The Christchurch terrorist attack is often individualized in mainstream public discourse as the act of an individual extremist.
This individualization of white supremacist violence is an essential feature of the whiteness of the settler colonial state.
In this individualizing ideology, violence is attributed to a lone extremist who has been radicalized.
The response then is an individualizing response, directed at the individual extremist with the justice system of the settler colonial state organized to respond to the extremist.
The intelligence-security apparatus of the settler colonial state is organized around techniques of surveillance and monitoring directed at identifying and containing individuals likely to be radicalized and turned into extremists.
The individualizing ideology on one hand places the cause of the violence in the actions of an individual who is portrayed to have been radicalized by an ideology. On the other hand, the individualization of the violence keeps intact the very structure of white supremacy that underpins the violence.
Moreover, the individualizing ideology conveniently erases the white supremacy that makes up the institutional structure of the intelligence-military-police infrastructure of the settler colonial state.
The Australian extremist who carried out the violence in Christchurch is an extension of the white supremacy that forms the settler colonial infrastructure of Australia. This settler colonial structure in Australia is scripted into its political, juridical, military, security, and intelligence institutions.
White supremacy is built into the structure of the Australian state that has historically been organized around violence directed toward aboriginal communities.On March 18, 2023, a few days after the four-year anniversary of the Christchurch terrorist attack, at an anti-transgender event hosted by the British anti-trans rights figure Kellie-Jay Keen who is currently touring Australia, Nazis dressed in black are seen taking the Nazi salute on the steps of the Victoria parliament.
As the Nazis march through the streets onto the steps of the parliament, the Australian police are seen protecting them. In powerful images that depict the interplays of white supremacy of the police and the Nazis, the police are shown lining up to safeguard the Nazis as they take the salute.
Anti-fascist activists challenging the Nazis document the violence carried out by the police directed at the anti-fascist activists protesting the Nazis.
Moreover, anti-fascist activists document an Australian police member who flashed a white power sign at an earlier protest. In another report, Australian activists document the presence of Nazis in the Australian military.
The institutionalization of white supremacist hate within the infrastructures of the police and military exists in continuity with the racist colonial structure of Australia.
Four years since the Christchurch terrorist attack and the Australian state has continued to let the white supremacy within its structures go unchallenged.
To address the white supremacist hate that led to the Christchurch terrorist attack is to first recognize the white supremacy that is embedded within the organizing logics of the state.
This recognition then can offer the starting point for undoing the racism and hate percolating through the cellular structures of Australian police, military, and related institutions.
I have been so looking forward to reading Byron Clark’s “Fear.”
Over the past three years, as I have read and watched Clark’s analyses of the far-right ecosystem in Aotearoa New Zealand, I have come to respect his evidence-based analytic work that is at the same time activist, directly responding to the threats to marginalized communities posed by far-right extremism.
His analytic work has been critical to the ongoing challenges to far-right extremism led by activists.
Byron’s knowledge of the hate ecosystem emerges directly from the empirically grounded challenge he has posed to this ecosystem by placing his body on the line. It is worth pointing out here, that like many other activists in this space, Byron mostly does this work as unpaid labor, and he sustains himself through his day job (I will return to this point toward the end of the article).
So, when some of my activist interlocutors whose work challenges Islamophobic hate in Aotearoa sent me a review of Byron’s book by Chris Wilson, I was disappointed to read it.
Let me note at the beginning that Wilson begins his review by praising Byron for his work exposing a range of what Wilson terms fringe political ideologies. He then goes on to point out places where the book could have been improved, specifically in its definition of terms and presentation of evidence.
I will focus here on a particular part of Wilson’s review, his suggestion that Clark presents no evidence of a Hindutva threat in Aotearoa.
What counts as evidence
In his review, writing about Hindutva, Wilson writes:
“For example, Hindutva is presented as present and threatening in New Zealand, but with little to no evidence. Because of a lack of demonstrable activity or presence here, the author uses the fact that the New Zealand Hindu Council is affiliated to the India-based nationalist organisation VHP, to discuss in much greater length the VHP’s extremist activity in India, even including a discussion of the riots in Gujarat in 2002.”
This paragraph is flawed in its argumentation.
It begins with the claim that Clark presents Hindutva as threatening in Aotearoa, “with little to no evidence.”
Note then the following sentence that points to Byron’s observation that the New Zealand Hindu Council is affiliated to the India-based nationalist organisation Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP).
That Clark has established the link between the New Zealand Hindu Council and VHP is itself evidence of the threat to social cohesion in Aotearoa posed by Hindutva.
Also consider here that Wilson doesn’t operationalize the concept of threat; so what is he assessing Clark’s evidence on the basis of is largely unclear.
If we take social cohesion as the value to uphold (my insertion of a value), that the New Zealand Hindu Council is affiliated to the India-based nationalist organization VHP is of great concern here in Aotearoa. I have personally learned about the threat posed by Hindutva-aligned organizations such as the VHP to New Zealand democracy (including academic freedom) the hard way.
A number of Indian-origin community members, including Indian minorities and Indian activists in Aotearoa have documented the threat posed by Hindutva to democracy and social cohesion in Aotearoa. In March 2021, a Sikh youth had been attacked online in New Zealand.
Wilson then goes on to write:
“This history of violence and extremism in India will give many readers the impression that something similar is present in New Zealand, when no evidence has been provided for this inference.”
The sentence above is ambiguous and lacks clarity. The ambiguity itself is strategic, not naming Hindutva as the driver of the violence and omitting the robust body of evidence on the nature of the VHP and other affiliated Hindutva organizations as right-wing extremist groups and their roles in violence.
Wilson’s account bypasses this history of violence and extremism in India directly connected to the VHP, instead making a generic statement about the history of violence and extremism in India.
Consider here that the VHP has been linked with attacks on Muslims and Christians, organized attacks on mosques and churches, destruction of the Babri masjid, and various incidences of violence across regions.
Hindutva is a radicalizing force globally, leading to violence in the Indian diaspora across Western democracies. It has been linked with violence in United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia.
CARE’s research has documented the online infrastructure of Hindutva in Aotearoa New Zealand. The activist group Aotearoa Alliance of Progressive Indians (AAPI) has consistently and systematically highlighted the presence of Hindutva in Aotearoa New Zealand including the role of the New Zealand Hindu Council in spreading disinformation as an organization affiliated with Hindutva. AAPI has raised critical concerns of relationships between community leaders in Aotearoa New Zealand and Hindutva.
That the association of New Zealand Hindu Council with VHP doesn’t count as evidence of threats posed by Hindutva to Wilson is of concern, particularly given his expert role on countering violent extremism. Although Wilson is not discounting the presence of Hindutva in Aotearoa New Zealand, his argument about what counts as evidence for an organization to be counted as threat raises the question whether the incidences outlined above meet Wilson’s threshold of a threat. Alas, we wouldn’t know because Wilson doesn’t define the term threat within this context, something he accuses Clark of not doing adequately in his book.
