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Humanist woke culture: a countervailing force against Indian nationalist extremism


By Karl Singarvelan Raha


Karl is our talented young India correspondent. He is a keen student of global humanist history and democratic politics.

In this fascinating and in-depth article he informs us about Indian nationalism and argues that 'humanist woke culture' could be the answer.



Introduction

As a humanist, I strongly oppose discrimination in all its forms. I advocate against atrocities such as Dalit killings, gender-based discrimination, and worker exploitation. I empathise with the pain of others, try to understand the underlying issues, and take a stand against injustice. I feel that I now possess the strength to address these concerns, but during my teenage years I was not always as vocal. Back then, some people ridiculed me, hurling disparaging remarks at me, and belittling me – as if I had no right to protest. I endured physical altercations and disparaging treatment. Occasionally, my grievances were acknowledged, yet they often met with dismissal, likely due to the privileged status of those involved. These experiences filled me with anguish and indignation. It is disheartening to witness the powerful targeting the vulnerable. After all, we are all human beings, regardless of our respective backgrounds. Consequently, I have resolved to vocalize my objections to anything offensive, be it within the confines of my home, educational institutions, or the broader society.


My aim in this article is to inform our readers about Hindu nationalism and what I perceive to be the threat of nascent fascism. The fight for social justice, often referred to as ‘woke culture’, is a countervailing force which I support. However, I shall also argue that ‘woke culture’ must be tempered with humanist values to ensure that it does not become simply a mirror image of intolerance and hatred.


Hindutva

Let me start by telling you about Hindutva. Hindutva is a term that refers to a particular ideology of Hindu nationalism. It seeks to promote and assert the cultural, social, and political dominance of Hindus in India. The term ‘Hindutva’ is derived from ‘Hindu’ and ‘tva’, which can be loosely translated as ‘-ness’ or ‘-ism’.


Hindutva emphasizes the idea of a common Hindu cultural identity that is rooted in ancient Indian traditions, values, and history. It often seeks to highlight and promote Hindu symbols, practices, and traditions as integral components of Indian identity. Its proponents view India as the homeland of Hindus and advocate for the recognition of Hindus as the primary cultural and political group in the country.


This nationalist perspective places Hindus at the centre of the idea of Indian nationhood. It asserts the dominance and influence of Hinduism in various spheres of public life, including education, governance, and social institutions. It often seeks to promote the cultural and religious values of Hinduism as a way to strengthen the social fabric of India.


It has been closely linked with certain political parties, most notably the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Many Hindutva proponents are politically active and seek to advance their agenda through the political process. Hindutva has been a source of controversy due to concerns about its potential impact on religious and cultural diversity in India. Critics argue that it marginalizes religious and ethnic minorities and undermines the country's secular ideals.


It's important to note, however, that while Hindutva is associated with promoting Hindu nationalism, it is distinct from the broader practice of Hinduism as a religion. Not all Hindus support or adhere to the Hindutva ideology, and there are diverse interpretations of Hinduism that coexist within India.


Hindutva is closely associated with the ideology of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), although the RSS itself is a socio-cultural organization and Hindutva is a broader ideological concept. The RSS was founded in 1925 with the aim of promoting the cultural, social, and moral uplift of Hindus and the overall development of the nation. While the RSS is not a political party, it has played a significant role in shaping the ideology of Hindutva and has been a key proponent of Hindu nationalism in India. Hindutva is often considered a core component of the RSS worldview. The RSS doesn't describe itself as a paramilitary organisation, but its organizational structure and activities have led many to refer to it as having paramilitary-like aspects.


Is the RSS a precursor to fascism?

The RSS was founded by Keshav Hedgewar (1889-1940), and is known to draw inspiration from the philosophy of Hindutva as propagated by the Indian activist and writer Vinayak Damodar Savarkar (1883-1966). Hindutva has been criticized for promoting exclusionary sentiments towards other religious and ethnic groups, including Muslims, Christians, Communists, and the British colonial presence. Savarkar's stance was that only those from Dharmic faiths, such as Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, and Buddhists, should reside in India.


In my view, the RSS is associated with ideas and practices which are reminiscent of fascism and Nazism. It has been accused of supporting ethnic cleansing and advocating its implementation in India. It promotes a distinctive uniform which draws inspiration from the Black Shirts of Fascist Italy and Brown Shirts of Nazi Germany. Its uniform is a white shirt with khaki shorts and a black cap.


During the partition of India, the RSS played a role in aiding Hindus who were fleeing from West Punjab, yet the organisation has also been accused of contributing to communal violence in India during that period. After India gained independence, there were instances where the RSS rejected the Indian national flag and constitution, instead advocating a saffron flag and the incorporation of highly conservative Manusmriti principles into the constitution, such as the fourfold varna (caste) system. In 1948, Gandhi was assassinated by Nathuram Godse, a member of the RSS. The RSS was subsequently banned but the ban was lifted in 1949.


