Armies of the Pure: the question of Indian fascism

[This article is the English version of an article entitled Les armées des purs : la question du fascisme indien’ , published in the French journal la Revue des Livres #7 (sept.-oct. 2012)]

Armies of the Pure: the question of Indian fascism
(click this title for the SACW link to this article)

The permanent militarisation of society requires a permanent enemy 
(Hoodbhoy & Nayyar 1986)

Is the term fascism relevant to India? The answer lies in what we understand by the term. I use it generically, to refer to the emergence of right-wing dictatorships marked by ultra-nationalist ideologies, the abolition of the rule of law and the destruction of democratic institutions. Fascism invades the public sphere with controlled mobs, and possesses a genocidal instinct towards imaginary “internal enemies.” There were many ingredients to this exterminism, including Social-Darwinism and eugenics. But the articulation of national unity via the bestowal of an inferior status upon an entire community was a central feature. Fascism represents an assault on politics, a substitution of democratic dialogue by violent intimidation, spectacular acclamation and automatic behaviour patterns. 

The link between nationalism and war-mongering, evident in the emergence of nation-states, is vastly extended in fascism. It is an ideologically enforced project which criminalises the State and aims at the militarization of civil society. Hence beyond a point it cannot be understood in utilitarian terms, as an instrument of the bourgeoisie etc. Fascism is a powerful expression of the annihilationist drive endemic in capitalist modernity (there are others). More ominously, it is a populist movement, one that mobilizes the most base and destructive elements in mass psychology. In the words of the ex-Nazi Herman Rauschning, it is the revolution of nihilism.

Historical events do not replicate themselves in pre-determined fashion. But to begin with, fascism was not an event, but a prolonged process with political and institutional features that remain visible despite contextual differences. Fascism was not always marked by seizures of power or the advent of war. Identifying it requires an eye to political tendencies. These tendencies are visible in colonial India and its successor states, although with distinctive features. The common feature is that its successes depend more on ideological influence than organizational affiliation. In India this ideology is manifested in what we call communalism; and it includes the demonisation of entire communities that emerged in the West as anti-Semitism. In my view, communalism is India’s version of fascism.

Communal violence
The independence of India and Pakistan was preceded by much bloodshed. Every decade since the 1890’s had witnessed communal violence, some of it spontaneous. By the 1940’s the deliberate instigation of violence had begun. The Calcutta Killing of 1946, in which over 5,000 people died, was a turning point. [1] After Partition (seen as a victory for proponents of a Muslim Nation), massacres took place all over north India and Bengal. Some fifteen million people were forced to migrate both ways, across a suddenly drawn border. Up to a million were killed.

After 1947 the killings continued, of Muslims in Hyderabad (India) in 1948, of Hindus in East Pakistan in 1949 and 1950, of Ahmadiyas in West Pakistan in 1953 and so on. [2] In recent times, major incidents have attracted world attention - the pogrom of Sikhs in Delhi in 1984, of Muslims in Gujarat in 2002, and of Christians in Odisha in 2008. The Khalistani insurgency in Punjab during the 1980’s resulted in the deaths of thousands of Sikhs and Hindus. The campaign for the destruction of the Babri Mosque lasted eight years (1986-92) and resulted in four to five thousand deaths. The Kashmir insurgency cost tens of thousands of lives, mainly of Kashmiri Muslims. About 300,000 Kashmiri Hindus were forced to leave the Valley in the 1990s, and up to four hundred of them were killed by separatist and/or Islamist terror groups. (All figures are indicative rather than precise).

These traumatic events have left deep psychological scars, and contributed to the stabilization of communal identity. Fear is crucial to the fascist project - hence the strategy of using hurt sentiment as a pretext for mob violence. The targeting of women and young people over dress-codes and adherence to ‘foreign’ culture has been a marked phenomenon. Violent intimidation by both Hindu and Muslim communalists has been gently handled by the police, and has adversely affected women’s safety, academic research and the creative arts.

Understanding Indian Communalism
Many scholars use prefixes such as Hindu and Muslim when speaking of communalism. Some speak only of majorities and minorities. I see it as a generic ideology, with different expressions. [3] In colonial India, communalism referred to the idea that shared religious beliefs imply shared political interests. But Indians also possessed affiliations related to caste, region and language. Religion-based communalism implied a goal, not a reality, and communal ideologies imagined an ideal religious unity. When the nation was defined in religious terms, communalism and nationalism got mixed together. Inevitably, communalists spoke a language of inclusion and exclusion based upon religious criteria.

