By Basav Sen*
In May 2019, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led by Narendra Modi was reelected in India, a development many of us concerned about social, economic, and environmental justice denounced as very dangerous.
We were wrong. It turned out to be exponentially more dangerous than we had imagined.
In its second term in office, the BJP government has moved with unexpected speed and decisiveness to take India down the road to full-fledged fascism. In this, they’ve enjoyed the apparent support of the United States.
But before we examine what they did, let’s step back and examine the understandably loaded term “fascism.”
The BJP’s Unapologetically Fascist Roots
The fascist roots of the BJP run deep.
The BJP is (by its own admission) a political front for an organization called the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which dates back to the 1920s. B.S. Moonje, a mentor of RSS founder K.B. Hegdewar, visited Italy and personally met with Mussolini.
He was very impressed by what he termed the “military regeneration of Italy” under Mussolini, and wanted to recreate it in India— but, in very telling language, he referred to his idea as the “military regeneration” of the majority Hindu community. The weaponization of Hindu identity by today’s BJP (and the unquestioned equation of India with Hinduism) goes back almost a hundred years.
Another early RSS leader, M.S. Golwalkar, praised Nazi Germany in his writings, asserting that the Nazi purge of Jews was intended to “keep up the purity of the nation and its culture,” and that this was a “good lesson for us in [India] to learn and profit by.” Golwalkar never retracted these views, and the RSS only belatedly rejected them after nearly seven decades.
V.D. Savarkar, another early Hindu nationalist leader (and the architect of the conspiracy to assassinate Gandhi), explicitly connected Nazi ideology with Hindu nationalist views about Muslims. He claimed in a 1939 speech that “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.” Note the identification of Indian Muslims and German Jews as the “other,” outside the body of the “nation.”
This history is worth delving into, not for its academic value, but to fully understand the far-right political project in India as unapologetic fascism.
Lockdowns and Concentration Camps
The BJP government’s actions since being reelected last May represent a fundamental continuity with this ideological foundation. The best-known example internationally is Kashmir, where the Indian government has intentionally escalated a decades-long conflict driven by Kashmiri demands for self-determination.
The state of Jammu and Kashmir (in which Muslim-majority Kashmir is the most populous region) has long enjoyed a special legal status in India, with Article 370 of the Indian Constitution providing the state a certain degree of autonomy. It’s important to understand that this was the condition for the state’s accession to India in the first place, not an act of appeasement, as Hindu rightists portray it.
Last August, the Modi used a parliamentary procedure of dubious legality to scrap Article 370, sent even more troops to the already heavily militarized region, and imposed a communications blockade with no internet, mobile, or landline service — evidently to cover up horrific human rights abuses, with reports of deaths, torture, and detention (including detention of children) at the hands of Indian forces.
The Modi government was even willing to risk a confrontation with neighboring Pakistan (which could even lead to a regional nuclear war) with its actions in Kashmir. Both countries have nuclear weapons, and have a long history of conflict, much of it revolving around their rival territorial claims over Kashmir.
The BJP government has also embarked on an overtly fascist project of using ethnonationalist criteria to define who is (and by extension, who isn’t) deserving of Indian citizenship. In the northeastern state of Assam, which borders Muslim-majority Bangladesh, the government required every single resident to prove their citizenship, claiming that there were large numbers of undocumented Bangladeshi migrants in Assam.
Of the 2 million people stripped of citizenship because of their failure to provide documentation (in a country in which many of the rural poor lack birth certificates), most are Muslim. And a disproportionate number are transgender — another vulnerable minority who can be conveniently scapegoated and demonized.
In a move that will be eerily familiar to U.S. readers, the government is building concentration camps to house people (including children) rendered stateless by design.
Last December, the government went further down the slippery slope to full-fledged authoritarianism by passing a bill called the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) that provided citizenship to undocumented non-Muslim immigrants from neighboring Muslim-majority countries.
There are two key reasons why this represents an escalation, beyond what the government has done in Kashmir and Assam.
First, in Kashmir and Assam, there’s a little bit of plausible deniability, even if the anti-Muslim intent of the government is clear. Kashmir is, after all, experiencing a revolt against Indian rule, so the government can claim that its response is for national security reasons. Likewise, in Assam, there’s no dispute about the fact that there are undocumented immigrants from Bangladesh (leaving aside the questions of how many, how one finds out who is or isn’t undocumented, and most importantly, how a state that values human rights and dignity deals with the presence of undocumented immigrants).
With the CAA, though, the mask has come off, with explicit exclusion of Muslims from citizenship written into law. Many argue that it’s a clear violation of India’s secular constitution, which declares all people to be equal regardless of a number of criteria, including religious belief. Secular politics had been foundational to India’s national identity before Hindu nationalist ideology started undermining it.
