30 January 2015
The festivities, hopes and resolutions of the New Year’s eve were soon brought back to the real, as we entered 2015. January already bore the scars of fascism, between the duly observed anniversaries of the Holocaust Day and of Mahatma Gandhi’s murder. Two shocks from another time, another era, in fact, another millennium – yet, two legacies kept alive, as their threats, too, are always ready to inflame our everyday. As a poet almost said, “Good (de)fences make good neighbours”… This January 8th revealed how urgently the civil societies of our world must come up creatively with some means of responding to the apparent reign of terror. But to leave the ad hominem and to build beyond the immediate emotions, we must stop our romantic contemplations of the faces of fascism, to understand its structures. Beyond the unbearable mass of the dead, January 2015 could act as the igniting reminder of the eternal risks of socio-political impatience, of the tragedy of inter-cultural deafness, but especially, of the urgency to depart from the accusations and the finger-pointing to truly build an alternative. Thus, breaking away from our past and preparing a future transcending the tumorous growth of fascism, will require that we ambition to develop 2015 as a conscious yet innovative effort to respond to the destructive temptations that sprout around us, but also, often, from within. This week on LILA Inter-actions, Joe Keysor returns to the setting of the Nazi Holocaust, to discover the shallowness of our understanding of religions as the source of both our remaining belligerent reflexes, and our frail inspirations to answer constructively. Subhash Gatade reflects on the ideological twists that permit an assassin to become a saint, against the backdrop of a national and international context unable to bring the vitality for connections required today.
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An Urgent Recognition
The recent Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris is a bloody illustration of the fact that there are those among us who believe that they have licence to kill for the good of humanity. They do not consider themselves as evil, but see their victims as evil, obstacles to the attainment of a better world.
This is a vital aspect of the spiritual disease of fascism, and shows itself in individual acts, as in the assassination of Gandhi; in determined political and/or religious movements, such as ISIS or Al Qaeda; and at times even in the actions of entire states and nations, such as Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia, Mao’s China and Pol Pot’s Cambodia.
The use of ruthless violence to remake mankind cannot be simplistically labeled either secular or religious. The atheistical Communists used ‘human emancipation’, ‘peace’ and ‘justice’ to justify their disastrous and inhuman policies, and the list of violent secular organisations is a long one: the Weathermen and the Black Panthers in the USA; the United Red Army in Japan; the FLQ in Canada; the Red Brigade in Italy; and the Baader-Meinhof gang in Germany, to name only a few.
Religious manifestations such as the Inquisition and the Crusades are not currently relevant, and fascism does not have much of a foothold in the Christian community now – but the criminal terrorism of 9-11 and Islamist atrocities in Syria, England, France, India, Africa and in other parts of the world make it clear that killing in the name of God is an ongoing problem. It is also an increasing problem, and promises to become worse.
Is the time of the Crusades completely over?
In the Third Reich, we see an odd mixture of both secular and religious impulses, a mixing of the worst of both extremes, to create technologically advanced and industrialised mass killing never before seen in the history of the world.
It is too easy to dismiss individual terrorists or state terrorist leaders and their accomplices as criminals and madmen. They have coherent goals, and believe that violence and terrorism are effective means of achieving those goals. Even someone as bizarre as Hitler had a system of ethics based on his understanding of life as relentless struggle. His peculiar mix of philosophy, science and religion aimed at benefiting humanity by elevating the most fit to their rightful place of dominance and by eliminating the weak and the degenerate.
Hitler’s ideology did not suddenly materialise from nowhere. For more than a hundred years before he was born in 1889, Europe’s leading thinkers had been arguing that Christianity was out of date, that there was no higher spiritual revelation from beyond, and that human reason alone was the sole and adequate guide. The idea that the lives and deaths of individuals were not important in the grand scheme of things can be found in the writings of Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer, and other important German thinkers.
The influence of the churches in Germany and in Europe greatly declined in the nineteenth century, and new ideas of the meaning and purpose of life arose to replace increasingly outdated religious traditions. Especially important was the influence of what is now called ‘social Darwinism’ – the belief that Darwinian evolution supplied the philosophical basis for a new human ethic. Life thus came to be understood by many as a relentless struggle in which the progress of all species, including the human species, was achieved by the survival of the fittest; that as a result of this process the northern Europeans dominated the world by the natural right of evolutionary law.