By this logic, affiliation or association doesn’t count as evidence of the presence of a threat. Is the same definitional parameter used by the New Zealand security community when conceptualizing affiliations with organizations such as ISIS (Note here the similarities with ISIS shared by Hindutva).
Moreover, Wilson complains that Clark does not explain why Hindutva should be understood as “far right,” ignoring the evidence that Byron does present of Hindutva’s underlying fascist far-right ideology.
In fact, Byron is one of the few New Zealand-based activists that has engaged activists in the Indian diaspora in dialogue about the threats of Hindutva. One of his earliest analyses of the relationship between the Hindutva proponent Roy Kaunds, Kelvyn Alp and Counterspin media (Wilson does accept Alp and Counterspin as examples of the far-right) offered a conceptual framework for examining the discursive flows between the Islamophobia of Hindutva and the Islamophobia of white supremacy that I have discussed in my public writing.
Performative references to Christchurch
It is ironic that Wilson begins his opinion piece in Newsroom by referring to the Christchurch terrorist attack (that directly targets Muslims, with its attack on mosques).
Yet there is not a single reference to Islamophobia (the driving force behind the Chrictcurch attack and the underlying ideology that connects white supremacists with Hindutva) in Wilson’s essay.
The whiteness (referring to the hegemonic values of white culture, held up as universal) of the extremism industry that has flourished post-Christchurch is marked by similar ongoing gaslighting of the actually existing Islamophobia in Aotearoa New Zealand (including its casual omission).
There is no reference in Wilson’s review of the concerns regarding Hindutva extremism and Islamophobia in Aotearoa expressed by Muslim women activists.
These same activists had earlier raised multiple alarm bells about a potential extremist attack targeting Muslims and driven by Islamophobia. Here’s the noted activist Anjum Rahman speaking about Hindutva:
“It’s extreme hate…It’s dehumanising material, trying to dehumanise our community.”
The Stuff article citing Rahman goes on to note:
“Later, Rahman shares with Stuff social media posts containing abuse directed at Muslims. She’s right – it’s dehumanising and awful. Similar material has been cited in a report from Massey University researcher Mohan Dutta who has studied discrimination against minority groups in India and in the Indian diaspora.”
Context and structures matter
The systemic erasure of the voices of Muslim communities and activists post the Christchurch terrorist attack has been accompanied by the ongoing erasure of the evidence of Islamophobia presented by Muslims.
In our research carried out at CARE with Muslim communities experiencing hate, the ongoing erasure of accounts of evidence is part of the racist structure that upholds and perpetuates Islamophobia. Muslim communities and activists often ask, How much evidence on the drivers of violence is actually evidence that will count for security experts?
And more vitally, when will the accounting of this evidence actually lead to positive policy responses that do something about the drivers of hate.
This ongoing discounting of evidence is accompanied by the systemic individualization of the analytic framework imposed by the expert security community, shaped by the hegemonic values of whiteness.
As focus is turned on identifying, categorizing and surveilling violent individuals, the structural contexts and drivers of violence remain erased from mainstream analytic frameworks. It is this individualization within the security apparatus that fails to see Hindutva’s links to violence (after all, Hindutva supporters in the Indian diaspora are often professionals and members of the successful model minority business community).
Moreover, the absence of structural analysis means that security experts and bureaucrats conveniently turn a blind eye to the actually existing Islamophobia within the security community itself, which fundamentally underlies the perpetuation of Islamophobia.
Silence doesn’t make the problem go away
Toward the end of his review, Wilson suggests that we need to take care about how we describe the various groups under the umbrella of the far-right, conspiracy theorists, and anti-government movements. He suggests that not taking adequate care in defining these groups would likely push them together, generate misplaced fear, and contribute to rising polarization.
I agree with Wilson. We need to take great care in defining the various groups that threaten democracy and social cohesion and develop appropriate response strategies that are nuanced.
At the same time, digging our head in the sand and pretending these groups don’t exist or they don’t pose a threat to our social cohesion is not going to curb the rising polarization. In fact, doing so might fuel further polarization.
Not counting, categorizing and adequately responding to the threat posed by Hindutva in Aotearoa New Zealand is likely to further heighten the sense of marginalization felt by Indian minorities here. Moreover, such discounting of evidence is likely to empower Hindutva ideologues here in Aotearoa New Zealand to continue to target social cohesion and democracy.
Without adequate structural responses and frameworks for empowering communities at the margins in the Indian diaspora, the inter-communal threat posed by Hindutva is likely to go unchecked. We can’t wait for Hindutva violence to show itself for us to then respond to it post-hoc. Lessons learned from Christchurch, Australia, Leicester ought to offer us insights into strategies for countering Hindutva.
What qualifies you as an expert
Talking about credentials, historically, we have turned to academic expertise as the basis for generating knowledge. This knowledge then has shaped how we have historically crafted policies, developed interventions, and responded to these interventions.
Knowledge, therefore, is directly tied to policies.
Given the severe lack of diversity in academic disciplines, this has meant that academic knowledge informing policy formations is also severely limited. The absence of minority communities who are the targets of majoritarian hate and violence from decision-making spaces has meant that conceptual frameworks are largely absent in addressing the hate and violence.
Consider the area of terrorism and conflict studies and the ways in which this area has been shaped by academic expertise. That the area has been largely dominated by whiteness and imperial agenda has meant that what is operationalized as terror and therefore placed under surveillance has been grossly shaped by Islamophobia post-9/11. The prevailing ideology of the “War on Terror” has over-surveilled Muslims, mainstreamed the racist targeting of Muslims, and legitimized the terror narrative that drives Islamophobia. Ultimately, the mainstreaming of the Muslim terror narrative is directly tied to the accelerated growth of Islamophobic white supremacist and Hindutva hate post 9/11.
I have found my own knowledge of studying social change as constrained within the rules and norms of academia. These rules and norms themselves are often established within the structures of whiteness, the hegemonic values of white mainstream academic culture.
Working with activists in CARE’s activist-in-residence programming and learning from their knowledge I have found brings critical insights that shape the mobilization toward structural transformation. The ability to see broad linkages and to explore these linkages is vital to mapping the far-right threat to social cohesion and democracies globally. I am so glad that Byron has dedicated a Chapter on Hindutva in his book. For the Indian diaspora minority communities and activists who have witnessed the accelerated growth of Hindutva in Aotearoa over the past decade, Byron’s intervention is vital to placing in the mainstream their concerns about hate.
A Washington Post story published on June 2, titled “Google’s plan to talk about caste bias led to ‘division and rancor’,” documents the resistance put up by employees at Google identifying themselves as Hindu protesting the platforming of a pedagogy-based lecture by the dalit rights activist Thenmozhi Soundararajan, the founder and executive director of Equality Labs. Equality Labs is a nonprofit that advocates for Dalits.
