteracy rates and in which many have no such printed records, it is extremely difficult to prove citizenship. After the NRC was conducted, more than one million people have been deemed stateless in the northeastern state of Assam, even those who were born in India and whose families have lived there for decades. There is set to be an India-wide NRC in 2021. The worry is that Muslims, who constitute around 15% of India’s population (about 200 million people), will be systematically excluded from the register. Statelessness in this context means that those declared illegal will be sent to detention centers, which are being constructed across India. The government would likely try to deport “illegals” (referred to by former BJP president Amit Shah as “infiltrators” and “termites,” reminiscent of how Hitler spoke of Jews as “insects” and “roaches” in Mein Kampf), but, since many of them have lived in India for decades, where would they be sent? The government of Bangladesh has said it would not accept them, and the BJP has not said specified where the undocumented would be deported.
Until recently, Jammu and Kashmir, India’s only Muslim-majority state, enjoyed special constitutional status and a considerable amount of autonomy. This changed in August of 2019, when Modi’s government abrogated Articles 370 and 35A of the Constitution of India, which was followed by the Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation Act. In effect, these actions allow Delhi greater control over governance of Jammu and Kashmir and strips away local autonomy. Following these actions, the government rushed security personnel to the region, arrested local leaders, instituted a communications blackout, and banned foreign journalists from the area. Removing Article 35A is significant, because previously Indian citizens from outside of Jammu & Kashmir could not purchase land or settle in the state, among other things. Now people from outside Kashmir can take up residence and employment there. According to proponents, this was done to universalize rights for Indians and to curb terrorism. However, these actions align too perfectly with the RSS-BJP’s dream of a Hindu Rashtra. It is hard to believe anything except that these actions were taken in order to displace and whittle away at the Muslim majority in the territory.
As Arundhati Roy writes in her recent book Azadi: Freedom. Fascism. Fiction:
The real purpose of an all-India NRC, coupled with the CAA, is to threaten, destabilize, and stigmatize the Indian Muslim community, particularly the poorest among them. It is meant to create a tiered citizenship…This is the RSS’s version of Germany’s 1935 Nuremberg Laws, by which German citizens were only those who had been granted citizenship papers — legacy papers — by the government of the Third Reich. The amendment against Muslims is the first such amendment. Others will no doubt follow, against Christians, Dalits, communists — all enemies of the RSS.
We are seeing the foundations of fascism being laid in India. To provide military and intelligence support to the current government of India, therefore, is to abet this process.
Will Biden Enable Modi and Hindu Nationalism?
The goals of the RSS and BJP are well-known. They aren’t exactly shy. What is less clear, however, is how President Joe Biden will relate to Modi and the burgeoning Hindu Rashtra. If we want an idea, we might look at what Biden has said and done regarding India, as well as the Obama administration’s relationship with India. Despite Biden’s rhetoric about human rights and returning to “normal” policies, foreign and otherwise, there will likely be a certain continuity between Trump and the new president.
It is clear that in the eyes of Biden, Obama, and Trump alike, India is a geopolitical and business partner. India is an important ally in the Indo-Pacific region, and will only be increasingly so as long as China looms so imposingly over the American imaginary. Bush collaborated with India in the name of counterterrorism. Obama continued his predecessor’s decisions, and forged a deal with Modi to support American investment in Indian nuclear power. The Bush administration actually banned Modi from traveling to the US due to his complicity in the 2002 Gujarat riots. But Obama rehabilitated Modi’s image and invited him to the US. Yes, Modi was a head of state while Obama was in office, unlike during the Bush administration, so it is natural that the two would have some sort of relationship. But Obama did far more than establish diplomatic ties. Obama legitimized Modi and overlooked the violence for which he and the RSS are responsible. Why? Apparently, to open up India for business. Obama and Modi developed a warm rapport. The former president gushed over Modi’s achievements in a piece he wrote for Time, calling him the “reformer in chief.” Obama also designated India as a Major Defense Partner, ensuring close military and technological collaboration.