Integral to Hitler’s worldview was hostility to Christianity. The Jewish origins of this religion were well-known, and frequently referred to as being contrary to an older and healthier pre-Christian German paganism. Christianity was openly associated with the emergence of democracy, internationalism, individual liberty, and moral values that the Nazis were determined to eliminate. This view of the Jews having corrupted Europe culturally, as agents of racial and spiritual decay, was a vital component of the Holocaust, though often unrecognised today.
Yet, there were still many people in Germany with varying degrees of attachment to Christianity, whether merely sentimental or deeply devout, and Hitler was mindful of their influence. Hence, he made a few reassuring religious-sounding comments on occasion, and made promises to strengthen and support the churches – all of which promises would later be broken. Hitler’s comments were more than mere politics, however. He did consistently claim to be a representative of a higher power, and at times appealed to ‘the Lord . . . the Almighty . . . Providence’ and so on. This ‘higher power’ was not, however, the God of the Christian or Jewish Bibles, but was much closer in spirit to the impersonal German philosophical abstractions such as Hegel’s World Spirit, Schopenhauer’s cosmic Will, or Fichte’s Absolute.
Moreover, Hitler offered people what religion used to offer: meaning, purpose and hope. He offered a vision of an elect portion of humanity, and an earthly paradise of German domination. This appeal to human glory and power was deeply compelling, and seduced many church members and even church leaders, who turned away from the teachings of Christ in order to follow new ideas unheard of in the previous 1900 years of church history. And, the Germans had suffered a lot. If we had suffered as much, how many of us would also welcome a dictator who promised to restore order?
The response of the churches was (with rare exceptions) the same response we see today: naivety, timidity, fear, unwillingness to face serious issues, the hope that things will just work out somehow by themselves. Gullible Christians who at first supported Hitler in the belief that he would restore stability and honour to the nation soon found that all of his promises were worthless. His desire was to make the churches completely subordinate to the state, until the time they would die out completely.
Pope Pius XII was perhaps an exception
amidst the timid attitude of the Christian Church
vis-à-vis Nazi Germany
These are not merely historical questions. The powers of evil that drove Hitler did not disappear in 1945, and have emerged in new forms suitable to our own age. In the past, such great conquerors of world history as Attila the Hun, Genghis Khan, or numerous other builders of ancient empires, did not need to resort to sophisticated ideologies and philosophies or well-thought out religious systems to justify their conquests. They were driven by a simple love of power and violence, and made no apologies or excuses for their blatant depredations. Now that we have become more advanced and civilised, we can still use religion or philosophy to justify our love of power. Now, it is possible for people to kill, conquer, and annihilate with the sincere belief (or at least the excuse) that the benefit of humanity is their aim. They can engage in unrestrained bloodlust and flatter themselves that their motives are good, and that their victims deserved to die.
And who will oppose those who do evil in the name of good? Unfortunately, it must be said that if it were not for the use of prolonged military force, the Nazis would still be in power today. Protest marches, newspaper editorials and good intentions are not enough when we are confronted with people who are willing to kill and be killed.
The efficacy of free speech is often overrated. It is an effective part of a first line of defence, and can alert people to coming dangers or expose the flaws of totalitarian ideologies. Its importance is unquestioned – but when the forces of violence and intolerance are on the march, then what? Greater sacrifice and effort are called for. Are we capable of them? And to whom will we look for guidance and inspiration?
When our liberal values of peace and tolerance degenerate into timid passivity, then the practitioners of violence assert themselves with increasing confidence. Emboldened by a lack of response, small groups of committed people can go far. The Nazis and the Communists were at one time also small minorities – but a dedicated and united minority that knows what it wants and is willing to fight for it can ultimately prevail against a passive majority.
What can be done to counter the increasingly aggressive efforts of the powers of darkness? Mere freedom of speech is not enough. If not restrained by higher principles of fairness and honesty to others, and by a willingness to live with opposing views, it becomes itself an avenue for yet more intolerance. If not limited by the consciousness that our rights are also limited by our responsibilities, free speech can even become a shelter for extremists who take advantage of its provisions in order to destroy it.
Is the Christian ethos of use to us here? It did help toward the emergence of liberal and democratic values in the West, but that was possible only because significant numbers of people actually believed in or at least respected Christianity. If what we now really believe in is only personal peace and affluence, and speak of moral values only because we want to maintain our comfortable status quo, we will not have the conviction necessary to resolutely oppose those who see our freedom and tolerance merely as invitations to attack.