What is powerful about the story is the complicity of the infrastructure of Google in de-platforming the event and in targeting the organizer of the event at Google, Tanuja Gupta, who worked as a senior manager at Google News.
The disinformation campaign organized by Hindu employees targeting Soundararajan called her “Hindu-phobic” and “anti-Hindu” in emails to the company’s leaders.
I am very familiar with these tropes, rooted in disinformation, that are increasingly being deployed by Hindutva adherents to target critics of Hindutva, particularly academics, journalists, and activists.
Over the course of the past year, in response to my scholarship on Hindutva and the support of CARE, the center I direct, for a conference titled “Dismantling Global Hindutva,” I have experienced relentless attacks fuelled by a disinformation campaign labelling me Hinduphobic and accusing me of spreading “Hindumisia” (both Hinduphobia and Hindumisia are terms concocted by Hindutva to silence critics of the hateful ideology). These attacks have taken the forms of letter-writing campaigns directed at my employer, threats on Twitter, sexually violent emails threatening rape, and death threats on digital platforms.
What is critical to this global disinformation campaign is the role of formally recognized organizations such as Hindu Council and Hindu Youth here in Aotearoa, Hindu American Foundation in the US, as well as professionals and business owners in disseminating the disinformation.
In the context of Google, the disinformation is seeded and disseminated by employees.
In doing so, Hindutva adherents draw on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) policies, making the claim that the criticism of caste or Islamophobia in Hindutva violates the principles of DEI.
The Indian Institutes of Technologies that both the Google CEO Sundar Pichai (a Tamil Brahmin) and I attended (Pichai graduated two years ahead of me from IIT Kharagpur), and that boast of having trained the leaders of the global tech sector (IIT Bombay alumnus Parag Agarwal is the Twitter CEO, the chairman and CEO of IBM is the IIT Kanpur B.Tech Arvind Krishna, among many other alums who lead the tech sector) were founded on the principle of cultivating the scientific temper and preparing the engineers that will build the newly independent postcolonial nation.
Inherent in the construction of the IITs is a Brahminical structure that privileges specific forms of merit that draw upon the historic hierarchies of caste in India.
The very notion of merit is rooted in and intrinsically intertwined with caste in the Indian context.
That caste hierarchies and the accompanying oppressions have shaped access to learning resources and opportunities for learning are erased from the hegemonic caste formations that shape education, and certainly engineering education, in India.
These caste hierarchies are intensified in the IITs, with their projection of elite education based on the hyper-competitive joint entrance examination.
At IIT, Kharagpur, the Institution I attended, the caste structure played out in the largely Brahmin men, and the occasional Brahmin women, that formed the professorial ranks. The Mukherjees, Chatterjees, Banerjees, and the Bhattacharyas (Bengali Brahmins) made up these ranks, replete with the taken-for-granted practices of inclusion and exclusion, rooted in caste supremacy. In the 1990s when I attended the IITs, it was rare to take a course from a dalit professor.
It would be worthwhile to examine the caste composition of the Professoriate in the IITs in 2022.
Marked as “quota students,” dalits are subjected to racialized slurs challenging their intelligence and their right to be in the IITs. These racialized slurs were often uttered by peers and reinforced by Professors.
The power of the caste infrastructure is held up through communication, through gossip networks that undermine, through racialized slurs, and through practices of touch and body that exclude.
In 2021, an IIT Kharagpur Professor was video recorded bullying and verbally abusing dalit students. This recording offered an account of practices of casteist violence that are deep-seated in the institutions.
Caste-based inequality flows from education into the technology sectors, with discriminatory practices around touch, racialized verbal and emotional abuse, and denial of opportunities to dalits built into organizational structures.
Global technology organizations such as Google have large representation of South Asians, with a strong presence of Indians.
For Indians in such tech organizations, diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) forms a key resource in addressing the challenges of organizational bias and structural racism.
Hindutva-espousing professionals within organizations such as Google then communicatively invert caste, on one hand, erasing the presence of caste, and on the other hand, claiming that any discussion of caste in Hinduism is Hinduphobic and will result in discrimination of Hindus. The erasure of caste oppression then is incorporated into the discursive architecture, denying caste oppression while perpetuating it.
Salient in the farewell note of Tanuja Gupta to Google is the following account:
“Of all the organizing I have done at this company, I think many are surprised that fighting for caste equity was the lightning rod issue that took me down. But I have an Indian CEO and SVP who both know exactly what’s going on and tacitly approve of everything that’s happened. I know this because multiple VPs and Directors confirmed that in Sundar’s Leads meeting, they discussed the need for a new universal vetting process of speakers to ensure this doesn’t happen again. So my hope is that Googlers start to understand the magnitude of this issue, and the threat that their greater understanding poses to the South Asians in power.”
The discussion of caste in global tech organizations threatens the power consolidated by upper caste Indians within these organizations. The discussion of caste disrupts the carefully crafted model minority narrative that is essential to the upward mobility of Indians in the tech sector and to the perpetuation of the meritocratic myth that fuels the tech sector. The discussion of caste threatens to reveal the misogyny, violence, and racism that forms the communicative infrastructure of a cross-section of Hindu society.
Paradoxically, the claims to DEI serve as tools for shutting down necessary discussions of caste violence in tech.
The silencing of the voices of dalits within organizational structures is violence that perpetuates Hindutva. Moreover, the erasure of conversations on caste in tech forecloses critical conversations on the role of caste in shaping algorithms and platform infrastructures. These are critical questions as the speak to the organizing role of a racist ideology in shaping platform algorithms and search engines. Critical conversations on caste led by dalits is vital to building just platform architectures.
Professor Mohan Dutta isDean’s Chair Professor of Communication. He is the Director of the Center for Culture-Centered Approach to Research and Evaluation (CARE), developing culturally-centered, community-based projects of social change, advocacy, and activism that articulate health as a human right.
Google #ThenmozhiSoundararajan #EqualityLabs #Dalits #IITKharagpur #IndianInstitutesOfTechnologies #Hindutva #CAREMassey #CAREMasseyNZ #CARECCA
Superficial attempts at listening and dialogue can have the effect of normalising the far right, giving it credibility and the opportunity to grow, writes Professor Mohan Dutta.
One of the mainstream liberal responses to the angry anti-mandate, anti-vax, anti-everything protests that we’ve been seeing around the country are calls for dialogue.
These calls, coming from a wide array of mainstream sources, including the Human Rights Commissioner, suggest that dialogue promotes social cohesion. Dialogue, so the theory goes, creates a middle ground through listening to all communities, thereby preventing polarisation.
Implicit in this approach is the “both sides” logic, with dialogue serving as a resource for developing mutual understanding between the two differing constituencies.
But what exactly is the middle ground when democracies are faced with viral disinformation campaigns organised by powerful political and economic interests?