In addition to the grandstanding and very public embrace of Modi, Trump doubled down on Obama’s decisions. He granted India Strategic Trade Authorization-1 (STA-1) status, which allowed defense technology sales, and also agreed to the Industrial Security Annex (ISA), in order to share sensitive information and classified technologies. India and the US already hold joint military drills. A group known as the ‘Quad’ — Australia, Japan, India, the US — have already performed joint navy exercises in the Indian Ocean, and their partnership seems likely to continue. The aforementioned arms deal followed the threat of sanctions posed by the US over India’s purchase of Russian arms. Russia remains India’s number one arms supplier, with the US in second, but it seems the Trump administration was keen to change that. Trump, like Obama before him, saw India as a military ally and a business partner. However, Trump’s very public spectacles of support for Modi came at a time when it was widely known that things were getting bad in India. This was, of course, consistent with Trump’s affinity for other authoritarians, such as Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro.
Biden’s legislative record indicates his view of India. In 2005 Biden cosponsored a bill authorizing the transfer of warships to India. He also served on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee when the 2008 US-India Civil Nuclear Agreement passed, which permits the sale of nuclear material for energy production. This, despite the fact that India had tested nuclear weapons not long before the bill’s passage. This latter agreement was passed in the name of increased commerce between the two countries.
Tensions between the US and China continue to rise under the Biden administration. India will thus remain an important geostrategic and military partner in contesting China’s actions in Asia and the Pacific. Biden himself has said as much, noting the importance of working with India to promote a counterbalance to Chinese power. We are likely to see more, not less, partnership between the American and Indian militaries. Moreover, Biden’s foreign policy picks are notably, but unsurprisingly, hawkish. Many of these picks worked for or were part of organizations funded by weapons manufacturers. Biden himself has throughout his career been a consistent supporter of war, most conspicuously and disastrously the invasion of Iraq. Given these factors, we are more than likely to see continued alliance between the American and Indian militaries and defense contractors. Geopolitical interest will surpass concern for human rights.
However, unlike in the Obama era, Hindu nationalists have now been subject to widespread international criticism. Among American politicians there is also a growing awareness of and resistance to Modi and his government. Representatives Pramila Jayapal, Ro Khanna, and Ilhan Omar, among others, have spoken clearly about what is happening in India. Given this, as well as a wider awareness of and concern about fascism developing in India, there may be more pressure on the Biden administration to do something about Indian human rights abuses. Biden has criticized the NRC and the Indian government’s actions in Kashmir, mentioning their incongruity with India’s secular, pluralist democratic tradition. He called for a “restoration” of rights for Kashmiris, but did not elaborate on how he might promote those rights. Kamala Harris, the first Indian-American to be vice president, has also been critical of the abrogation of Article 370. Obama likewise has in the past appealed to the secular ideals of India’s constitution and has warned against sectarian divisions, but appeared to think that Modi has little to do with this sectarianism. He said “I think [Modi’s] impulses are to recognize Indian unity. I think he firmly believes unity is necessary for the progress of” India. He is speaking of the man who is pushing to legally divide the nation along ethnic-religious lines.
As with Obama, Biden speaks the language of human rights, but will he back it up with action? It is hard to expect any substantive action from Biden to curb the human rights abuses going on in India, nor any challenge to the construction of a thoroughly fascist Indian state. In fact, should military and technology partnership continue, the US under Biden may actively contribute to it.
Resistance and Hope
Despite enjoying majoritarian support even in the face of a slew of major mistakes (including one of the most callous pandemic shutdowns on Earth), there is significant resistance to Modi in particular and Hindu nationalism in general. Before COVID-19 struck, India saw sustained protests over several months, in which Indians, led in large part by students and Muslim women, took to the streets to reject the CAA and NRC. The response by the police and RSS vigilantes, who often work in concert, was brutal. Recently, the world witnessed the largest general strike in history, in which Indian farmers and others protested against a series of farm bills which would be a boon to big agribusiness and remove protections for small farmers. These bills are part of the BJP’s longstanding penchant for deregulation and privatization.
