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Modi and the Criminalization of Indian Politics

The election of Narendra Modi as India’s prime minister in May, with strong backing from the country’s capitalist class, placed a mass murderer at the head of the world’s largest democracy. It was a shocking and unprecedented development whose consequences for India’s political and economic future are ominous.


A history of BJP violence

Modi won the national election as leader of the fascist, Hindu supremacist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). He is notorious for presiding over the horrific massacre of 3,000 Muslims in the Indian state of Gujarat in 2002 when he was the region’s chief minister, earning Modi the title “Butcher of Gujarat.” Two hundred thousand people were displaced by the killing. A leaked British High Commission report at the time suggested the violence was not spontaneous but planned, possibly months in advance with the support of the state government, and that there could be no reconciliation between Hindus and Muslims while Modi remained in office. (Just over 80% of Indians are Hindus while about 14% are Muslims.)

Modi’s responsibility for the massacre was so obvious that even the George W. Bush Administration, itself responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths in Iraq, refused the Indian governor a visa. He was unable to enter the United States for almost ten years.

Indian political psychologist Ashis Nandy, who calls Modi a “Nazi Gauleiter” (provincial governor), has said he “shamelessly presided over the riots and acted as the chief patron of rioting gangs.” Nandy calls for international prosecution of Modi for collusion in murders and for ethnic cleansing, and asks: “If Modi’s behaviour till now is not a crime against humanity, what is?”

Modi never apologized for the Gujarat massacre and refuses to answer questions about his role leading up to it. He did make one contemptuous remark. As reported in the conservative magazine The Economist (UK), Modi said he regretted the suffering of Muslims “as he would that of a puppy run over by a car.” Several court cases, in which Modi is accused of complicity in the Gujarat events, are ongoing.

Politics by pogrom

Gujarat is unfortunately not the exception for Modi’s BJP. Inciting the killing of Muslims and Christians is part of the party’s electoral strategy.

In Gujarat, the massacre was aimed at areas where the BJP wanted more votes, which it succeeded in getting, ensuring Modi’s continued reign in the state after 2002. The BJP repeated the Gujarat strategy in Odisha state in 2007 in a pogrom aimed at Christians. The party also won the recent national election with help from a politics of massacre, this time in the key swing state of Uttar Pradesh (UP), India’s biggest state by population and politically the most crucial.

As British-Indian writer Amrit Wilson explained in a recent article in Ceasefire magazine (UK), “In Muzaffarnagar [a district in UP], as in Gujarat, the violence was carefully planned.” Wilson wrote that Jat Hindus (Jats are an ethnic group) and Muslims had lived in harmony in the area for decades until in the summer of 2013, when Amit Shah, currently Modi’s right-hand man and the home minister of Gujarat state, was given charge of the BJP election campaign in UP.

The BJP and affiliated fascist organizations began to create conflict between Hindus and Muslims, whipping up “a frenzy of anti-Muslim hatred, with inflammatory speeches, fake videos and other materials portraying Muslims as aggressors and potential violators of Jat womanhood,” wrote Wilson. Hindu men were told to save their daughters and then to kidnap and rape Muslim women.

Wilson calls the violence against Muslim women in Muzaffarnagar “horrific,” similar to that in Gujarat. Forty-eight people were killed in Muzzafarnagar and 50,000 were displaced. The BJP’s massacre strategy in UP worked by polarizing Hindus and Muslims and the party won the vote for the national election in the state.

Hindu nationalism

The BJP is the political arm of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a fascist paramilitary organisation formed in 1920 and based on Mussolini’s Black Brigades in Italy. Modi started his political career in the RSS, of which he is a long-time member. Though recent Indian media reports suggest the affiliation is being tested by the prime minister’s bigger desire to retain power, we have every reason to doubt Modi will betray the thugs that brought him to office.

Both the BJP and RSS are part of Sangh Parivar, which Wilson calls “the sinister family of [Hindu and nationalist] organisations” that includes Shiv Sena and the Bajrang Dal, two other violent paramilitary groups. It was the RSS that provided lists of Muslims to target to Hindu mobs in Gujarat. The organization has been banned three times by Indian authorities.

Nathuram Godse, the killer of Mahatma Gandhi (considered the father of modern India) was a member of the RSS when he committed the murder, which he justified by claiming Gandhi to be pro-Muslim. An RSS publication, The Organizer, said Gandhi’s murder was an expression of “the people’s wrath” for much the same reason.

As explained by Wilson, the RSS emerged in 1920 in opposition to the Indian anti-colonial movement and was an expression of British colonialism’s divide and rule policy that pitted Hindus against Muslims in order to facilitate England’s imperial rule over India. Britain ruled India for 200 years from the mid 1700s to 1947 during which time it enforced the genocide of 200 million Indians and made the country an abyss of poverty.