What exactly are the characteristics of dialogue when dealing with a protest that is propelled and co-opted by disinformation and hate, that is deeply rooted in the ideological apparatus of white supremacy, and that is seeking to seed chaos and capture power by undermining democratic institutions?
What message does the performance of dialogue with campaigns fed by white supremacy send out to Māori, Pacific and ethnic communities who are the targets of the hate perpetuated by the far right?
In the backdrop of the Christchurch terror attack, what message does dialogue with a protest fuelled by white supremacy send to Muslims in Aotearoa New Zealand, who continue to grapple with the trauma of that violence?
Instead of building social cohesion, superficial attempts at listening and dialogue can have the effect of normalising the far right, giving it credibility and the opportunity to grow.
There is profound irony in the fact that the reference to “listening to communities — all communities”, in calls for dialogue covering the statements by the Human Rights Commissioner, relates to the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Christchurch attack targeting Muslims and migrants.
Consider this irony in the context of the voices of Muslims in Aotearoa New Zealand, who continue to highlight the erasure of their voices and the unresponsiveness of the Crown structures to Muslim voices documenting and raising concerns about Islamophobic hate.
In an Official Information Act response to Christchurch youth advocate Josiah Tualamali’i, Crown Law (the organisation responsible for drafting the terms of the Royal Commission inquiry), stated that “in drafting the terms of reference, Crown Law did not consult with Muslim community leaders and/or victims of the attacks.”
Whiteness and dialogue
The uncritical and celebratory view of dialogue as a human right reflects the whiteness of the mainstream approaches to dialogue, which upholds as universal the values of the dominant white culture.
Instead of building a framework for justice that pays attention to the inequality inherent in many white spaces, the upholding of dialogue as a panacea reproduces and magnifies the disinformation and hate perpetuated by white supremacists.
The protests we’ve seen in Wellington and around the country have been shaped by disinformation and hate, seeded and circulated by right-wing white supremacist hate infrastructures, connected to and imported from Trump-aligned fascist groups in the United States.
You’d have to be blind not to see the convergence in strategies between the recent protests at parliament and the Capitol riots which called for citizen-led arrests of policymakers, jailing them, and even carrying out their executions.
Counterspin Media, a platform that’s been covering the protests and feeding protesters with disinformation, has been a key media resource in the mobilisation of the protests.
As observed by digital activist Byron Clark, who has co-written a white paper on resisting digital hate, Counterspin is streamed on the Steve Bannon-led GTV network and is a key player in organising and circulating disinformation and hate here in Aotearoa New Zealand.
In spite of multiple early warning signs about the presence of this hate infrastructure, the Crown has largely been unresponsive, and digital platforms have continued to profit from the virality of hate content. This is particularly disappointing given the rhetoric of the Christchurch Call.
The host of Counterspin, Kelvyn Alp, has actively promoted disinformation and hate propaganda, calling on protesters to storm parliament and arrest members of parliament, and making multiple references to killing them. On March 2, the day police finally ended the 23-day occupation, Alp opined that things would have gone differently if protesters had been armed:
“Can you imagine if a few boys brought out of their boot a few AK-47s? Those muppets would have run for the hills. That’s the problem. You disarm a population under a false flag so they can then come and eviscerate you.”
Alp is joined by other white supremacists: Brett Power, Philip Arps, Damien De Ment and the white nationalist group Action Zealandia.
Counterspin has also circulated the Christchurch conspiracy video during the Wellington protest, claiming the falsehood that the Christchurch terrorist attack was a false flag.
White supremacists systematically target Indigenous and other minority communities with disinformation and hate propaganda. White supremacist propaganda targeted at Black, Indigenous, people of colour (BIPOC) communities seeds chaos and amplifies and multiplies disinformation and hate. We saw examples of that in the US, where white supremacists co-opted Black Lives Matter protests and organised violence.
These propaganda infrastructures operate largely on digital platforms such as Telegram, Facebook and Twitter. Simultaneously, they create and craft spectacles — the protests — that draw mainstream media attention, further perpetuating the disinformation. The production of the spectacle is a key strategy in placing disinformation and hate into the mainstream media.
Inequalities and dialogues at the margins
Communication is deeply infected by colonial, race, class, and gender inequalities.
Calls for dialogue that overlook or erase these inequalities uphold the power and control of the coloniser. A framework of dialogue rooted in justice recognises these inequalities and seeks to build spaces for the voices of the margins.
Just dialogues need to begin with developing culture-centred methods and practices for communities at the margins, created and led by communities at the margins, that challenge disinformation and hate.
Across digital platforms, I’ve witnessed a number of anti-racist Māori activists and leaders such as Tame Iti, Marise Lant and Matthew Tukaki, who have taken the leadership in countering the disinformation fuelling the protests. They’ve been engaging communities in critical conversations, and have simultaneously been exposing the underlying ideology of white supremacist hate driving the protests.
Respecting the commitments of te Tiriti would put Māori leadership at the heart of any strategy of dialogue and social cohesion.
Respecting the voices of Muslims in Aotearoa New Zealand who have in recent years borne disproportionately the burden of violence emerging from white supremacy would centre the voices of Muslims in building solutions for social cohesion.
In creating opportunities and safe spaces to listen to the voices of those on the margins, we would also attend to the ways in which the whiteness of the Crown’s Covid-19 response has produced forms of marginalisation — including among some of those who took part in the #Convoy22NZ protest — and help to build solutions that address the economic disenfranchisement resulting from government policies.
Partnering with, and supporting, the leadership of communities at the margins as the drivers of solutions is going to be vital to countering the Trumpian web of disinformation and hate that has planted its roots in Aotearoa New Zealand.
Professor Mohan Dutta (Photo supplied)
Professor Mohan Dutta is Dean’s Chair Professor of Communication at Massey University. He is the director of the Centre for Culture-Centred Approach to Research and Evaluation (CARE), developing culturally-centred, community-based projects of social change, advocacy and activism that articulate health as a human right.
Hindutva, a political ideology that seeks to construct India in the structure of a Hindu nation (Hindu Rashtra), draws its conceptual tenets from the organising framework of fascism. As a modern project, Hindutva is rooted in the desire to create a Hindu nation that is organised on the principles of the European nation-state through cultural hegemony that homogenises the population, simultaneously erasing the rights of religious minorities.
The fascist root of Hindutva is evident in the writings of one of the key architects of the concept, MS Golwalkar, who writes: “German race pride has now become the topic of the day. 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 … a good lesson for us in Hindustan to learn and profit by.”
Note here the deep interplays of the ideology of Hindutva and white supremacy. The purity of race and culture that forms the hate structure of white supremacy is mobilised in the political formation of Hindutva. Hindutva embodies the colonial imposition of a politics of purity through the purge of the ‘other’ organised by the state.