Regardless of the significant and growing opposition, Modi and the RSS currently have a stranglehold on Indian politics. Their power is deep and their money is long. The need to organize against the power of capital and fascism remains as urgent as ever. After all, fascism first arose in Europe in a period of extreme economic inequality, and it does so again now. For Americans and leftists worldwide, especially the Indian diaspora, Hindutva leaves open the opportunity for truly internationalist, intersectional solidarity. The fight against Hindutva is also the fight against global Islamophobia, xenophobia, and caste discrimination; it is an anticolonial and pro-Indigenous struggle; it is the battle against poverty and global neoliberalism, and for Dalit Lives, women’s rights, and environmental protection. We must be vocal about Hindu fascism. We must hold corporations and public officials accountable for complicity with the BJP and RSS. We must demand an end to arms deals with India. We must expose the financial and ideological links between Hindu nationalists living in the US and India. And we must find a way to halt the India-wide NRC and the detention of declared “non-citizens.” Resistance to the NRC is especially important now, since it is set to take place India-wide in 2021. We also should accept more refugees, who will inevitably flee amidst oppression and worsening conditions. And we must show solidarity with Indians living under RSS-BJP rule.
Finally, it is time to take a stance on Kashmir. The position on Kashmir must be, unequivocally, in support of Kashmiri autonomy and freedom. First, we must demand basic rights for Kashmiris and Ladakhis. Kashmiris live in a military state, with torture chambers all over the valley, scarce and surveilled access to Internet, no freedom of expression, and no actual political autonomy or representation. As a longer-term goal, we should be pushing for a plebiscite. The United Nations called for a referendum in 1949, but it never took place. How can we expect to see peace in the region without Kashmiris themselves having a say in the future of their land? Thus the simplest, albeit seemingly impossible, solution would be a plebiscite in which Kashmiris would decide for themselves what country they would like to belong to, or whether they would like their own independent nation. This referendum should consult the Kashmiris in Pakistan-administered Kashmir as well, and Ladakhis should have their own plebiscite. The goal must be the unity and sovereignty of the Kashmiri people.
While a plebiscite is presently unlikely, it may be crucial for any future-oriented foreign policy. India and Pakistan, who have fought multiple wars since the partition of British India in 1947, are both nuclear powers. They are the only nuclear powers to have fired missiles at one another, following the 2019 suicide bombing in Pulwama district that killed over forty Indian security officers. Tensions are high, and, with some of the most densely populated areas in the world within striking distance of a nuclear warhead, the stakes are even higher. In the face of continuing terror attacks in Kashmir, how patient can we expect a Hindu nationalist government to be? China, another country well-equipped with nuclear weapons, also has territorial claims in the region and recently added to the tension. The occupation of Aksai Chin and the Karakoram Tract is important to the Chinese government’s Belt and Road Initiative. Furthermore, Kashmir, together with the greater Tibetan and Himalayan region, is one of the most fragile and vital ecosystems on Earth. The water flowing from the Tibetan Plateau sustains over 1.3 billion people in ten countries. This makes the region important geopolitically, as well as environmentally. Warming temperatures, big agriculture, and damming are drying these rivers up. Geopolitical control is winning out over concern for the lives of nearly a fifth of humanity. Much of the damming is being done by China in Tibet, but India too has been constructing dams with deleterious environmental consequences. In absolute terms, India is the world’s third greatest emitter of carbon dioxide, and pollution chokes many South Asian cities. Collaboration will be crucial in preventing, mitigating, and handling some of the worst humanitarian crises and largest migrations in history. Perhaps the US could play a role in providing clean energy technology, reducing pollution, and supporting seed sovereignty and small-scale regenerative agriculture in both India and Pakistan. As temperatures rise, so will geopolitical disputes in this Asian crossroad. The least we could ask for is for the people of the region to have a voice in their own future.