The holy name of liberty

With each battle cry against Pakistan, India inflicts a wound on herself. As nationalism becomes syn

A friend from Baroda called. Weeping. It took her 15 minutes to tell me what the matter was. It wasn't very complicated. Only that a friend of hers had been caught by a mob. Only that her stomach had been ripped open and stuffed with burning rags. Only that, after she died, someone carved "om" on her forehead.

Precisely which Hindu scripture preaches this?

Our prime minister justified such violence as part of the retaliation by outraged Hindus against Muslim "terrorists" who burned alive 58 Hindu passengers on the Sabarmati Express in Godhra, Gujarat, last February. Each of those who died that hideous death was someone's brother, someone's mother, someone's child.

Which particular verse in the Koran required that they be roasted alive?

What shall we do? What can we do?

In the Bharatiya Janata Party, we have a ruling party that is haemorrhaging. Its rhetoric against terrorism, the sabre-rattling against Pakistan (with the underlying nuclear threat), the massing of almost a million soldiers on the border on hair-trigger alert, the attempts to communalise and falsify the school history textbooks - none of this has prevented it from being humiliated in election after election. Desperate, it has turned for succour to the state of Gujarat.

Gujarat, the only major state in India to have a BJP government, has, for some years, been the Petri dish in which Hindu fascism has been fomenting an elaborate political experiment. In March, the initial results were put on public display.

Within hours of the Godhra outrage, the militant, nationalist Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council) and Bajrang Dal put into motion a meticulously planned pogrom against the Muslim community. Officially, the number of dead is 800. Independent reports put the figure at well over 2,000. More than 150,000 people, driven from their homes, now live in refugee camps.

Women were stripped, gang-raped, parents were bludgeoned to death in front of their children; 240 dargahs and 180 masjids were destroyed. In Ahmedabad, the tomb of Wali Gujarati, the founder of the modern Urdu poem, was demolished and paved over in the course of a night. In Baroda, the tomb of the musician Ustad Faiyaz Ali Khan was desecrated and wreathed in burning tyres. Arsonists looted and burned shops, homes, hotels, textile mills, buses and cars. Hundreds of thousands have lost their jobs.

The killers still stalk Gujarat's streets. The lynch mob continues to be the arbiter of the routine affairs of daily life: who can live where, who can say what, who can meet whom, and where and when. Its mandate is expanding quickly. From religious affairs, it now extends to property disputes, family altercations, the planning and allocation of water resources . . .

Muslim businesses have been shut down. Muslim people are not served in restaurants. Muslim children are not welcome in schools. Muslim students are too terrified to sit their exams. Muslim parents live in dread that their infants might forget what they have been told and give themselves away by saying "Ammi!" or "Abba!" in public, and invite sudden and violent death.

Notice has been given: this is just the beginning.

Under this relentless pressure, what will most likely happen is that the majority of the Muslim community will resign itself to living in ghettos as second-class citizens, in constant fear, with no civil rights and no recourse to justice. What will daily life be like for them? Any little thing, an altercation in a cinema queue or a fracas at a traffic light, could turn lethal. So they will learn to keep very quiet, to accept their lot, to creep around the edges of the society in which they live. Their fear will transmit itself to other minorities. Many, particularly the young, will probably turn to militancy. They will do terrible things. Civil society will be called upon to condemn them. Then President Bush's canon will come back to us: "You are with us, or you're with the terrorists."

Those words hang frozen in time, like icicles. For years to come, the butchers and genocidists will fit their grisly mouths around them ("lip-synching", as the film-makers call it) in order to justify their butchery.

One party leader, Bal Thackeray of the Shiv Sena, has the lasting solution. He has called for civil war. Isn't that just perfect? Then Pakistan won't need to bomb us: we can bomb ourselves. Let's turn all of India into Kashmir. Or Bosnia. Or Palestine. Or Rwanda. Let's all suffer for ever. Let's buy expensive guns and explosives to kill each other with. Let the British arms dealers and the American weapons manufacturers grow fat on our spilled blood. We could ask the Carlyle Group - of which the Bush and Bin Laden families are both shareholders - for a bulk discount. Maybe if things go really well, we'll become like Afghanistan. When all our farmlands are mined, our buildings destroyed, our infrastructure reduced to rubble, our children physically maimed and mentally wrecked, when we have nearly wiped ourselves out with self-manufactured hatred, maybe we can appeal to the Americans to help us out. Airdropped airline meals, anyone?