One of the key architects of Hindutva, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, wrote the book Hindutva in 1923, outlining the concepts of a common nation (rashtra), a common race (jati) and a common culture or civilisation (sanskriti). Note the parallels here with the ideology of the German Nazi party, anchored in ein volk(one people), ein reich (one nation), ein Fuhrer (one leader).
At the heart of this ideology is the production of the ‘other’ that is outside of the nation. Similar to the construction of Jews as the outside of ein volk in Nazi ideology, Muslims and Christians are constructed as the outside of the Hindu rashtra in the ideological construction of Hindutva.
The effects of this ideology are evident in the hate and violence that have been directed at Muslims. The ongoing political project of disenfranchising Muslims through the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) is a reminder of the Nuremberg Laws passed in Nazi Germany to strip German Jews of their citizenship.
The communicative infrastructure of Hindutva is deployed through the articulation of a monolithic ‘Hinduness’ as the basis for organising the political project. To belong, one has to declare their ‘Hinduness’ and allegiance to the Hindu Rashtra, as defined by the political project of Hindutva.
To dissent from this monolithic vision of Hindutva is to be anti-Hindu. Within the organising structures of India, to dissent against the ideology of Hindutva is to be anti-Indian. The political project of Hindutva threatens the pluralism, polymorphism, and democratic ethos of Hinduism.
The celebrated Indian film-maker Anand Patwardhan, observed at the Dismantling Global Hindutva conference, “If Hindutva is Hinduism, then the Ku Klux Klan is Christianity.”
The recent attacks on me, the Center for Culture-Centered Approach to Research and Evaluation (CARE), Massey University, and on academics globally writing on and debating about the pernicious effects of Hindutva, are reflective of the hegemonic communicative infrastructure of Hindutva. At the heart of this hegemonic infrastructure is the silencing of dissent while imposing a monolithic ideology. In this instance, Hindutva proclaims to speak for all Hindus as it carries out this fundamental attack on academic freedom.
From trolls reproducing digital hate, to hateful propaganda published in diaspora digital portals, to letter writing campaigns targeting the university, to petitions attacking the university for steadfastly supporting academic freedom, forces of Hindutva draw on a wide range of strategies. Hindutva deploys bullying and rhetorical fallacies to silence dissent because it lacks the tools of argumentation to appeal to reason.
Referring to these forces of Hindutva at work to silence academic freedom in the form of the organised attacks on the Dismantling Global Hindutva conference, Professor Gyan Prakash, Dayton-Stockton Professor of History at Princeton University, observes: “The extraordinary thing about the conference was the massive disinformation campaign by those seeking to prevent the academic scrutiny of Hindutva. The campaign launched against this conference was concerted, comprehensive, and entirely without scruples. As has been covered in the Guardian and Al Jazeera, many participants received threats, including death threats. We know that, as a co-sponsoring institution, you also faced overwhelming pressure to pull out from this conference. The threats include nearly every threat to academic freedom listed on the AAUP’s (American Association of University Professors) website.”
Of particular concern in western democracies are the threads of foreign influence and interference into academic freedom and the fabric of pluralism.
In western democracies, Hindutva seeks to silence criticism by communicatively inverting the violence perpetuated by the political ideology of Hindutva, while simultaneously playing to the ethos of superficial western multiculturalism. It projects a narrative of fragility, constructing references to Hinduphobia, in seeking to assert its cultural hegemony in the diaspora, while simultaneously silencing dissent and articulations of social justice. Hindutva actively erases the voices of adivasis (indigenous people), oppressed caste communities, women experiencing gender violence, gender diverse communities, and minority communities in seeking to establish the hegemony of its monolithic values.
In our work at CARE that seeks to co-create spaces for the voices of the ‘margins of the margins’ to be heard, we will continue to pursue our justice-based scholarship in spite of the organised forces of hate seeking to silence these voices by policing the term Hindutva. We are empowered in this work by the steadfast support of the leadership of Massey University in safeguarding our academic freedom, and in the protections offered by the Education Act 1989.
In what was marketed as the first “Leaders Breakfast” on NewstalkZB with Mike Hoskings, the leader of the National Party, Judith Collins, commented on the secondary education curriculum of Aotearoa New Zealand, stating; “The trouble with NCEA, Mike, to be frank, is there’s too many photography classes, too much media studies, too much woke stuff.”
The contempt for the creative arts and media studies expressed by Collins should be read alongside similar such attacks by the far right on critical pedagogy across the globe. That Collins places the teaching of media studies as “woke stuff” sheds light on what her problem with media studies really is – that she sees the discipline as teaching students how to ask critical questions.
In the US, Donald Trump has issued a state directive attacking the teaching of critical race theory. It has instructed all federal agencies to stop anti-bias training programmes that draw on critical race theory or address white privilege.
In a speech delivered at the National Archives Museum, Trump attacked critical race theory by stating that it encourages “deceptions, falsehoods and lies” by the “left-wing cultural revolution”.
Suggesting that students in US universities are inundated with what he terms “critical race theory propaganda,”, Trump said, “This is a Marxist doctrine holding that America is a wicked and racist nation, that even young children are complicit in oppression, and that our entire society must be radically transformed. Critical race theory is being forced into our children’s schools, it’s being imposed into workplace trainings, and it’s being deployed to rip apart friends, neighbours, and families.”
In India, the Narendra Modi-led right wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has systematically attacked universities that are seen as sites of critical education. Organised state violence has worked alongside the instruments of violence of the right wing Bharatiya Janata Party to attack and seek to dismantle university spaces for critical pedagogy. The renowned Jawaharlal Nehru University has been targeted with violence. Similar attacks have been carried out on Jamia Millia Islamia University.
What is the goal of critical pedagogy?
Critical pedagogy examines the ways in which inequalities are scripted into societal, institutional, and organisational structures and practices. It attends to the inequalities in the distribution of power, reading closely the ways in which these inequalities shape the inequities in outcomes in society. In the US for instance, the African American life span on average is shorter than the lifespan of Caucasians and Asians. In India, lower caste communities experience poorer health outcomes compared to upper castes. In Aotearoa New Zealand, in 2014, premature mortality for Māori and Pacific people was more than two times that of non-Māori and non-Pacific populations. By closely examining the patterns of distribution of power in society, critical pedagogy offers a framework for examining the ways in which inequalities have been historically produced and entrenched. In doing so, it offers students ways of conceptualising and working toward a society that is just, inclusive, and egalitarian.
A common thread across the far right attacks on critical pedagogy is the denial of entrenched societal inequalities that have been actively reworked by five decades of relentless neoliberalism.