We need to ask ourselves, “What do we really believe, and how far are we willing to go to defend those beliefs?” If we are unable to even recognise the problem, as French and British diplomats refused to recognise the problem of Hitler in the 1930s, then the danger will continue to grow until it can no longer be ignored. That time is quickly approaching.
“It is far too early to dismiss the possibility of a future Hindu State in India. However, the possibility does not appear a strong one. The secular state has far more than an even chance of survival in India” (India as Secular State, 1963). It was the early sixties when American political scientist Donald Eugene Smith commented about the “possibility of a Hindu state in India”. Today, even to a layperson, the secular state in India seems to be standing on very weak foundations, and the possibility of a Hindu State is far stronger than it was half a century ago, in 1963.
Perhaps, a pertinent expression of this transformation of India is the metamorphosis we witness in the image of Nathuram Godse – the assassin of Mahatma Gandhi, as part of a conspiracy which was hatched by many bigwigs of the Hindutva Supremacist movement. The makeover in the image is for eveyone to see: from a murderer, a conspirator, terrorist to a ‘martyr’ who supposedly ‘deserves’ a temple in his name everywhere. We also learn that after the ‘successful’ run of a drama in Marathi called Me Nathuram Boltoy (I Nathuram Speak) for the last few years, plans are afoot to have a movie made on him, supposedly to communicate his ‘viewpoint’. With the changed political situation, where even the censor board of the country is populated by rightwing people, one can guess that it won’t have any difficulty in release. And with an ambience which is more prone to illiberal ideas, one can as well prophesy that it will have a good run.
Few people have noted it, but attempts have always been on to rationalise the killing of Gandhi, to justify it in convoluted terms. To blame it, for instance, on the issue of ‘Rs 55 crore’ which Gandhi had insisted to be given to Pakistan after partition, thus making the killing appear as a spontaneous reaction of a ‘patriot’. This effort tried to obfuscate the fact that there had been five attempts on Gandhi’s life since the mid thirties, which involved the Hindutva Supremacists (and even a sixth one, according to Chunnibhai Vaidya, a Gandhian from Gujarat – you can read more on this here). It has always involved obliterating the fact that the conspiracy to assasinate the Mahatma was hatched by what Justice Kapoor had concluded in 1969: “All these facts taken together were destructive of any theory other than the conspiracy to murder by Savarkar and his group” (source). The selective amnesia, which one witnesses vis-a-vis Godse, also misses the fact that he was associated with the RSS at the time of the assasination, even though he tactically avoided mentioning his allegiance to it at the time of his trial. Gopal Godse, his younger brother and part of the terror module which had hatched the conspiracy, in a detailed interview to Frontline a few years before his death, had shared all these aspects.
Gandhi’s body, soon after the assassination
One can see that the continued ‘glorification of Godse’ and the government’s turning a blind eye towards these attempts, supposedly by the ‘lunatic fringe’ of the Hindutva brigade, serves a double purpose. First, it creates a legitimacy for the ‘ideals’ of a Hindu Rashtra, which Godse espoused and worked for. Secondly, it communicates a message to the core constituency willing to carve out this Hindu Rashtra from a Secular-Democratic India: that they should not get confused by the ‘democratic pretensions’ of the new regime and all the talks of ‘the Constitution as the most sacred book’ or the calls for a ‘moratorium on any anti-minority violence’ from the ramparts of the Red Fort made by the elected Premier of the country – a man who still carries the baggage of the 2002 genocide in his homestate Gujarat.
The ambiguity of the Hindutva Right vis-a-vis Gandhi’s assasination – its poor attempts to co-opt him and its continued silence over the conspiracy to kill him – also facilitates the ‘sanitisation’ of the great leader. It would not be surprising if tomorrow we witness selective, out of context or at times even dressed up quotes from his volume of writings, misrepresenting Gandhi having no qualms about the Hindutva project or legitimising the exclucivist agenda of the Parivar.
The evolution of Godse’s image invites us to look back, and go in for a deep introspection about the way we imagined secularism, why its reduction to the discourse of the ‘Sarv Dharm Sambhav’ (‘All Religions Being Equal’) is insufficient, and why it is high time that we understand and practice it as separation of religion from state. There is no denying the fact that we clearly lack a social foundation for secularism. The question arises why more than sixty years after we embarked on a secular path, it has remained so weak. But one should remark that the emphasis has always been on maintaining the secularity of the state, while forgetting or neglecting the important aspect of the secularisation of society. Perhaps, this has to do with the emphasis of the progressive/transformative movements on political-economic struggles and their neglect of intervention in the social-cultural arena.