The organization operates through local units known as Sakhas, which convene regularly for activities such as exercises, discussions, and weapons training. There were 84,000 Sakhas in 2019 compared to 8,500 Sakhas in 1975. The organisational structure and methods are similar to those of fascist movements, drawing parallels to Hitler's methods of spreading ideology through small units. The RSS attracts children and teenagers through camps, fitness activities, and yoga, which may lead to ideological indoctrination.


It has a support base of between five and six million members or volunteers. It has established affiliations with entities such as the BJP, VHP, and Bajrang Dal, and with other groups collectively known as the Sangh Parivar – a network of organizations which are rooted in Hindu nationalism. This alliance extends across various sectors, encompassing farmers, labourers, women, children, youth, students, lawyers, military personnel, doctors, government employees, Dalits, lawyers, small industry owners, and Sikhs.


The RSS is also the proprietor of think tanks, educational institutes, magazines, and websites, engaging actively as well as passively in disseminating its ideas and perspectives. And it operates in Western countries, with organizations such as HSS (Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh), National Hindu Students Forum (UK), and other Hindu groups indirectly supporting RSS activities in various ways. Similar to how the Nazi Party had foreign affiliations, such as the German American Bund formed by German-Origin Americans, there is a contemporary union known as the World Union of National Socialists, consisting of neo-Nazi parties.


A documentary by UK television broadcaster ITV shed light on the HSS in the UK, in which the group's leader was seen promoting hostility towards Muslims and Christians. Some prominent Conservative MPs in the UK have also expressed support for HSS and visited their Sakhas. In UK politics, the influence of British Hindus was evident in East Harrow, where they played an active role through social media to ensure the victory of MP Bob Blackman with a substantial vote share.


Following the migration of Gujarati populations from India, Kenya, and East African countries to the UK and other Western nations, socially and politically conservative individuals with strong cultural and fundamentalist leanings have settled in these regions. In the UK, where the Indian population is considerable, especially Gujaratis, riots erupted in Leicester after the Asian World Cup in 2022. There have been ongoing clashes between the city's significant populations of Gujarati Hindus and Pakistani Muslims. Incidents have included the desecration of a mosque with a pig's head and the shouting of ‘Jai Sri Ram’ (Victory to Lord Rama) chants.


History shows that it took just four or five years for a significant shift in the mindset of Germans under the influence of an authoritarian and charismatic leader. Similarly, when Narendra Modi emerged on the scene with his campaign promising India's development, the reality often reveals the dominance of capitalist and religious interests. This support has propelled Narendra Modi to power and, in turn, facilitated the RSS's aggressive propagation of its conservative agenda.


India is touted as the world's largest democracy, yet its democratic fabric is deeply flawed. For example, a staggering 90 per cent of Indian news channels exhibit passive control by the BJP, often favouring Narendra Modi while delivering negative coverage against opposition parties, and prominent Indian corporations have taken control of vital natural resources and government assets, including ports, airports, railway stations, roads, and more. Capitalists have seized influence in India, with the BJP receiving three times as much funding as other political parties. Under the guise of the ‘Make in India’ initiative, only the growth of major manufacturers is fostered, leading to the decline of small, micro, and medium enterprises. The misuse of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) to arrest journalists, student activists, professors, intellectuals, or any individual expressing dissent against the government raises significant concerns. The UAPA grants the government the power to arrest anyone suspected of terrorist activities. Dissenters are unjustly labelled as ‘Anti-Nationals’.


BJP policies marginalize Muslims and Christians. Muslims remain underrepresented in the BJP, and conspiracy theories malign them, questioning their contributions to India's independence, accusing them of threatening national security, and promoting baseless allegations of conversions. The Godhra Riots of 2002 and the Delhi Riots of 2020 inflicted severe wounds on the Muslim community, causing substantial casualties and enduring trauma.


Christian communities have faced violence perpetrated by extremist groups such as Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Bajrang Dal. Acts of aggression against innocent nuns, priests, pastors, and devotees have led to heinous crimes, including sexual assault and murder. Churches and prayer halls have been vandalized and destroyed. The Odisha Riots of 2008 resulted in over 500 deaths, 18,000 injuries, and the displacement of 65,000 people.


Sikh identity has been co-opted by Hindu nationalists, particularly during the 2020 Farm Law protests. Sikh farmers, voicing concerns against capitalist exploitation, have been wrongfully portrayed as terrorists or separatists, thereby undermining their legitimate protests.