The British created a largely Hindu capitalist class to play a junior role in their extreme exploitation of Indians. This class preferred to rule through the secular and social democratic Congress Party after Indian independence in 1947 rather than embrace the Hindu Right because relatively progressive policies were needed to establish a national manufacturing base. Only after Congress turned India toward neoliberalism in 1991, partly under pressure from domestic and foreign corporations, did India’s capitalist class start supporting the BJP in a significant manner. It is this capitalist support that has made the BJP, as Wilson puts it, “a force to be reckoned with.”

The Gujarat model

India’s shift to neoliberal capitalism has massively increased poverty and inequality in the country, especially to the detriment of farmers and Adivasis, indigenous tribal Indians. At the same time, the economic strategy has enriched a small capitalist elite that includes the Tata, Ambani, Mittal and Jindal families. Seven hundred and fifty million Indians, about 75% of the country’s population, live in poverty while according to the Contemporary World History Project the top 5% of Indian families hold 38% of total assets.

The Indian capitalist class, in league with Western multinational corporations and governments, is continuing the rapacious legacy of Western colonialism by looting the country’s land and mineral resources while driving most of the population to destitution. The extreme disparity that is caused in the process can only be enforced through state violence and official subservience to corporations. Here the BJP has proved its worth far more than the Congress Party.

Modi has shown in Gujarat what he can do for the Indian capitalist class on a national scale. Gujarat is the leading neoliberal state in India with environmental and labour laws routinely ignored to benefit business, land grabbed from farmers by the state government and given to corporations, labour unions suppressed and health and education budgets gutted. Not surprisingly Gujarat is the most polluted state in India. To this toxic mixture, Modi added anti-Muslim violence to distract Hindus from recognizing the true source of their growing impoverishment: corporate control of the economy.

“Corporations in India want much easier access to land, natural resources, finances, environmental clearances and the corridors of power, all of which Modi has promised,” said Indian author Ashish Kothari, co-writer of the book Churning the Earth:The Making of Global India (2012), in an interview.*

“I also think we are getting less tolerant as a nation…and that this is directly linked not only to religious, caste and other partisan politics but also to increasing conflicts arising from resource and job scarcity [that are] themselves an outcome of faulty development strategies. This is how right-wing extremism and neoliberal economics are linked.”

In Gujarat, Modi gave the Indian corporate elite the governing model it wanted, eliciting praise from the business class and filling BJP campaign coffers. Modi’s big-name backers include India’s most prominent capitalist families: the Tatas, Ambanis and Mittals, among others.

In the lead-up to the 2014 electoral campaign, Anil Ambani and Sunil Mittal, two of India’s biggest industrialists, publicly advocated for Modi to become prime minister, with the former calling him “the King among Kings” and saying, “Narendra has done good for Gujarat [and] should be the next leader of the country.” Tata said, “Under Modi’s leadership, Gujarat is head and shoulders above any state.”

A “big boost” to capital

Indian activist Xavier Dias, who has worked in support of the rights of Adivasi communities in Jharkhand state for 30 years, said in an interview the business support was so massive that the question you have to ask is not who funded Modi but who did not.

“I know of no company that did not fund their elections,” he explained. “The only issue was who gave less than the others. These corporations include the ones owned by Mukesh Ambani [Anil’s brother], which has bought the CNN group of TV stations, and Adani Enterprises.”

The election of Modi and the BJP is “a big boost to neoliberal capital,” continued Dias. “It is this capital that put Modi in power with its massive flow of funds, especially by buying the media. The Indian capitalists poured huge sums of money into the election campaign and into the stock market that took it up by about 4,000 points, signaling that the BJP will be their party.”

Under the previous Congress Party government, the neoliberal project had stalled, mired in massive official and corporate corruption and a civil war that has engulfed 40% of India’s land area, encompassing 20 of the country’s 28 states. The Indian government complains that the insurgency has crippled economic activity in central and eastern India. Fighting government forces are Maoist guerrillas, comprised mainly of Adivasis, resisting the corporate grabbing of their resource-rich lands (see “Maoist insurgency spreads like wildfire” in the December 2013/January 2014 Monitor).

Indian corporations prefer a smooth, concealed corruption in relations with the government rather than public corruption scandals that damage their image, as happened constantly with the Congress government.

“Neoliberalism is facing its biggest challenge today in India,” explained Dias. “There are massive protests against it, court cases and exposures of its corruption by whistleblowers. The capitalists in India realize that they cannot function within the liberal democratic space and so the undermining of democracy and its institutions is now their game plan and it is the Hindu nationalists like the BJP who are their best bet to carry this out.”

Dias continued:

“Modi will boost the paramilitary forces fighting the Maoists and brush aside any concern for human rights. Violence and social conflicts have become necessities for the accumulation of capital. As capital expands and becomes unaccountable to any democratic institution, this trend will grow. It is the logic of capitalism and imperialism.”

That logic is not uncontested.

“I also see it as a war situation,” suggested Dias. “In India, we have the largest number of social movements in the world. Every town, village, district and city is bubbling with protest on the streets. The corporations look powerful today but will they be able to sustain this power? I doubt it.”*


Published in the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives Monitor,

September 1, 2014

Asad Ismi is the Monitor’s international affairs correspondent. He has written extensively on India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan.