Politicians from Australia, UK attend roundtable on whether India is becoming a fascist state

On 26 November, India's Constitution Day, diasporic advocacy groups organised a roundtable on the question, "Is India becoming a fascist state?" The event was attended by politicians, researchers and activists from Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom.
07 December, 2020

On 1 December, the Indian foreign ministry reacted sharply to comments by the Canadian prime minister, Justin Trudeau, calling the ongoing farmers’ protest in India a “concerning situation” and supporting their right to peaceful protest. The ministry said “such comments are unwarranted, especially when pertaining to the internal affairs of a democratic country.” On the same day, Janet Rice, an Australian senator, addressed the country’s parliament and called the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh a “fascist organisation.” Five days earlier, on India’s Constitution Day, she attended a roundtable discussion on the question, “Is India becoming a fascist state?”

The roundtable was jointly organised by Amnesty International and Australia- and United States-based diasporic advocacy groups: Humanism Project, Hindus for Human Rights and the Indian American Muslim Council. David Shoebridge, a member of the New South Wales parliament—Australia has eight state-level parliaments—from the Australian Greens party, moderated the discussion. Shoebridge kicked off the session by asking if “values that are said to resonate with that liberal, democratic tradition of democracy and freedom of expression” were being upheld in India. “As friends of India, these are questions, I think, that we need to ask,” he said.

The roundtable was held over two panel discussions, the first one titled, “View from Academia and Civil Society,” had researchers and activists as speakers, and the second one on the “Role of the International Community,” included politicians from the United Kingdom and United States. The panellists discussed the activities of the Sangh Parivar—the RSS and its affiliates—and the Bharatiya Janata Party government helmed by Narendra Modi, as well as the challenges to dissent and free speech in India.

Suchitra Vijayan, the executive editor of the Polis Project—a US-based research and media organisation—provided context about the Sangh Parivar in the first panel. “The Sangh Parivar is modelled after the Italian fascists and the German Nazis,” she said. “It is wrong to assume that fascist tactics are only used in dictatorships, in totalitarian regimes,” Vijayan said. She cited the writing of Jason Stanley, a professor at Yale University and the author of How Fascism Works, which lays out various strategies used in fascist politics.

“These strategies include petitioning to a mythic past, reinvention of history, use of propaganda, creating a culture of anti-intellectualism, attacking universities and educational systems that might challenge their ideas,” Vijayan said, citing Stanley. “This is followed by constant repetition of the Hindu victimhood, obscuring law and order, and dismantling public welfare and unity. Eventually, with these techniques, fascist politics create a state of unreality in which conspiracy theories, fake news replaced reasonable debate.” She added, “In India, politicians employ these strategies regularly.” Based in the US, Vijayan said she was speaking “as a concerned Indian citizen who is watching her home being destroyed from afar.”

All panellists referred to the treatment meted out to marginalised communities since Modi came to power in 2014. “I feel the Modi government is intensifying efforts to portray religious minorities as enemies, as it moves rapidly towards an exclusivist Hindu Rashtra,” Raju Rajagopalan, a panellist and co-founder of Hindus for Human Rights—a US-based organisation that works on religious freedom—said. Anjali Arondekar, a co-director of the University of California’s Centre for South Asian Studies, highlighted that Dalit, Bahujan, Muslims and transgender communities are persecuted by the Hindu Right.

She began her address by stating, “For many scholars, such as myself, the question posed here, ‘Is India a fascist state,’ seems at this point to be a largely rhetorical question.” Arondekar, who is Bahujan and queer, also cautioned against blaming Modi and RSS for everything, emphasising that there was “continuity” in the actions of the Indian state. “I am a lower-caste person,” she said. “Talk to any lower-caste, Muslim person. These are not new stories.” Arondekar added, “When I was growing up, we referred to the Congress as the opposite of progress.”

Pieter Friedrich, an activist and author who was a part of the panel, spoke about the inroads that the RSS has made in other countries. Friedrich focused on the role of the Overseas Friends of BJP and the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh—respectively, a foreign advocacy group with links to the BJP, and the RSS’s international wing. “Since Modi’s re-election, the OFBJP and the HSS have continued to promote and assist in the whitewashing of the pogrom-tainted Modi,” he said. He also brought up the fact that the Australian High Commissioner to India, Barry O’Farrell, met Mohan Bhagwat, the RSS’s chief, at the Sangh’s headquarters in Nagpur, in November this year. “That’s certainly an issue that moves the bar in the wrong direction,” Friedrich said.