Contemporary films, often excessively nationalistic and distorted in historical representation, have emerged as tools of manipulation. Films like The Kashmir Files and The Kerala Story have stoked controversies, while the acclaimed film RRR faced criticism for its portrayal of the Indian Independence movement, prompting removals of references to Gandhi and Congress.


Widespread discrimination persists against women, Dalits, farmers, workers, students, the unemployed, the middle class, South Indians, and Northeast Indians, amplifying the alarming implications of the RSS-BJP influence.


City names with Muslim origins have been changed to align with Hindu naming conventions. For instance, Allahabad is now Prayagraj, Aurangabad is Sambhaji Nagar, Mughal Gardens have become Amrit Udyan, Faisalabad is Ayodhya, and Mughal Sarai is now Deen Dayal Upadhyaya Nagar, among others. Institutions and schemes have been renamed, such as the renaming of the Motera cricket stadium as the Narendra Modi Stadium, and Rajiv Gandhi Health Sciences becoming Golwalkar Health Sciences. Rajpath has been changed to Kartvya Path, and more.


Changes to the National Curriculum have included the removal of chapters on democracy and evolution. Instead, chapters highlighting the role of RSS in Indian Independence and biographies of figures like Savarkar have been introduced. There is a push to restore India's imagined historical glory from the times of ancient kingdoms and pre-Muslim arrival, even though those periods were marked by feudalism, monarchy, lack of people's representation, unscientific practices, and wars.


Opposition parties, especially those leaning left or centre, are often portrayed by RSS-BJP as funded by terrorists or as anti-Hindu entities. Prime Minister Modi is elevated to ‘divine status’ by certain sections of the bourgeois Hindu population, who view him as a god-like savior of India and Hindu Dharma. Stories of his bravery, childhood feats like bringing a crocodile home, his diverse achievements, and his fitness regimen, are propagated.


The rise of RSS-BJP is reminiscent of the ascent of the Nazi Party in Europe. From a modest start with two seats in Parliament, the party gradually seized power and became the largest and most influential force.


Woke culture – a countervailing force

Prior to the emergence of the term ‘woke culture’, young people were actively engaged in political activities, particularly in central universities and urban centres like Delhi, Kolkata, Kerala, Hyderabad, Bengaluru, and Chennai. Historically, students and youth have often played pivotal roles in significant movements, including the Indian Independence Movement, the Anti-Emergency Movement against Indira Gandhi's authoritarian rule, the opposition to Hindi imposition in Tamil Nadu, and the Telangana Bifurcation Movement.


After 2014, woke culture gained prominence through two major protests: the Rohith Vemula suicide case and protests against the discriminatory provisions of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC). During the CAA-NRC protests of 2019, more than 30 student unions, parties, and groups joined forces to protest against its discriminatory provisions.


The CAA provides citizenship based on religion, favouring Hindus, Christians, Sikhs, Jains, and Buddhists from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan, while the NRC potentially disadvantages Muslims, particularly in Bengal and North-eastern states. The protests, primarily centred in Delhi, were met with aggression from RSS-affiliated groups, and police intervention. Despite the challenges, the students' determination prevailed, leading to the non-implementation of CAA-NRC by the Indian government.


This shows the power of informed and mobilized youth challenging an authoritarian government's discriminatory policies. However, it's important to note that in other states like Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Assam, and Gujarat, BJP secured overwhelming victories in successive elections post-2019.


Conclusion - humanist woke culture

The need for widespread adoption of woke culture is evident, as history has witnessed the rise of many authoritarians who have undermined the values of democracy. But woke culture must be tempered by humanism and rationalism, placing the well-being of individuals above all else. Otherwise, it risks becoming a far-left mirror-image of the ideologies of communism and fascism.

The essence of woke culture lies in its potential to dismantle authoritarianism and challenge the notion of an unassailable ruler. It stands as a powerful force against casteism, religious fundamentalism, and discrimination. Wokeism must champion humanist values such as free speech, liberty, independent thought, active political engagement, and the promotion of civil rights. The presence of wokeism in India could significantly diminish the influence of Hindutva, Islamic extremism, religious fundamentalism, hero worship, and political subservience.


The realisation of this potential rests on the shoulders of young people, who must navigate a path away from indifference. In the past, collective action has dismantled imperialism, caste-based discrimination, industrial inequalities, racism, male chauvinism, and dictatorship. The challenges facing India today, namely Hindutva and casteism, demand swift elimination if the dreams of visionaries such as the social reformer B.R. Ambedkar and the revolutionary and freedom fighter Bhagat Singh are to be realized. Let us stand united in our efforts to eradicate fascism and pave the way for a more just and inclusive future.


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