The far right has introduced terms such as “cancel culture” to attack the calls for equality and social, cultural, economic, and political justice. The mainstreaming of the term under the guise of “freedom of expression” obfuscates the inequalities that are actively cultivated by the far right. For instance, attacks on transgender rights under the guise of free speech have been organised under the rhetoric of “cancel culture”. The term works actively to erase the inequalities produced by a gendered politics of hate, instead turning those occupying identities of power as victims. This projection of victimhood is a key strategic resource of the far right. In Trump’s US, white men are the victims. In Modi’s India, upper caste, Hindu men are the victims. In Collins’ Aotearoa New Zealand, white Pākehā culture is the victim.
The narrative of victimhood is used to mainstream hate groups into politics. Consider, for instance, the implicit support offered by Trump to the white supremacist groups. In a recent Presidential debate, he declined to condemn the far right group ‘Proud Boys’, instead stating, “Proud Boys, stand back and stand by! But I’ll tell you what, somebody’s got to do something about antifa and the left.”
Yet another strategy deployed by the far right is to create the false dichotomy between critical pedagogy and what is termed as “useful subjects.” In her interview with Hoskings, Collins added that she would promote the STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). She also noted the importance of financial literacy and more practical economics. As noted by the media scholar Neil Curtis, Collins “quickly qualified what she meant by economics, which she believes should be “less theoretical” and “more practical.” For Collins, what is practical is not critical.
Ironically, what this pernicious ideology of the far right consistently makes visible is the practical urgency of critical pedagogy. Critical pedagogy teaches students to closely interrogate the neoliberal ideology that circulates phony claims such as more technology and growth would solve the climate crisis. Critical pedagogy equips students with the capacity to interrogate the ideology of hate perpetuated by the far right on digital platforms.
Communication and media studies, with anchors in critical pedagogy, are vital to the education of a Prime Minister that has led to what is considered globally as one of the most effective responses to the pandemic. Clear communication, anchored in science, with a heart and with a commitment to social, political, and economic justice is the need of the hour.
If there is one thing the pandemic teaches us, it is this. A strong communication and media education grounded in critical pedagogy is as practical and necessary as an education in public health, medicine, and engineering.
Mohan J. Dutta is Dean’s Chair Professor, Director of the Center for Culture-Centered Approach to Research and Evaluation (CARE), and editor of the Journal of Applied Communication Research (JACR)
Communicative leadership is anchored in the idea of communication as community, communication as both the primordial source of community, and communication as a resource in manifesting community. Communication forms the infrastructure of community.
Be it in its local manifestation, in its national articulation of a collective identity, or in its global networks in response to crises, community is built on communication.
Communication as communion brings together participants in spaces, creating the basis of shared values, shared meanings, and shared actions. It is through the fundamental work of communication as bridging, as bringing people together, as creating the basis of dialogue, as creating the framework for forming and sustaining relationships that we come to realize communities.
It shouldn’t take a pandemic to make evident the powerful role of communication as constitutive of community, locally, nationally, and globally. Also, it shouldn’t take a pandemic to recognize the urgency of principled communication, one that is anchored in the search for truth, in transparency, in dialogue, and in democracy.
And yet, we are here.
Globally we are in the midst of a pandemic because of communicative failures at multiple layers of leadership across the globe, from authoritarian regimes that worked hard to hide the initial information about the epidemic, to opaque global institutions that are co-opted by the agendas of authoritarian regimes, to neo-fascist political parties that have taken over some of the world’s largest democracies, driven to power by their manipulative campaigns that thrive on hate and division.
The failure of much of global leadership to respond to the pandemic, to develop preventive resources, to create and sustain health infrastructures, and to care for communities is fundamentally the failure of communication.
Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro, Narendra Modi, Boris Johnson, globally we are witnessing the implications of communicative failures across nation states. Each of these men have risen to power through the deployment of communication as an instrument of hate.
Trump draws his power from simplistic narratives of the “outsider threat,” which forms the infrastructure of his “Make America Great Again” campaign. It is no surprise then that he finds refuge in the “Chinese virus,” triggering a wide range of anti-Asian incidents of hate in the U.S.
Modi’s popular appeal thrives on the use of hate to prop up an imaginary of a Hindu India, built precisely through the exclusion of its Muslim other. For a political project that was right until the COVID19 outbreak orchestrating the xenophobic exclusion of India’s Muslims through its National Registry of Citizens, it is no surprise that the COVID19 threat would be catalysed to orchestrate Islamophobia.
Driven by the deployment of communication as propaganda, U.S., Brazil, India, and U.K. have witnessed the pitfalls of communicative failure in the backdrop of COVID19. Communication, in its utter ugliness, thrives on circulating propaganda on one hand. On the other hand, it systematically obfuscates the failure in governance, the absence of basic public health and welfare infrastructures, and the abject failure of the state to care for its poor and underclasses.
In the midst of this evident failure in leadership in some of the largest democracies across the globe, it is humbling to witness a model of communicative leadership in Aotearoa New Zealand that is anchored in care, transparent communication, social justice, and democracy.
The face of the New Zealand response is the Prime Minister, a student and adept practitioner of communication as communion.
From the initial days of the sharing of the state’s COVID19 response to the ongoing lockdown that the country is witnessing, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern appears on the screen at least once or twice a day. Her daily briefings to the press are fed through a wide range of broadcast and new media. You witness a leader that takes the care to respond to the most difficult of questions, supported by accurate information grounded in scientific knowledge, and sincerely committed to transparency. If there are questions she does not have the information on, she states so openly and with clarity.
Communicative leadership is transparent, this is one of the first lessons we learn from the response in Aotearoa.
Communicative leadership is evident in the clarity and preparation with which the lockdown was implemented in Aotearoa. Each of the different levels of response to COVID19 were explained with clarity, along with the specific behaviors being recommended in each of the levels. The message with the behavioral recommendation was simple and is repeated multiple times across channels. The Minister of Health and the Director General of Health communicated information clearly about the number of cases, the status of the cases, and the steps being taken to “flatten the curve.” A dedicated Government website communicates the information clearly and with daily updates.
In addition to her meetings with the Press, the Prime Minister draws on her highly popular Facebook live platform to participate in conversations. She takes the time to read questions and directly respond to them, often getting online from home in an informal setting.
Her responses are not mediated by public relations teams or crisis consultants.
This is communicative leadership in action, authentic in its dialogic potential. It is this very authenticity that forms the basis of community, a key part of the Prime Minister’s ongoing message to New Zealanders, to do what New Zealanders do best: respond to COVID19 as a community, caring for each other, and taking care of each other.
Care also forms the basis of a strategy that incrementally moved into the lockdown. An initial level 3 alert gave people an opportunity to prepare, before the level 4 lockdown was implemented. During this period, there was ample communication about the evidence driving the decisions, the basis of the decisions, the explanations for the behaviors being recommended, and the support available to enable the behavior.
Care and social justice form the basis of the Labour-led response strategy in Aotearoa. The lockdown has been supported with state-driven financial support for employees, with paid leave support given to organizations to ensure job security. Similarly, policies have targeted rents to be paid during the lockdown. The Minister of Finance often accompanies the Prime Minister in communicating the financial policies being put into place for support. Anchoring these policies in justice ensures that the rights of workers and low-income communities are at the forefront of the conversation.
