Fascism without Borders: Britain and the BJP

In May 2015, as campaigning for the general election in Britain was underway, a flyer surfaced online urging “Dharmic voters" to vote for the Conservative party.

In May 2015, as campaigning for the general election in Britain was underway, a flyer surfaced online urging “Dharmic voters” (a catch-all term intended to encompass Hindus, and those who the Hindu Right sees as part of its religious “family”, including Sikhs and Jains) to vote for the Conservative party. The document accused Labour and the Liberal Democrats of branding every “Dharmic” person “today and forever as being born casteist”, and exhorted members of those religious communities to vote Conservative,the only party willing to not pursue the matter of including caste as an axis of discrimination in the Equality Act 2010.

This ought not to be too surprising, given that in 2015 the Conservative government was already voicing discontent with anti-discrimination legislation they were mandated to enact under European law (a prelude to the Brexit that was to come), and that the most vocal opposition to anti-caste legislation has often come from the demographic of wealthy or middle-class upper-caste British-Indian votes they have sought to woo. In 2015, British-Indians were a key voting bloc for the Conservative Party, with an estimated 615,000 migrant Indian voters in the UK, and 1.4 million people of Indian origin living in the UK. This group has historically voted Labour – but the Tories have made significant inroads over the years, and by the election in 2017, a post-election survey showed that the Tories enjoyed an 8% advantage over Labour among British Hindus and Sikhs.

It is easy to see why – for one, Corbyn’s social democratic offer alienated aspirational middle-class Indians; Theresa May has repeatedly emphasised the importance of India as a trading partner; and Corbyn has long been a supporter of the Dalit rights movement in the UK, and serves as honorary chairperson of the Dalit Solidarity movement. Further, Corbyn supported a motion in the House of Commons that called on the Secretary of State to reinstate a ban on the then-Gujarat Chief Minister (now India’s Prime Minister) Narendra Modi’s travel to the UK, given his alleged role in and failure to prevent the communal massacres of 2002 that claimed the lives of over a thousand Muslims in the state of Gujarat (including British nationals) and displaced thousands more.

Still, the British-Indian love affair with the Conservatives was by no means inevitable. Despite the ploys made by the Tories to scupper anti-caste legislation, including Bob Blackman’s manifesto pledge to keep it out of the Equality Act in the 2017 election campaign, the major draw that Labour has held for middle-class Indians has been their comparatively progressive policies on both race and immigration, areas normally key to a migrant community’s vote.

Several Labour Party members have also extended a warm hand to Narendra Modi – chief among them is Barry Gardiner, a man whose star has risen among Corbyn supporters after his performance during the election, who invited Modi to address the House of Commons, describing it as a “culmination of several years of engagement between senior representatives of the Labour Party and Modi”. Gardiner, in his role as Chairman of Labour Friends of India, has been one of Narendra Modi’s most vociferous champions and in an interview with the Times of India he revealed a warm admiration for the man himself, describing him as ‘a secular leader who has the overwhelming support of all communities in Gujarat…proven time and time again in state elections”. He added, “I have met politicians from across the world and I rank him on the pinnacle of all political leaders I have known. His competence to govern is unbelievable.”

During Modi’s state visit to Britain in 2015, several other senior Labour MPs (Keith Vaz, Virendra Sharma, Seema Malhotra, and Steve Pound) pledged to donate their pay raises to the dazzling event held at Wembley Stadium with David Cameron, which was highly attended by the British-Indian community. The three-day state visit resulted in more than £9 billion in signed business deals, and David Cameron heralding a “new and dynamic partnership” between Britain and India, one that was no longer “imprisoned by the past”.

The visit certainly did mark a change from the days when the US had repeatedly denied Modi a visa to enter, and the UK government had a working policy to have no contact with the Gujarat state government, over concerns regarding the bloodshed in Gujarat in 2002. The death toll was estimated to be over 1,000 persons (over 2,000 by some other estimates), largely perpetrated by organised groups of Hindus targeting Muslims, often with the tacit or explicit support of state forces. Mass rape, the burning alive of people, homes and small businesses, and the widespread destruction of mosques raged across the state for several weeks.

Modi has been widely held responsible by civil rights groups for the Gujarat government’s failure to act swiftly to respond to the violence, and the National Human Rights Commission reported numerous incidents of state collusion and a refusal to pursue justice against the perpetrators of violence. The state government steadfastly refused to pay compensation to victims, or provide anything but the most basic of relief to those displaced by the violence (of whom there were over 200,000) – many of whom have not returned to their villages or towns to this day.

Narendra Modi has neither personally apologised for the violence nor expressed any regret, and went on to appoint key figures accused of instigating the violence to high-level government positions. When the United States government under George W. Bush denied Modi a visa, citing the National Human Rights Commission report on the 2002 violence, Modi and his party reacted with outrage – variously labelling it an act of “racism”, an “insult to the entire nation”, an “insult to the Constitution”, and claiming it did not need “lessons in religious freedom from anyone in the world”.

There are strong reasons to reconsider the reversal of this approach – even if Modi is now the Prime Minister of the country, and even if he was elected to that position. Since the ascendancy of Narendra Modi’s party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), to power there has been a growing climate of hate and fear that targets marginalised groups, silences those that dissent from the government’s enforced jingoism by branding them as “anti-national”, and further emboldens the militant Hindu fundamentalist elements within the party and their ferociously anti-Muslim politics.

