Overturning the Saffron Republic

Earlier this year a useful collection of essays was published by Cambridge University Press as Saffron Republic: Hindu Nationalism and State Power in India, a book which addresses “contemporary Hindutva as an example of a democratic authoritarianism or an authoritarian populism, that is, a politics that simultaneously advances and violates ideas and practices of popular and constitutional democracy.” (pp.1-2) With the latest electoral success of the far-right in Italy occurring only last week, it is more than apparent that:

“The problem at hand is not unique to India. In recent years, authoritarian and populist governments have formed within constitutional (and in many cases, liberal) democracies in many different parts of the world. As with the Indian BJP under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, leaders like Donald Trump, Recep Erdoğan, Viktor Orbán, Rodrigo Duterte, and other strongmen around the world have not directly annulled democracy in order to come to power. Rather, they have used democracy’s normal and normative resources, relying, for instance, on the continued functioning of key democratic procedures such as elections, and on laws and institutions authorized by their respective constitutions.” (p.4)

Modi himself initially became a member of the paramilitary Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) in the 1960s, and since 2014 has served as the Prime Minister of India for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP, Indian People’s Party), which itself is a progeny of the RSS. However, before seizing control of India’s future, Modi had been the chief minister for Gujarat, sitting in power during the infamous anti-Muslim pogroms of 2002. This violence did not sit well with international witnesses, so to help protect Modi’s reputation the RSS “formed a new affiliate, the Muslim Rashtriya Manch (MRM, or Muslim National Forum), dedicated to the cause of Muslim outreach.” (p.219) Formally launched in December 2002 the MRM was arguably…

“… expedited as a safety-valve, or as ‘political prophylactic’ because of a deep sense of anxiety that the RSS experienced post-2002 Gujarat riots when a number of national and international fact-finding commissions of inquiry and international human rights groups unequivocally indicted the Sangh Parivar and the Narendra Modi regime of enabling the Gujarat pogroms and provoking violence against Indian Muslims. By foregrounding a new relationship with Muslims and by creating Muslim representation within the organization, the RSS attempted to deflect criticism and insulate itself from these new political challenges.” (p.224)

Of course, the political use of communal violence continued to play a vital role in Modi and the BJP’s eventual ascension to supreme power. Hence just prior to the BJP’s electoral breakthrough in May 2014, in September communal violence broke out in Muzaffarnagar and Shamli districts of Uttar Pradesh (UP) “after a year-long campaign by BJP leaders and local units accusing Muslim youth of engaging in ‘love jihad’, that is, marrying young Hindu women with the sole intention of converting them to Islam.” (p.25) The idea of a ‘love jihad’ being a particularly vile conspiracy that had been manufactured by the BJP leadership.

“[On] 16 May 2014: The sixteenth Lok Sabha election results are declared and the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) is victorious. The NDA wins a total of 336 out of the 543 contested seats in India’s lower house (Lok Sabha). Narendra Modi of the BJP is sworn in as the fifteenth prime minister of India on 26 May 2014. The BJP’s campaign rhetoric focuses on the promise of achhe din (good days) and a corruption- (and Congress-) free India – crucially though, the BJP benefits from the polarization of local communities in the aftermath of the Muzaffarnagar riots of 2013 that helped to consolidate the Hindu vote across north and central India.” (p.26)

For more on these riots watch NakulSawhney’s 2015 film Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai (Muzaffarnagar Eventually) which “explores the various social, political, and economic reasons and fallouts of the massacre.”[1]

But now it seems, as another contributor to Saffron Republic puts it:

“If in the past the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and its affiliates engineered ‘riots’ by spreading rumours and aggravating local tensions, they no longer need to do so. In the current political environment and amidst the massive growth of social media, the mere suspicion that a Muslim or Christian is violating Hindu social codes is justification for violence. While in the past, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) fostered Hindu–Muslim tensions prior to elections to influence their outcomes, it now does so more frequently and less predictably. Hindu nationalist violence has increasingly become both routinized and normalized.” (p.59)[2]

“Because of its large electoral majority and the lack of an effective parliamentary opposition,” (p.6) the BJP government has therefore been able to do much to consolidate its power. But it remains the case that the Indian working-class have not accepted the BJP’s authoritarian ways laying down. For example, in December 2019 the government passed their anti-Muslim Citizenship Amendment Act (CCA) in the Indian Parliament, “leading to widespread protests against its perceived discriminatory intent.” While on December 30, 2019, a timeline of significant events notes how:

“The central government picks out a hundred railway routes for private carriers to operate 150 passenger trains every year. Later in January 2020, the Indian Railways announces that its production units will soon be privatized in a modernization drive and private companies will be allowed to manage around 750 railway stations across the country. The All India Railwaymen’s Federation (AIRF) launched a nationwide strike in September 2020 against the privatization of the Indian Railways.” (pp.48-9)

And on September 20, 2020:

“The Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement of Price Assurance Act, and the Farm Services and the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Ordinance are introduced in the Indian Parliament – two of these bills are passed through a ‘voice vote’ in the Rajya Sabha. Under a voice vote, the Speaker (or in this case, the Deputy Chairman) seeks a response from members of the House in terms of ‘ayes’ or ‘noes’, and decides on the success of a motion depending on which side is louder (if ‘aye’, then the motion is passed). Crucially, this process circumvents the standard procedure of having members of Parliament vote on any legislation. Farmers’ groups claim that these laws bypass the existing Agricultural Produce Market Committees (APMCs) and the Minimum Support Price (MSP) regime for agricultural commodities, and will instead allow private entities to dictate agricultural commodity prices. Protests against these laws are particularly intense in the states of Punjab and Haryana. On 26 September, the Shiromani Akali Dal quit the BJP-led NDA alliance in protest against the passage of the farm bills.” (p.55)

These events fortunately led to the development of a huge mass movement of ordinary people, and” Following nearly a year of sustained protests by farmers from Punjab, Haryana, and UP [Uttar Pradesh], PM Modi announced the withdrawal of the three farm laws on 19 November 2021.” Nevertheless, despite this “announcement, the Samyukta Kisan Morcha (SKM) – one of the leading organizations in the protests –… vowed to continue the struggle until the central government legally guarantees the MSP regime (and meets other demands).” (p.58) (For more on this victory, see “Heroic farmers movement wins concessions from right-wing Modi government.”)