The insufficient comfort of ‘Sarv Dharm Sambhav’
State institutions have also missed occasions to ensure secularism. India has witnessed hundreds of communal riots since independence, which saw thousands of people dead. Judicial commissions appointed after such bloodletting have pointed fingers at heads, leaders of communal organisations and the laxity of the police but none of them – barring a few footsoldiers – have ever been punished. Post the 2002 riots, we have also become aware of how the state has slowly abdicated the role of providing relief and rehabilitation to riot affected people and victims of communal violence, and the vacuum has been filled by different community organisations. One could witness this not only in Gujarat, but even in a state like Assam – ruled by the Congress consecutively for three terms – when there was violence in the BTAD areas. According to a journalist, most of the relief camps set up for the internally displaced people were run either by Jamaat-e-Islami or Jamiat-Ulema-i-Hind, making the victims and other affected people more amenable to their agendas.
Those risks exist across India, and also beyond our borders. It is really a strange coincidence that while we are debating the ascendance of the Hindutva Right here, the rest of South Asia looks very similar, where majoritarian forces owing allegiance to a particular religion or ethnicity seem to be on the upswing. Myanmar, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Pakistan: you name a country and find democratic forces being pushed to the margins while majoritarian voices gain a new voice and strength.
What is noticeable in this picture is that the perpetrator community changes as you cross the national borders. In Burma, the Buddhists seem to be the perpetrators, and the Muslims seem to be at the receiving end. In Bangladesh, there is reversal of these roles. It is disturbing to note, in such a volatile situation, how one type of fanaticism feeds on the other. The Buddhist extremists in Myanmar strengthen Islamists in Bangladesh, who in turn further add strength to the Hindutva supremacists in India. The first half of the 20th century, this area had been witness to anti-colonial struggles, which had strengthened one another’s emancipatory aspirations. In the first quarter of the 21st century, we have all been witnesses to the explosion of majoritarian movements trying to put all the achievements of democracy and secularism on the back-burner.
A mosque burns, in Meikhtila, Burma
If we move out of the theatre of South Asia, the situation looks equally grim. One definitely perceives a global context which is much more favourable to the ascendance, everywhere, of rightwing, chauvinist movements. The left movement had acted as a bulwark against Fascist reaction in the 1920-30s, but its general decline (barring a few countries) is only further complicating the picture. The situation as it exists today around us and elsewhere does not seem hopeful. All of us yearning and struggling for peace, justice, progress seem be on the receiving end of an unholy alliance between fanaticism, religious extremism of various kinds and the capitalist behemoths. But that should not deter us from moving ahead, forging new solidarities, envisioning a better future for humanity.
Perhaps, in these dark times, it would be worthwhile to remember how Rabindranath Tagore asked people in one of his memorable poems to “go your own way alone, if no one responds to your call” – “Jodi tor dak shune keu na ase tobe ekla cholo re”. A song much liked by Mahatma Gandhi, who fell to the assasins’ bullets exactly 67 years ago.
Joe Keysor is a writer currently based in the Sultanate of Oman. He is working as an English teacher in a private school in Oman, where he has lived since 2003. Prior to that, he taught in a college, a university, and private schools in mainland China for eight years. He has a graduate degree from Northern Illinois University and is the author of two books: A Horror of Great Darkness (Athanatos, 2014) and Hitler, the Holocaust, and the Bible (Athanatos, 2010). You can find his writings on his blog.
Subhash Gatade is a journalist, writer and activist. He edits Sandhan, a Hindi journal, and is the author of Pahad Se Uncha Admi (NCERT, 2010) a book on Dasrath Majhi for children, as well as Godse’s Children: Hindutva Terror in India (Pharos Media, 2011), The Saffron Condition (Three Essays, 2011), Beesavi Sadi Me Ambedkar ka Sawal (2014, Dakhal Prakashan) and a book in Gujarati, Adhunikta ani Dalit (2014, Darshan).
Disclaimers: The opinions expressed by the writers are their own. They do not represent their institutions’ view.
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Voice courtesy: Shriyam Gupta
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