How close we have come to self-destruction. Another step and we'll be in free-fall. And yet the government presses on. At the April meeting of the BJP's national executive in Goa, the prime minister of secular, democratic India, Atal Behari Vajpayee, made history. He became the first Indian prime minister to cross the threshold and publicly unveil an unconscionable bigotry against Muslims, which even George Bush and Donald Rumsfeld would be embarrassed to own up to. "Wherever Muslims are," he said, "they do not want to stay peacefully."

Fascism's firm footprint has appeared in India. Let's mark the date: spring 2002. Although we can thank the American president and the Coalition Against Terror for creating a congenial international atmosphere for its ghastly debut, we cannot credit them for the years it has been brewing in our public and private lives.

It breezed in in the wake of the Pokhran nuclear tests in 1998. From then onwards, the massed energy of bloodthirsty patriotism became openly acceptable political currency. The "weapons of peace" trapped India and Pakistan in a spiral of brinkmanship - threat and counter-threat, taunt and counter-taunt. And now, one war and hundreds of dead later, more than a million soldiers from both armies are massed at the border, eyeball to eyeball, locked in a pointless nuclear stand-off.

The escalating belligerence against Pakistan has ricocheted off the border and entered our own body politic, like a sharp blade slicing through the vestiges of communal harmony and tolerance between the Hindu and Muslim communities.

In no time at all, the godsquadders from hell have colonised the public imagination. And we allowed them in.

Each time the hostility between India and Pakistan is cranked up, within India, there is a corresponding increase in hostility towards Muslims. With each battle cry against Pakistan, we inflict a wound on ourselves, on our way of life, on our spectacularly diverse and ancient civilisation, on everything that makes India different from Pakistan. Increasingly, Indian nationalism has come to mean Hindu nationalism, which defines itself not through a respect or regard for itself, but through a hatred of the Other. And the Other, for the moment, is not just Pakistani, it is Muslim.

It is disturbing to see how neatly nationalism dovetails into fascism. While we must not allow the fascists to define what the nation is, or to whom it belongs, it is worth keeping in mind that nationalism, in all its many avatars - socialist, capitalist and fascist - was at the root of almost all the genocides of the 20th century.

The incipient, creeping fascism of the past few years has been groomed by many of our "democratic" institutions. Everyone has flirted with it - parliament, the press, the police, the administration, the public. Even "secularists" have been guilty of helping to create the right climate. Each time you defend the right of an institution, any institution (including the supreme court), to exercise unfettered, unaccountable powers that must never be challenged, you move towards fascism. To be fair, perhaps not everyone recognised the early signs for what they were.

Fascism is also about the slow, steady infiltration of all the instruments of state power. It is about the slow erosion of civil liberties, about unspectacular day-to-day injustices. Fighting it means fighting to win back the minds and hearts of people. Fighting it does not mean asking for the religious schools to be banned, it means working towards the day when they are voluntarily abandoned as bad ideas. It means keeping an eagle eye on public institutions and demanding accountability. It means putting your ear to the ground and listening to the whispering of the truly powerless. It means giving a forum to the myriad voices from the hundreds of resistance movements across the country which are speaking about real things - about bonded labour, marital rape, sexual preferences, women's wages, uranium dumping, unsustainable mining, weavers' woes, farmers' worries. It means fighting displacement and dispossession and the relentless, everyday violence of abject poverty.

In little parks, in big maidans, on empty lots, on village commons, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (the cultural wing of the BJP) is marching, hoisting its saffron flag. Suddenly they are everywhere, grown men in khaki shorts, marching, marching, marching. Where to? What for? Their disregard for history shields them from the knowledge that fascism will thrive for a short while and then self-annihilate because of its inherent stupidity. But, unfortunately, like the radioactive fallout of a nuclear strike, it has a half-life that will cripple generations to come.

These levels of rage and hatred cannot be contained, cannot be expected to subside with public censure and denunciation. Hymns of brotherhood and love are great, but not enough.

Fascism has come to India after the dreams that fuelled the freedom struggle have been frittered away like so much loose change. Independence itself came to us as what Mahatma Gandhi famously called a "wooden loaf" - a notional freedom tainted by the blood of the thousands who died during partition. For more than half a century now, the hatred and mutual distrust have been exacerbated, toyed with and never allowed to heal by politicians, led from the front by Indira Gandhi.

Every political party has tilled the marrow of our secular parliamentary democracy, mining it for electoral advantage. Like termites excavating a colony, they have made tunnels and underground passages, undermining the meaning of "secular" until it has become merely an empty shell, about to implode. Their tilling has weakened the foundations of the structure that connects the constitution, parliament and the courts of law - the configuration of checks and balances that forms the backbone of a parliamentary democracy.

Under the circumstances, it is futile to go on blaming politicians and demanding of them a morality of which they are incapable. If they have let us down, it is only because we have allowed them to.

Over the past 50 years, ordinary citizens' modest hopes for lives of dignity, security and relief from abject poverty have been systematically snuffed out. Every "democratic" institution in India has shown itself to be unaccountable, inaccessible to the ordinary citizen, and either unwilling, or unable, to act in the interests of genuine social justice. And now, corporate globalisation is being relentlessly and arbitrarily imposed on an essentially feudal society, tearing through its complex, tiered social fabric, ripping it apart culturally and economically.

There is very real grievance here. And the fascists did not create it. But they have seized upon it, upturned it and forged from it a hideous, bogus sense of pride. They have mobilised human beings using the lowest common denominator - religion. People who have lost control over their lives, people who have been uprooted from their homes and communities, who have lost their culture and their language, are being made to feel proud of something. Not something they have striven for and achieved, not something they can count as a personal accomplishment, but something they just happen to be. Or, more accurately, something they happen not to be. And the falseness, the emptiness of that pride, is fuelling a gladiatorial anger that is then directed towards a simulated target that has been wheeled into the amphitheatre.

How else can India explain the project of trying to disenfranchise, drive out or exterminate the Muslims, the second-poorest community in the country, using as its foot soldiers the very poorest (Dalits and Adivasis)? How else can India explain why the Dalits in Gujarat, who have been despised, oppressed and treated worse than refuse by the upper castes for thousands of years, have joined hands with their oppressors to turn on those who are only marginally less unfortunate than they themselves?

One hundred and thirty million Muslims live in India. Hindu fascists regard them as legitimate prey. Do our governing politicians think that the world will stand by and watch while they are liquidated in a "civil war"?

Press reports say that the members of the European Union and several other countries have condemned what happened in Gujarat and likened it to Nazi rule. The Indian government's portentous response is that foreigners should not use the Indian media to comment on what is an "internal matter" (like the chilling goings-on in Kashmir?). What next? Censorship? Close down the internet? Block international calls? Kill the wrong "terrorists" and fudge the DNA samples? There is no terrorism like state terrorism.

But who will take them on? Fascism itself can be turned away only if all those who are outraged by it show a commitment to social justice that equals the intensity of their indignation.

Are we ready to get off our starting blocks? Are we ready, many millions of us, to rally not just on the streets, but at work and in schools and in our homes, in every decision we take, and every choice we make? Or not just yet . . .

If not, then years from now, when the rest of the world has shunned us (as it should), like the ordinary citizens of Hitler's Germany, we too will learn to recognise revulsion in the gaze of our fellow human beings. We, too, will find ourselves unable to look our own children in the eye, for the shame of what we did and did not do. For the shame of what we allowed to happen.

This is us. In India. Heaven help us make it through the night.

Copyright, 2002 Arundhati Roy