Communal historiography is propaganda about conquest and defeat. The ideal leaders for communalists are monarchs - this was adjusted to modernism by having permanent presidents. Communalists always dreamt of the military subjugation of their so-called enemies. The enemy was not the British Empire, but another community. Communalism was and remains a battle over political language. It would be pointless to ask Hindus or Muslims to ‘unite’ if they were already unanimous. Rather, the slogans represented an attempt to create a communal interest. Communalism is not an arithmetical total of assorted fanaticisms, but a singular political style with different manifestations. We cannot assume that communal ideas denote a reality; but neither may we brush aside the fascist nature of these ideas merely because communalists have not (yet) overpowered the State. Fascism does not become fascism only when it attains total power. There is a contestation underway, to which there is no foregone conclusion.

Communal politics developed before adult suffrage. 2.7% of the population had voting rights in 1919, this was extended to 12% in 1935. A restricted electorate was the seed-bed of narrow-minded politics, and the British rulers used this to counter nationalist agitation. In 1909, they granted separate electorates for Muslims. From the mid-1920’s the government’s stance towards communal riots was relatively permissive. It also used education, textbooks and news-films to portray India as hopelessly divided.

An example of the perverse political language of communalists is their reduction of democracy to a numbers game. In India it is a commonplace that ‘democracy means the rule of the majority.’ But majority remains an empty mathematical term until we know what we are counting. The (widely accepted) communal stance always assumes we are counting religious communities, whose defining features are self-evident. Democratic governance presumes an independent judiciary, free press and the rule of law. It also implies freedom of speech, belief and assembly; the right to combination and the peaceful resolution of conflicts. It cannot be reduced to ‘the rule of the majority.’ But the pre-conception in all communal programmes is the assumption that religious arithmetic is the most significant factor in politics; and that democracy is about numbers, not liberty. In this sense, communalism is a political philosophy of number.

The fascist mindset of communalists
One of India’s mainstream parties, the BJP, is a front of the RSS (National Volunteers), a paramilitary founded in 1925 by K.B. Hedgewar, a proponent of Hindu Nationalism. This doctrine propagates sacralised geography and racialist nationhood. Hindus are seen as the national race; Muslims, Christians and communists as alien elements. M.S. Golwalkar, the organisations' second Supreme Leader, who took over in 1940, called for unification along racial, religious and cultural lines. His stance towards minorities was this: ‘the foreign elements may live at the mercy of the national race… and quit the country at the sweet will of the national race. That is the only sound view on the minorities’ problem.’

A stalwart Hindu Nationalist was V.D. Savarkar, president of another ultra-nationalist organisation, the Hindu Mahasabha. His favourite slogan was "Hinduise all politics and militarise Hindudom!" In 1942 he asked its members to join the armed forces as part of the Hindu Militarisation movement; and to ‘capture all centres of political power’ such as legislatures, defence committees and ministries. This strategy has been adopted by the RSS/BJP. Incidentally, Savarkar was an accused in the Gandhi murder case - the official report into the assassination makes clear his central role. [4]

The RSS played no role in the national movement, but came into its own in the 1940’s. Late in 1947 the Congress named it a private army. A ban order imposed after Gandhi’s assassination accused it of indulging in ‘acts of violence involving arson, robbery, dacoity, and murder’, collecting illicit arms and ammunition; ‘circulating leaflets exhorting people to resort to terrorist methods, to collect firearms, to create disaffection against the government and suborn the police and military.’ The order said ‘the cult of violence sponsored… by the activities of (the RSS) has claimed many victims. The latest and most precious to fall was Gandhiji himself’. It was banned again in 1975, and in 1992 after the demolition of the Babri Mosque, a campaign led by the BJP leader L.K. Advani.

Today the RSS has a network of fronts including trade-unions, schools, youth and women’s organisations, military academies and so-called religious charities. It has adjusted itself to a prolonged battle for cultural and ideological hegemony. Its leadership renews itself via nomination by the preceding Supreme Leader. It has perfected the tactic of using the Constitution and power to disguise itself (unlike the classic fascisms of the 1920s). Whenever it has access to state protection, it extends its influence in the bureaucracy, police and educational apparatus.