The strong presence of Māori culture in Aotearoa shapes the state’s response to kaumātua (the aging members of communities) with care, ensuring their wellbeing is placed at the heart of the response. Communities across Aotearoa reflect this communicative leadership in local spaces, responding with mutual aid and support for each other. Communities of care anchored in mutuality hold up communicative leadership.
That robust democracies are integral to COVID19 response means that there ought to be ample room for plural voices, for questions to be raised, and for evidence to be shared based on experiences in communities to shape a climate of dialogue. In our work at the Center for Culture-centered Approach to Research and Evaluation (CARE) in Aotearoa, this opening for ongoing dialogue based on community voice is perhaps one of the strongest elements of communicative leadership. Even as we develop advocacy papers based on questions emerging from communities, we often find that the issues we raise have already been addressed at a rapid pace.
Democracies depend on their abilities to listen to the people that own them. We witness in the COVID19 response in Aotearoa this accountability to the people, supporting a flexible infrastructure that is continually responsive to the pandemic and its changing nature.
Certainly there are ongoing challenges as the state responds to the changing numbers and scale of the pandemic. A communicative leadership has the robust capability to respond to these ongoing challenges because it is based on the recognition of the fundamental role of communication in making our communities and in sustaining them.
In an earlier OpEd, I wrote about COVID19 offering us a window into imagining new ways of organizing our communities, democracies, and the earth. Communicative leadership is a key ingredient in this work of imagination.
“It takes a pandemic to render visible the deep inequalities that make up the highly unequal societies we inhabit. As pandemics go, the power of COVID19 lies in its mobility, along the circuits of global capital, picked up and carried by the upwardly mobile classes feeding the financial and technology hubs of capital.
The irony of neoliberal globalization lies in the disproportionate burden of accelerated mobilities borne by the bodies of the poor at the global margins. The poor, whose bodies are the sites of neoliberal extraction, are also the bodies to be easily discarded when crises hit.
The images of throngs of people, the poor, now expelled from their spaces of precarious work at the metropolitan centers of financial and technology capital, spaces that are projected as the poster-models of mobility in development propaganda, walking on the long walk home, are circulating across our mobile screens.
Images of a migrant worker dead after the gruelling walk home, a mother pulling her daughter as they try to make their way home, a young man bursting into tears at the sight of food, a father walking as he carries his sleeping daughter on his shoulders, crowds of workers waiting in long lines to board buses, these are the faces of the unequal India made visible by COVID19.
These images of emaciated men and women, with little children, carrying pots, torn down bags and dilapidated beddings on their heads, walking on the roads and highways that form the infrastructures of the new India are haunting reminders of the masses of displaced people expelled by wars, riots, genocides, and famines.”
It will always be hard to keep Muslim and migrant perspectives in the foreground as long as material support is wanting, write Mohan Dutta and Murdoch Stephens
After the mosque attacks in Christchurch, there was a strong call from media to centre Muslim responses. For a few short weeks, the voices from the attacked communities were not only heard but prioritised.
But as the weeks turn to months, there has been a change to the way we talk about voices and speech. No longer were people discussing prioritising the voices from specific communities. Instead, to the fore rode more abstract and legal questions of hate speech and free speech.
We have no problem with a public discussion on hate speech and free speech, even if it means we have to put up with myopic views of freedom to speak that exclude freedom from hate speech. However, we are concerned that this debate has overshadowed the need for medium and long term reforms that focus on whose voices are prioritised.
Two days after the mosque attacks, one of the authors of this article spoke at length to a senior member of the government who assured him that there would be government support for these communities. But as the budget came and went, there was very little to help sustain these communities other than short-term funding for mental health. Compare that to the opaque $25m spent on stopping asylum seekers arriving by boat and it feels like little has changed. Even the much needed Multicultural Hub is backed by the local council, not central government.
Prioritising Muslim voices generally meant seeking out those community members already skilled at public communication. In the medium term, we can’t expect these individuals to continue to offer commentary: most are employed in other jobs, and not always places that look kindly on advocacy and journalism.
Luckily, we already have organisations established that can provide commentary from Muslim and migrant perspectives. Consider the work by Anjum Rahman from the Islamic Women’s Council, Imam Gamal Fouda from the Al-Noor mosque or Ahmad Tani from the Canterbury Refugee Centre.
We are particularly interested in the last of these three. The day after the mosque attacks it was the Canterbury Refugee Centre and Mr Tani who hosted Jacinda Ardern in Christchurch. Tani’s organisation is one of a handful around New Zealand funded through MBIE’s Strengthening Refugee Voices (SRV) programme. SRV organisations organise hui to collect and then communicate former refugee experiences – including many new Muslim New Zealanders – to Immigration New Zealand. Though we understand there is no neat crossover between refugee and Muslim communities, the SRV programme is one way that the least heard voices from the Muslim community can be amplified.
Emerging in the third term of the previous Labour government, it is fascinating to look back on where the policy came from. Then Immigration Minister David Cunliffe, speaking to refugee community leaders, announced the SRV funding as part of an earlier $62m budget package for the area. But the allocation for these refugee community groups was only $250,000 per year. That is not $250,000 per organisation, but in total, across all resettlement centres.
More than ten years since the establishment of SRV it is time for a review. Resettlement of refugees has moved away from Auckland with five other centres – Wellington, Waikato, Nelson, the Manawatū and Dunedin – now hosting more in each case than our largest city. On top of this, the next year will see the opening of six new resettlement centres in smaller regions.
Immigration New Zealand explicitly states, on page three of their resettlement strategy, “At the heart of the Strategy is the refugee voice. The Strategy was developed by Government and service providers in conjunction with former refugees and the identification of strategic priorities is undertaken in consultation with refugee communities.”
We agree that voice lies at the heart of sustaining an infrastructure for addressing the climate of hate experienced by refugees. Building spaces where voices of refugees can be heard is integral to addressing the challenges experienced by refugees. Moreover, the broader climate of prejudice and hate is addressed through the presence of refugee voices.
Last week, Immigration NZ told resettlement organisations that SRV would be reformulated for the expanded quota. But instead of facilitating this work through the usual full year contract, the groups we talked to have been offered just six months. In addition to the actual work of engaging with resettled communities, they are now being required to do the groundwork of redesigning the programme, which one of our contacts described as “a significant workload increase”.
Join us and help us hire new political & climate reporters Find Out More
In researching our just released White Paper on Strengthening Refugee Voices for the CARE centre, we discussed these issues with many interested parties. One of us met with Immigration NZ representatives in their MBIE headquarters in Wellington recently renovated for $15m. But when we met the head of a smaller resettlement organisation – not one of the original four – we had to meet in a public library. They simply did not have the funds for an office, let alone a salary. This person was tasked with coordinating and reporting on one of the largest refugee background communities on a budget of $6,000. How, we wondered, can refugee voices really be at the heart of the strategy when the material support is so wanting?