Yet as the preceding quotes illustrate, while Saffron Republic does briefly touch upon existing forms of resistance to Modi’s regime, the book fails to examine in any detail the types of mass workers movements that continue to oppose the BJP. For example, the book makes no reference to the January 2020 general strike that involved 250 million workers (the world’s largest ever general strike), or the second general strike of that year that took place on November 26 and also involved 250 million workers. In these huge shows of working-class strength, the “trade unions explicitly linked their strike to the farmers’ protest, just as in January it was linked to the mass protest against the citizenship laws of the BJP government that sought to institutionalise discrimination against Muslims in particular.”

Echoing the point made in Saffron Republic about thelack of an effective parliamentary opposition,” Achin Vanaik, the author of the 2017 book The Rise of Hindu Authoritarianism: Secular Claims, Communal Realities, has pointed out how “none of the opposition parties are seriously committed to reversing India’s neoliberal turn since the early 1990s.” Hence:

“Within the Hindi heartland, a public “common sense” that has been substantially shaped by Hindutva ideological claims and motifs unfortunately reigns. With the exception of India’s mainstream left, which is now in serious decline, the rest of the opposition parties have all accepted to some degree that there is a dominant “Hindu community” which must be wooed as such. On foreign policy, the opposition parties simply echo the belligerent nationalism of Modi’s government, or even accuse it of being too soft on Pakistan and China.”

This lack of an organised political resistance helps explain why most of India’s trade unions have proven unwilling to challenge the capitalist routes of Modi’s authoritarian regime. It is not good enough to use general strikes in a symbolic sense to express workers’ anger, instead they must be used politically, that is, be utilised by workers in an effort to overthrow the BJP’s oppressive regime and replace it with a democratic and socialist alternative. That is why:

Socialists are defending the need for a battle plan so that protests are not limited to one-off events. The farmers’ movement shows the strength of a well-prepared protest wave over the longer term. What are the trade union leaders waiting for in order to draw up an equally ambitious and audacious action plan to join the farmers’ struggle? A plan that makes it clear that the fight will be stepped up to the point in which the demands of the workers are heard. To begin with, all unions should join the call by the farmers for a ‘bharat bandh’ (general strike) on December 8 — not only in words but also in deeds, as a first step towards further joint action practically mobilising workers alongside the farmers.

There is great dissatisfaction among broad sections of the population, but long-term mobilisation will require an alternative to the present policies. Rejecting neoliberal reforms is a good and necessary starting point. In a period of global economic decline and increasing tensions in the context of the new cold war, it is becoming increasingly clear that capitalism means misery and hunger for the Indian masses. There is a need for a complete overhaul of the system. Revolutionary activists must organise themselves in order to lay the foundations for the socialist change that is so badly needed on the Indian subcontinent!”


[1] In an interview conducted in Saffron Republic, Nakul Sawhney notes that “the ‘propaganda model’ explains the political atmosphere that we are in (Edward and Chomsky 2002). The role of the corporate houses is key: the kind of media owners we have are very much in love with the political parties in power, and they dominate television and web platforms. Media ownership completely controls and facilitates the propagation of the Hindutva ideology in many ways.” (p.116) The Propaganda Model was devised by Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky to describe how the mainstream media (in America) manufacture public consent for elite interests.

[2] “Populist leaders often normalize their promotion of ethnic and racial hatred by claiming that they embody the will of the people and are acting at the people’s behest. What makes Narendra Modi distinctive is that since becoming prime minister, he has refrained from openly enjoining the masses to engage in violence. Thus, violent attacks on religious minorities appear to emanate spontaneously from below. At the same time, Modi has promoted militant government leaders and civil society organizations that espouse violence and BJP state and national governments have passed laws that normalize violence.” (pp.60-1)

On the issue of the BJP’s persecution of Christians: “Hindu nationalists have engaged in extensive violence against India’s Christian minority. Their rumours that Christians are forcibly converting Hindus have provided the pretext for vandalizing and destroying churches, and assaulting, abducting, and murdering priests and nuns. Perpetrators of these attacks do not need to prove that Christians are engaging in forcible conversions. Their aim is to warn Christians that their religious identities make them suspect. Hindu nationalist organizations have also organized ghar wapsi (homecoming) campaigns to ‘reconvert’ Christians and Muslims to Hinduism. What they term reconversion erroneously assumes that all Muslims and Christians were forcibly converted out of Hinduism and must be converted back into it. Underlying this campaign is the assertion of Hindu domination and a refusal to recognize and affirm religious pluralism.

“BJP state governments have fostered distrust of Christians by passing the so-called Freedom of Religion legislation, prohibiting conversion to Christianity. Five state governments have passed laws which require converts out of Hinduism to inform the district magistrate and require community members to inform the police and administration if they suspect that pastors, nuns, and clergymen are proselytizing.” (p.64)


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