Both Hindu and Muslim communalists used the plight of Europe’s Jews to make a point about unwanted minorities. This was Golwalkar in 1938: ‘To keep up the purity of the race and its culture, Germany shocked the world by her purging the country of the semitic races - the Jews. Race pride at its highest has been manifested here...a good lesson for us in Hindusthan to learn and profit by.’ Savarkar was quoted by the Nazi press in 1939: ‘A Nation is formed by a majority living therein. What did the Jews do in Germany? They being in minority were driven out from Germany.’ In December 1939, he had said: ‘Indian Muslims are on the whole more inclined to identify themselves and their interests with Muslims outside India than Hindus who live next door, like Jews in Germany.’ [5] Indian public opinion does not pay attention to the Nazi genocide of Romanis, though they are of Indian origin. Part of the reason for this is the sanitization of Nazism during the national movement. [6]

In 1950, Pakistan’s first Law minister Jogindranath Mandal, an ‘untouchable’ leader who had joined the Muslim League, resigned his position. His letter to Prime Minister Liaqat Ali Khan condemned the atrocities committed on Hindus in East Pakistan. He quoted Moulana Akram Khan, President of the Provincial Muslim League, who cited the holy Prophet asking for Jews to be driven away from Arabia. Mandal wrote bitterly of 10,000 Hindus being killed in communal violence in February 1950, and of a plan to drive Hindus into India as a means of consolidating Muslim unity. He spoke of widespread molestation and exploitation: ‘there is no operation of law, justice or fair-play in Pakistan, so far as Hindus are concerned.’ He ended by saying that East Bengal had been transformed into a colony of West Pakistan. [7]

Communal ideas have become normalized in South Asia. The enforcement of religious doctrine by the state is evident in Pakistan’s blasphemy law and the persecution of Ahmadiyas. The Indian establishment treats Islamists as anti-national, but the RSS as misguided patriots. This benign approach persists despite the fact that the last instance of RSS-inspired mass rioting took place as recently as 2008. Organisations and individuals associated with the RSS have been accused of involvement in the bombing of a train with Pakistani passengers in 2007, in which 68 people died. The activities of the RSS violate the Indian Constitution. The central question remains their addiction to violence, but this is always underplayed in public discussion. Whereas Maoist violence is condemned by all, the lawlessness of the RSS obtains support or sympathetic forbearance. Numbers of senior policemen, retired and in service, have RSS leanings. In their communal form, extremist ideas have become respectable. People in high positions believe in collective guilt, mob violence and the efficacy of private armies.

Fascism in South Asia
The twentieth century has witnessed a prolonged and tactically sophisticated movement for the totalitarian transformation of South Asian politics. Opposing avatars of communalism run in tandem, like a magneto for generating animus. This is why the partition of India and developments in Pakistan are a part of the story. South Asian fascism is more complex than the situation in pre-war Europe. This obliges us to rethink its elemental aspects. Above all, the de- facto preparation for civil war manifests a systematic attempt to militarise public space. Conjointly with other lawless tendencies, it represents the criminalization of the polity. How far this process has gone in the different successor states of British India is another debate.

Despite these tendencies, the Indian Constitution is by no means a dead letter. But the danger remains. As communal discourses, both Hindu and Muslim nationalism are projects for the conquest of the state by exclusivist ideas of the Nation. And their work continues unabated.


[1] Claude Markovits’ research on this episode may be read here:
[2] The inquiry into the anti-Ahmadiya riots highlighted the erosion of criminal justice: ‘If democracy means the subordination of law and order to political ends - then Allah knoweth best and we end the report.’ See
[3] This approach is developed here:
[4] The report may be read here:
[5] Marzia Casolari’s research on fascism and Hindu Nationalism may be read here:
[6] More on the militarization of Indian politics may be read here:
[7] Mandal’s letter may be read here:


NB - I am glad that this essay has been widely read. The prescribed length by RdL was 2200 words, so I had to condense the argument. There have been many reactions. I intend to respond to criticisms and address unexamined complexities in due course. For the present I will stress one thing: fascism's core is annihilation - of both language and life. Which also means the end of democracy, and all that implies for popular struggles. This annihilationism is difficult to implement as a partisan programme, but easier when the overall social and political climate is surcharged with hatred, intolerance and violent intimidation. There are NO religious traditions that are innocent in the matter of sectarian hatred. The Nazis used Christian anti-Semitism (the demonisation of Jews) to fuel their racist policies, but sadly, various other have traditions adapted the doctrine of collective guilt for their own purposes. Fascist tendencies may be thwarted or half-accomplished, but the drive towards genocide will remain the ultimate fascist fantasy. 