To those who know the origins of the BJP and its ideology, this will seem an almost natural outcome of their politics – they are linked to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a Hindu nationalist group whose founders consider Indian national identity to be narrowly identified with Hindu culture and beliefs: religious minorities must pay allegiance to the Hindu nation and refrain from practicing their faith in the public sphere.

Not much has changed for the contemporary avatars of Hindu nationalism. It remains a project committed to reducing religious minorities to second-class citizens, consolidating a muscular iteration of what it sees to be “Hinduism” (often a distillation of upper-caste practices and beliefs) through a cultural and electoral absorption of castes and tribes that have historically been excluded from Hinduism. The results of this are visible nearly everywhere across the country today – mob lynchings of Dalits and Muslims are on the rise, often accompanied by allegations that the victims were are carrying beef or transporting cattle for slaughter (as the cow is considered by some Hindus to be a sacred animal); the state gives credence to spurious claims that inter-religious marriages are a plot by Muslim men to “steal” Hindu women and there have been numerous attacks on non-governmental organisations and universities that criticise the government.

In January 2015, Priya Pillai from Greenpeace India was scheduled to travel to London to testify on the effects of Essar Energy’s mining before she was deplaned. The Indian government claimed that she was not allowed to travel as her testimony would project a “negative” image of the government at an international level – never mind that the abuses of the UK-registered coal mining company were being inflicted on its own indigenous citizens. It later emerged that the Central Government had also had a hand in events at Hyderabad Central University where a Dalit student who was involved in student politics, Rohith Vemula, was stripped of his scholarship and subjected to institutional persecution until he committed suicide in January 2016. The then-Minister for Human and Resource Development had received a letter accusing the student group of engaging in “anti-Hindu” activities and it was this that led to the suspensions. Subsequent events at Jawaharlal Nehru University in February 2016 advanced this assault on students – after student groups held protests to mark the hanging of Afzal Guru, a Kashmiri separatist who the state claims had a hand in a 2001 Parliament attack though this has been widely disputed, three students were later arrested and charged with sedition for allegedly shouting ‘anti-national’ slogans.

For those who believed that Modi’s affiliation with the RSS, which began in his boyhood, would be tempered by high office, that the moderate elements in his party would win out, or even that the trend to authoritarian religious nationalism would be a price worth paying for economic progress and development – none of these promises have been borne out.

The debacle that was “demonetisation” (an overnight move taken by the Government that rendered 86% of currency notes invalid) has had lingering financial effects; surveys have indicated that unemployment is at a 5 year high; whilst investment in improving social welfare and government employment schemes has so far been negligible. For all the bluster of the government, their constant unveiling of new plans and slogans, there is only so much that can distract from the ground reality of economic pressures – religious polarisation and jingoism can only carry them so far electorally. And yet, this is precisely the strategy they are employing. In a move that stunned many, Yogi Adityanath was made Chief Minister of India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, in March 2017 – Adityanath is a man widely seen as representative of the most violent elements of the BJP, having been involved in drives to mass “convert” religious minorities to Hinduism, engaging in murderous anti-Muslim rhetoric, and calling on the Indian government to adopt a ban similar to Trump’s ban on citizens from 7 Muslim-majority countries from entering the country.

Under ordinary circumstances this should be more than enough to give pause for thought, but not in the post-Brexit era. Britain is desperate for allies outside Europe for the uncertain years that lie ahead, as was made clear when Theresa May made her first trade mission visit to India in November 2016. In many ways, the Conservative Party has made its own compromises with the far Right in the United Kingdom – adopting its racist and xenophobic line on migrants, refugees, and asylum-seekers – and British governments have hardly minded turning a blind eye to the actions of its friends in the past. But the sanitisation of Hindutva (as Hindu nationalism is called by its adherents) in British politics marks a dangerous turn – far from being uneasy bedfellows, it marks a willingness to completely disregard all prior apprehensions about Narendra Modi’s record to leap into trade arrangements and business deals.

The controversy around the inclusion of caste in the Equality Act also demonstrates that Hindutva has a role to play in British politics too: in consolidating an identity around Hindus, Jains, and Sikhs, and in opposing mechanisms of justice being made available to Dalit and Bahujan diaspora by calling caste a product of colonialism and arguing that legislating it would entrench it. Besides, Hindutva groups are active in the British-Indian community beyond lobbying against anti-caste legislation – the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (HSS) is the overseas wing of the RSS and is a UK-registered charity, and the Hindu Student Council has a similar ideological outlook. The HSS was investigated for hate speech by the Charity Commission after a speaker engaged in anti-Muslim and anti-Christian rhetoric at a camp, and has been told to distance itself from the RSS. Meanwhile, Priti Patel has openly expressed her admiration for the RSS and Narendra Modi’s “vision”, whilst Bob Blackman has publicly attended HSS events where the RSS chief, Mohan Bhagwat, was in attendance. The international wings of the RSS actively fundraise and funnel their money into their activities, fuelling their campaigns of religious communalism including military training for their recruits in camps that teach them to fight for the “Hindu nation”.

The untrammelled rise of Modi to power has meant that he has received little international scrutiny for either his actions or those committed and enabled by his government, party, and groups affiliated to it. If Corbyn’s Labour party is serious about furthering transnational solidarities based on social and economic justice, they must refuse to engage in the cynical electoral and economic ploys of the Conservative Party. Opposing Modi’s government, questioning his human rights record, and continuing to support the struggle to enact anti-caste legislation must form part of a singular strategy to combat a government that enables and intensifies the persecution of minorities – this is the internationalism needed in this era to counter fascism.