According to Crikey, an Australia-based media outlet, the spokesperson for the country’s department of foreign affairs and trade said that the high commissioner “meets with a wide variety of social and political groupings as part of his role.” On 1 December, Rice spoke about the meeting between O’Farrell and Bhagwat in the country’s parliament. She said that the meeting was a “disgrace” and that Farrell should resign. During her speech, Rice identified the RSS as “a fascist organisation” and one that “rides roughshod over people’s human rights.” She added, “I’m keen to continue this discussion here in this parliament in the new year, because I believe that issues related to the erosion of human rights and democracy are things that needs to be drawn to people’s attention and for us to discuss here in this national parliament.”

The second panel of the roundtable discussed the matter of commenting on another country’s internal matters. Shaffaq Mohammed, a British politician who has served as a member of the European Parliament, noted that people who want to question the Modi government are told, “You are having a go at India,” or that these are “internal matters.” “Human rights, civil liberties need to be at the forefront,” Mohammed said. “We have to say—yes, we will applaud the good things that happen in India. But when there are issues, if you are a genuine friend of India, then you’ve got to challenge, you’ve got to question.” Mohammed added, “It is really important to say that the BJP and the RSS are not India.”

In January 2020, Mohammed had moved a resolution in the EU parliament against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. He was born in Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir and moved to the UK when he was four years old, but in India, the media coverage of Mohammed’s resolution focused on his Pakistani heritage. On 29 January, the EU parliament deferred the vote on the resolution till March, which never took place in the wake of the pandemic. But Mohammed emphasised the importance of addressing these issues at a global level. “The EU has a human-rights sub-committee, members from that were very much concerned around not just the CAA-NRC, but also what happened in August previously with the lockdown in Kashmir,” he said. Shoebridge, too, tabled a motion against the CAA in the New South Wales parliament in August this year.

Marie Newman, a Democrat who has been elected to the US House of Representatives this year, sent a video message noting the global rise in nationalism. “This tide that has turned in the US, it will affect other nations’ pastures around nationalism,” she added, referring to the recent presidential elections in which Joe Biden defeated Donald Trump.

It became clear from the roundtable that international mobilisation around the developments in India witnessed a sharp surge following the enactment of the CAA. The Humanism Project was among several advocacy and activist groups located abroad that were born out of the anti-CAA movement. Representatives of such groups from across the world told me about how they were organising to tackle Hindutva within India and abroad. Amrit Wilson, a founding member of the South Asia Solidarity group in the United Kingdom, told me, “This scale of churn has not been seen before.”

Ritumbra Manuvie, an Indian citizen based in the Netherlands, told me that she worked with a human-rights advocacy group called The London Story foundation, registered in The Hague and formed in the wake of the anti-CAA protests. Manuvie said that the foundation prepares reports to send to bodies such as EU parliamentary committees using “data from different organisations based in India who cannot do it themselves.”

Though the Humanism Project has previously collaborated with the Australian Greens about developments in India, Meraj Khan, a member of the project, was quick to dismiss any political affiliation. “We don’t have a political background,” she told me. “We don’t have an agenda … We are not benefitted financially.” Khan added that most of the Humanism Project’s members are not career activists, and that they have day jobs and volunteer on the side.

Speaking about why the Humanism Project was formed, Khan said, “Dissent is the highest form of patriotism. The only way a government can be held accountable is through free press, freedom of speech and expression. And all of that is being hampered.” Deepak Joshi, another member, said western governments also need to be held to account. “Many of them see India as a big market and don’t want to be on the wrong side of the Indian government,” he said. When asked about the response of other Australian parties to their advocacy, Joshi said, “We have been talking to them as well. We expect them to take our cause to various levels.”

The South Asian Solidarity group was formed in the 1980s, and has been campaigning about the dangers of Hindutva since Modi came to power, Wilson told me. She said that there is a “big lobby of the Hindutva groups” in the UK. “Modi wants a global community of Hindus who will support Hindutva,” she said, before adding, “I think people are realising that Hindutva is not Hinduism, it is fascism.”