All tendencies towards annihilation are fascistic in nature. Therefore the question of violence is important for those of us who wish to understand what is going on. I have tried to think and analyse this issue ever since I witnessed the carnage of 1984 in the capital city of this 'world-class' power.  If I believed in God I would pray that no generation would ever have to see such horrific things again, no people ever have to suffer such atrocities again. Alas, the atrocities show no sign of stopping. But we must speak. I must say I am pessimistic about the capacity of the established left (including the Maoists) to grasp the danger - my reasons for this are partly spelled out in the two essays mentioned above: A Hard Rain Falling; and Closing the Circle. I think the younger generation of concerned citizens - and not only leftists - is open to a fresh dialogue around these matters. I certainly hope so. Because the danger we face is great. If we make an effort, we may be able to face it and overcome it. Let us work for a world with lots of different ideas and cultures; but with less hatred, less violence and no more fantasies of mass destruction - Dilip


NB: Some observations that I made on a FB thread relating to this essay: There is another problem of attitude & definition that I've addressed in this essay, but I find difficult to get through. This is the arithmetical approach to communalism - it's like saying capitalism equals British capitalism + Mexican capitalism + Japanese, etc. The refusal by the Indian left to theorise fascism & the tendency to conflate communalised identity with 'self-determination' leads to an underplaying of Muslim right-wing politics, of which here are some examples: 

Kerala teacher's hand cut off for alleged Mohammed slight:

An exhibition of Ahmediya literature in Delhi in September 2011 was forced to close down by violent threats issued by Sunni supremacists. <>

Persecution of Ahmediyas in India is growing & there's little or no awareness, let alone defence of their human rights by leftist HR groups. What happens to public perceptions as a result?:

The Deobandis recently sabotaged academic research on Rushdie & inspired the sabotage of his trip to Jaipur, with local Muslim goondas (some part of the BJP 'minority cell', incidentally) speaking of 'rivers of blood.' <

And we know what happened to Taslima. My problem with all these stalwarts of doctrinal or 'cultural' purity is their threat to resort to violence - justified as it is in the IPC as 'hurting popular sentiments'. An army of goons has now begin specialising in the manufacture of hurt sentiment. In the aftermath of the Kokrajhar events in Assam, there was mass rioting in Mumbai & some Muslim youth assaulted people with 'Chinese' features in Pune, Bangalore & elsewhere. Most leftists use Nelsonian vision when it comes to these things, because they think in terms of 'minority' communalism being less dangerous than that of the 'majority'. Arithmetic, once again - we don't reflect either on the generic similarity of the communal style or on how various shades of fanaticism feed on one another, or the fact that a mere re-drawing of sets or sub-sets can make a minority into a majority & vice versa. I'd like to point out (not for the first time) that to reduce fascism in India to Hindutva is to do precisely what our leftists have done for decades - viz, theorise communalism through a denominational prism. The matter is complicated by the boundaries of 1947 & 1971 and the mutation of communalised nationalism into communalised sovereignty.

This sovereignty seems to have affected our capacity & even our intention to understand what we are talking about. We have consigned developments in Pakistan & Bangladesh into a black hole of ignorance. The relentless persecution of minorities in these nation-states is manifest in the fact that as per the 1951 Census of Pakistan, the proportion of Hindus in the population was 22 % (including East Pakistan). The last census for which this break-down is available (1998) placed the figure at 1.85%. There is an entire section of a Pakistani website devoted to the genocide of Shias:

And whereas the Hindu population of Bangladesh was nearly a quarter of the total, today it is under 5 %. JN Mandal's letter gives detailed accounts of a process that began in 1948. (He was a follower of Ambedkar, by the way). I supplied these exemplary references in my fascism essay, but am placing them again here because they tend to get ignored & some people prefer to think that Islamisation began only with Bhutto or Zia: Here's Pakistan's 1st Law Minister's sadly neglected resignation letter:

and Sris Chandra Chattopadhya's speech on the Objectives Resolution, Constituent Assembly Pakistan March12, 1949

Leaving aside the abomination of the little Dalit Christian girl Rimsha Masih being hurled into jail for blasphemy, here's a Pakistani liberal view of the ongoing events around 'Muslim sentiment': <>

If protests were peaceful, there could be no objection. But as things stand, all communalists mimic one another in violent intimidation whilst the State stands by and mollycoddles them. In Pakistan the state itself is calling for nation wide strikes on behalf of wounded sentiment. But we prefer to remain blind, deaf and dumb. As I said, even our theorisation of communalism is communalised. That's how deep it has sunk. Here's an essay by the wise C.M. Naim: The Second Tyranny of Religious Majorities

In the eyes of the RSS, Muslims are genetically treacherous; and in the eyes of many liberals & leftists, Muslims are genetically incapable of producing fascists. Either way, Muslims are essentialised as less than human. That European leftists are clueless about communalism is one thing, but for us to stick to the vocabulary of Hindutva being fascism but Muslim communalism being something less monstrous is self-deception. As things stand, we are contributing to the confusion, not mending it. Inshallah, we shall wake up some day.


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