Over the coming months, the country will be doused in debates over free speech for those already affluent enough to want for nothing. Some of the newest members of our Muslim community, on the other hand, will arrive to a new land, and perhaps a new language. How, we ask, will their voices be heard?
In November 2018 Murdoch Stephens was invited to be an activist in residence with Professor Mohan Dutta’s CARE research centre at Massey University in Palmerston North. The White Paper that emerged from that residency can be found here.
To reclaim India is to reclaim both the secular and socialist roots of the nation.
Building up to the 2019 elections, the question, “whether India will be India,” is being asked in various conversations across India, in the diaspora, and globally. The question is a powerful one and one that calls for critical reflection as India goes to vote.
What is the idea of India that needs to be defended with vigour?
And more importantly, how does this conversation on India taking place in mostly English language plaforms, often among the elite, connect with the conversations on the idea of India taking place in India’s fields, among the farmers, in the production units, among the workers, among the large numbers of unemployed youth, among the precarious workers in the informal sectors, among India’s Muslims who live amidst the everyday fear for their lives, among India’s adivasi peoples?
Going back three decades to my NCERT textbooks in the Kendriya Vidyalaya where I went to school and learned my first lessons on citizenship, I am reminded that the idea of India was never articulated as a concept in the classroom.
One took the idea of India as a given in the concepts of secularism, socialism, and democracy. The lessons in history and geography in the classroom were strengthened and crystallized in community life, in the neighbourhood, in celebrations, and in the everyday culture.
That secularism is how one simply lived and how communities breathed their everyday life was evident in the neighbourhoods, local markets, tea stalls, mosques, churches, and temples. The sound of the azaan at dawn mingled in perfect harmony with the sound of the bells from the evening prayer at the temple.
That socialism forms the democratic aspiration of people was manifest in the land reforms, strong voices of unions, the strong presence of the Left parties, and the equally strong presence of social movements.
The twin concepts of secularism and socialism formed the bulwark of democratic life. The vibrant community groups, local governance, and public participation in the democracy were guided by the calls to equality.
These key ideas defined for me the spirit of India, with its vast openness to many faiths, worldviews, and ways of thought. The Red Book stores that would be on full display in the front of the Durga Puja pandals across West Bengal reflected for me the essence of this spirit.
In the Bengal of the 1980s and 90s when I was growing up, the idea of India was marked by its absence. One simply witnessed the values of socialism, secularism, and democracy in the fabric of daily life.
The first time that I grappled with the meaning of India was in December 1991, with the image of the chariot procession of the now revived-as-a-liberal icon, Lal Krishna Advani, and the mobs that had secured access to the mosque. The images of the destruction of the mosque by saffron-waving gangs quickly transformed into stories of violence and riots as they started erupting across India.
That was the first time as a College-going student I grappled with the idea of India.
Fast forward three decades, the saffron-wearing fringe elements are now running India. One of them, selling the story of struggling out of poverty to become a leader of a democracy, is now the Prime Minister. Many accounts suggest that the same saffron-clad icon was complicit in the massacre of innocent Muslims as Chief Minister of Gujarat.
The saffron tide of 2014 that brought the extremist fringe into power was also a continuity of the extreme neoliberal policies that saw entrenched inequalities, disenfranchisement, and weakening of worker collectivization.
That the ideas of socialism and democracy, the other two anchors of the idea of India, were already disappearing under a neoliberal deluge is reflected in the full-fledged turn to liberalization. Even as the urban landscape started rapidly transforming, socialism became outdated and secularism turned into an abuse.
Programs such as Operation Green Hunt were organized campaigns that legitimized the systematic attack on India’s adivasi people to enable large scale land grab, privatization, and profiteering, all in in the name of development. For journalists fed on the neoliberal ideology, the market offered the all-emancipating solution.
The neoliberal promise, that the turn to the market would cleanse the corruption, formed the zeitgeist of this new India. Large movements promising to cleanse corruption performed public spectacles, all too appealing to the neoliberal imaginaries of the urban middle classes. The country could be free from corruption and economic growth could be achieved, placing private capital as the solution.
Paradoxically, the notion that the private sector and its profit-driven motives formed the basic infrastructure of corruption was strategically obfuscated, instead promoting reforms that were seductive for the middle classes.
This very premise of corruption-free economic development mainstreamed the saffron fringe. That economic development driven by further neoliberal reforms would present a new India was the promise offered by the saffron regime. For many of the middle classes and those in the diaspora, the saffron was unpalatable but the stigma of fringe could be set aside with the promise of “Make in India.” The promise of further neoliberal reforms, dressed up in cleansing India of corruption, and modelled after “vibrant Gujarat” worked to erase the stigma of the saffron for the Indian middle class that identified as liberal.
For a strand of the diaspora, negotiating the everyday onslaughts of marginalization, the saffron turn offered a new basis for identity. This identity, founded on the image of a strong India, was also now palatable for the middle classes in the Indian mainstream. The saffron turn, with its promise of “Make in India” would deliver economic growth, coupled with cultural revitalization. The Indian (read Hindu Indian) would now feel a sense of glory at home and abroad, attaching with brand saffron.
In the past four years, the mainstreaming of saffron has been actively achieved through political and media discourse. It is no longer fringe to want to kill a Muslim or to make a statement about killing Muslims. It is the mainstream narrative of a section of middle class India. Anyone questioning this narrative is labelled an anti-national and sent to Pakistan by the English language channels of Times Now and Republic TV, with a large middle class following.
Five years have come and gone. The empirical evidence attests to many undelivered promises. Much like the empty sloganeering of a “Vibrant Gujarat,” a “Make in India’ re-make of Indian economy remains a mirage.
It is not in this middle and aspiring class that I hold the hope for India.
The possibility of reclaiming India does not lie in my privileged voiced or the voices of experts who see the danger of a fascist politics that threatened to engulf India. We have, for most instances, detached ourselves from the people, from the struggles of the soil, from the hardships that are the everyday reality for the majority of India.
The hope for India lies in the rural, among the urban poor, among the workers, and among the farmers. The hope for India lies in its adivasi and dalit people as they turn their voices of disenfranchisement into votes at the ballot. The hope for India lies in the many farmers who have flooded the capital in protest. The hope for India lies in the many workers who have shown up in seas of red. The hope for India lies in Begusarai as we witness the possibilities of what can be. With one parliamentarian that represents these fundamental ideals enshrined in the constitution.
To reclaim India is to reclaim both the secular and socialist roots of the nation, written into the constitution.
I don’t have much hope in a neoliberal elite that somehow continues to bow to the pseudo-science of the market. I do have hope, however, for the other India that does the everyday work of making it and imagining it.