Politically, though, there’s another factor at play. Both Kashmir and Assam are border states on India’s periphery, far from its major population centers. A large majority of Indians don’t live there, have never been there, and likely don’t know anyone from there. But when the government targets Muslims more broadly, the distant suddenly becomes real for Muslims throughout India, as well as for countless others.
This includes other religious minorities such as Christians, as well as Dalits (Hindus who are lowest in the caste hierarchy), who, along with Muslims, have been targeted for violent attacks by Hindu nationalist hate groups. It includes all Indians who care about human rights of people with a different identity, or about secular constitutional principles and the idea of a pluralist state.
Trump Comes to Modi’s Rescue
In a hopeful sign, the CAA has been the proverbial last straw and sparked massive protests throughout the country. Protesters have faced vicious attacks from right-wing Hindu mobs, with the police acting as hapless spectators (or worse still, joining in the attacks). But the intimidation and violence haven’t stopped the protests.
In this climate of growing dissent in India, and growing international recognition of the grave human rights situation in the country, the Modi government may have been feeling under siege. But a powerful figure on the world stage recently came to the government’s rescue.
U.S. President Donald Trump, in his recent visit to India, clearly indicated that he was on the side of the fascist government, making the preposterous claim that the BJP government “worked very hard to have great and open religious freedom.” Trump shared the stage with Modi at a campaign-style rally of 125,000 supporters, demonstrating a level of support that goes way beyond the usual formalities of a state visit. And just to drive home the point, the U.S. signed a $3.5 billion deal with India for advanced military equipment.
Words matter. Barely after Trump left India, Hindu nationalist mobs started openly attacking Muslim homes, businesses, and places of worship in Delhi, the national capital, chanting that India belongs to Hindus.
Hate crimes and pogroms against Muslims (as well as Dalits, Sikhs, and others) often occur in India, and Modi has been implicated in covering up one such pogrom when he was the leader of Gujarat state years ago. What makes this recent upsurge different is that it happened in the national capital while the global media spotlight was still on Delhi because of Trump’s visit. Clearly, the support of the president of the world’s most powerful country has emboldened Hindu fascist leadership.
As fascism takes hold of India, it will be with active U.S. support. The “friendship” of the Trump regime with the Modi regime is disastrous for countless Indians.
An Omen for the U.S.
People in the United States should be very concerned about the Trump-Modi friendship as well, and not just because it represents an egregiously unethical foreign policy choice by the U.S. Of course it is. But it also has ominous implications for domestic politics in the U.S.
The Trump-Modi friendship is not just a cynical decision by the U.S. to support an oppressive but powerful country with the world’s fifth highest GDP and a lucrative domestic market for U.S. businesses to export to, or invest in. Sure, that’s a factor. But there’s more to the story.
At its core, the friendship is about a shared far-right ideology. The U.S. and India are part of a growing number of authoritarian far-right governments in the world, whose members include Brazil, the Philippines, Hungary, and more, as my colleague John Feffer has articulated so clearly in a recent report.
The parallels between the BJP’s Hindu supremacist politics in India and Trump’s white supremacist politics in the U.S. are many — and frightening. These include writing Islamophobia into law and policy, dehumanizing and detaining undocumented immigrants (including children), and criminalizing Indigenous-led movements against ecologically destructive resource extraction (and even conflating these movements with “terrorism”).
The dangerous political agendas of Trump and his Indian fascist friends do not stop at the boundaries of official government policy. In the fashion of demagogues throughout history, both the U.S. and Indian regimes are adept at encouraging open violence by hate groups in their political base against those perceived as “other.”
The particular significance of these parallels for people in the U.S. lies in the fact that the Modi government in India became a lot bolder about pursuing its exclusionary ethnonationalist agenda in its entirety in its second term, viewing reelection as a mandate to fulfill the fevered fascist dreams of ideological forebears such as Golwalkar and Savarkar.
In the U.S., we should be similarly concerned about the Trump regime being reelected in November. Yes, we have a government that detains children in concentration camps, writes anti-LGBTQ hate into law, and openly rewards politically favored oligarchs in their pursuit of profit at the expense of most of humanity. But as the experience in India shows, things could get dramatically worse here if the Trump regime returns to power.
For the sake of humanity’s future, the “wider alliance between authoritarian and far-right political formations across the world” (as a politically astute protester in India said to the media) must be stopped in its tracks – in the U.S. elections, and in global solidarity to isolate and defeat the Modi regime in India, the Bolsonaro regime in Brazil, and everywhere else that the new fascism has reared its ugly head.
*Basav Sen directs the Climate Policy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies.