An article published in the Globe and Mail last week lulled readers into thinking that India is struggling to contain a growing Hindu fascist movement, carelessly employing reductionism and omission to present a distorted view of a country that is gaining economic and cultural importance for Canada. While it was well-written, the author, Omer Aziz, misleads readers about the Hindu extremist presence in the country.
Two weeks ago, the Indian-market version of the book in question was voluntarily withdrawn by its publishers in response to legal pressure, but not officially banned since the Indian government was not involved. Penguin Books India could have appealed the unconstitutionality of the law being applied to it, but chose to settle instead. In doing so, it overestimated its opponents and emboldened them, even if it didn't increase their mainstream appeal.
In the past, extremist groups of all stripes in India, as well as industrialists and politicians, have invoked Indian law to have published works not to their liking banned in the country. Censorship, for the most part, has been upheld by both liberal and conservative governments in India's six-decade history. A notable example (curiously unreferenced by Aziz) is Salman Rushdie's 1988 book The Satanic Verses, whose import was banned (and remains banned) by a socialist Indian government in 1989 in response to pressure from extremist Muslim groups. Extremist Hindu and Christian groups also regularly lobby to have books banned or withdrawn, with occasional success, while biographies of industrialists and politicians have been quietly withdrawn.
Yet despite their noisy activism, political far-right groups in India are still in the minority and regionally isolated. While they dream of securing a monopoly on interpretations of identity (as they do in all countries), they are not as sizeable nor as influential a national movement as readers are led to believe. Their outbursts are sporadic, occasionally victorious, less of a movement and more of an opportunistic struggle to attract attention in a country where they do not enjoy broad, mainstream support.
Aziz quotes the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a Hindu nationalist organization, as one of the groups leading the charge. However, leaders of the organization admit that the RSS is declining in influence. In the last decade alone, the RSS has experienced a drop in national membership activity at least as high as 10 per cent. As the ideological fountainhead of India's far-right movement, this decline is a far cry from the Hitlerite fascist wave that is alluded by Aziz to be on the rise. If anything, this is an indication of an organization on the wane and struggling to remain relevant in a rapidly modernizing country.
The Shiv Sena, another nationalist party which the author parades as "chauvinistic and influential" in his article is a ghost of its former self, with the death of prominent leaders and political infighting reducing its influence mainly to the city of Mumbai, where its impact has waned considerably since its heyday in the 1960s. The party currently holds only 15% of the seats in the Maharashtra state legislative assembly and has been out of power for the last 15 years, having been elected only once in the last 50 years.
Narendra Modi, the current Chief Minister of the state of Gujarat and presumptive front-runner for the post of Prime Minister in elections this year, whom the author alludes to as a leading fascist and continues to hold responsible for the Hindu-Muslim riots of 2002 (despite being acquitted twice by India's Supreme Court), has earned the ire of the Hindu far-right by demolishing illegally constructed temples in his state to limit their influence. He has also led his party to electoral victory in areas of his state where the population is 90 percent Muslim - a surprising start for a supposed fascist.
History too, has been flogged.
Shivaji Bhosale, a historical figure referenced in Aziz's article, is reduced to a mere "seventeenth-century Hindu militant turned king", when in reality he carved a progressive state out of a repressive theocratic empire, enforced freedom of religion, empowered women to hold rank and accorded equal status and authority to Muslims, Christians, Europeans, Africans and Hindus - a departure from the norms of contemporary empires.
Aziz even invents a new god out of his analysis - "the Hindu God Ramayana" - which is his misreading of the ancient Hindu epic myth of the same name.
By carelessly and selectively distorting facts to play up the strength and influence of these far-right groups, and underscore his thesis, Aziz seems more intent on promoting the phrase "fascism with a Hindu face" (taken from Christopher Hitchens) than portraying Indian history and society accurately.
In his rush to expose extremists who seek to reduce India's rich history into a black-and-white ideological narrative, Aziz has done the same, painting Hindus in chauvinistic colours and pinning the blame for any censorship solely on Hindu extremists. He has missed that censorship has been enforced by successive liberal and conservative governments in India, that multiple religious, political and industrial groups have all abused the law, and that these groups (as in many democracies) operate on the fringe without broad mainstream support. These groups are vocal precisely because they are limited or waning in influence, and are aided in their efforts more by government weakness, unchallenged laws and intellectual hand-wringing than effective tactics.
The point is not to excuse Hindu extremists for acting out of a sense of misguided patriotism, but to challenge the impression the author has given that Hindu extremists are solely responsible for India's history of censorship, draw attention to Indian laws that encroach on freedom of expression, and present readers with a fuller picture so they can draw their own conclusions.
Passing off a piece of polemic is easy. True journalism is not. I trust Canadian readers can discern between the two.