Of fascism and repression

Published : Jan 03, 2003 00:00 IST

Fascism in its contemporary form is deeply rooted in xenophobic and ethnic-religious nationalism, aggressive militarism, fascination with force, the cult of authority, and the culture of repression, especially sexual repression.

THE Gujarat carnage marks a watershed for India in much the same way as other fateful, defining, moments or events such as the Emergency, demolition of the Babri mosque, or Pokharan-II did. The Gujarat violence witnessed the highest level of development of a peculiarly Indian variety of fascism or, if you prefer, neofascism, concentrated in a comprehensively communalised state. The momentous significance of Gujarat must now be reflected at a theoretical level in our understanding of Indian politics and its social dynamics no matter what happens in Gujarat itself.

Let us begin with three working propositions. First, Gujarat's staggering state-sponsored violence against an already underprivileged minority indicates a major change in the form of rule or governance, specifically in the balance between the coercive and "consensual" aspects of the state. It shows just how far the state can bend in favour of coercion in certain circumstances. This is inseparable from the requirements of today's globalising capitalism and from the political-cultural peculiarities of Gujarat as its social relations are reshaped under capital's impact along brutally dualistic, iniquitous and inequality-enhancing lines.

Second, the pogrom was driven by a malign, muscular form of Hindutva, combining visceral Islamophobia, toxic nationalism, revanchism, and the idea of "getting even with" history. And third, it is impossible to understand the power of this Hindutva without seeing it as movement, which draws upon a series of beliefs, prejudices and repressive ideas, and forges them into a social force through the practice of violence.

The first proposition deals with conjuncture, the specific mix of conditions that give birth to extremist politics and are shaped by it. The second tries to capture the uniquely Indian characteristics of the ideology and politics of fascism. The third engages with the perceptions, values and mindsets that render possible the ideology and the politics and the movement. There is a rich and fairly robust debate in India on the first two, with a range of contributions from historians, political scientists, sociologists, even economists, and not least, anti-communal activists. (This is not the place to comment on the debate, but it deserves serious notice and further development.) This Column deals primarily with the third proposition, and rather summarily with the second.

The ascendancy of Hindutva since the mid-1980s is intimately connected with the spread of a bellicose "Mera Bharat Mahan" variety of nationalism which is deeply troubled by, and never at peace with, the idea of equality or harmony, internally or externally. This nationalism seeks shortcuts to glory and power through building a militarily powerful nation on the foundations of mass deprivation, poverty and vicious inequalities of gender, caste and social opportunity a nation that will be held in awe and feared, not liked, admired, or respected.

This nationalism is driven by revenge, rooted in the paranoid belief that India has always been denied her rightful place in the world, and that Hindu "compassion" and "weakness" permitted "outsiders" to invade and subjugate India. It is time India stood up like a "real man". At work here is a distorted, homogenised notion of India's past as a uniquely great civilisation whose "Vedic achievements" are unmatched. But equally important is the idea of male assertion, purushartha, equated with valour, military courage and violence.

The rampaging mobs in Gujarat were inspired by this very idea much in the way that the precursors to the Nazis were motivated when "avenging" Germany's terrible "humiliation" in the First World War a blow to the "honour" and pride of the "German Race" through periodic pogroms against the Jews and sensational acts of violence, as well as through nurturing the cult of authority, which ultimately produced the God-like image of the Fuehrer.

At work in both cases is an intensely illiberal, hate-filled chauvinism, driven by the compelling desire to dominate and subjugate. Equally important is the authoritarian mindset of Hindutva cult-figures such as Narendra Modi, Praveen Togadia and Acharya Dharmendra, and the worship of militarised caricatures of personalities such as Sardar Vallabhai Patel's (the "authentically" all-Hindu "Iron Man", as opposed to the "effeminate" Gandhi or the "Westernised" Nehru influenced by Macaulay and Marx).

It is relevant to ask why the authoritarian personality appeals to so many BJP supporters, why Narendra Modi became the party's principal crowd-puller during the election campaign, eclipsing Vajpayee and even that other pseudo-Sardar (Advani), and why people thronged to his meetings to hear the vilest of abuse hurled at Muslims, secularists, the "Italian Lady" and "James Michael Lyngdoh". A tentative answer to the question might lie in the culture of repression that exists in society at so many levels in the family, in social institutions such as schools, in personal and professional relationships, and especially in attitudes to sexuality.

A number of surveys tell us that a majority of Indians are sexually inhibited and repressed. They do not know much about sex or eroticism, and talk even less about it in public. The subject of sex is taboo, just as kissing was for long in our commercial films. Often, sex is only discussed in hushed tones and furtively in dark, shady clinics like "Hero Pharmacy" which promise happy "married life" read, machismo overflowing with testosterone to frustrated, anguished young men who have terrible insecurities about premature ejaculation and insurmountable guilt about masturbation.

There is a generalised climate of forced asceticism in many parts of India. This is related to growing gendered violence, harassment of women, bride-burning, and outright rape. Gender discrimination begins early. Different-sex teenagers do not interact and play together except on pain of parental disapproval. They are taught to be chaste, "pure", celibate.

Boys are told masturbation leads to loss of virility and mental and spiritual power too. It is a sin. Girls are drilled into disguising and suppressing their sensuality, and projecting false "modesty". The family tightly controls women's mobility and sexuality. There can be little sexual freedom when the family's objective is to turn women into baby-producing (and - rearing) factories.

How has this come about in a society which hundreds of years ago produced spectacular erotic sculptures, where poets celebrated sensuality or playfully wrote about male and female bodies, where the lingam is worshipped, and where one of the world's greatest books on erotic love (the Kamasutra) was written? How do we understand the effects of the transition from a materially rich, rational understanding of sexuality to inhibitions, prohibitions and taboos? What does this mean for our culture?

Freud and Wilhelm Reich, and at another level, Michel Foucault, have extraordinary insights to offer on the relationship between sexuality and society. For the Indian case, we must draw upon psychologists such as Sudhir Kakar, author of numerous books on sexuality, and now a fellow of Harvard. He argues that the transition did not happen suddenly. "Both the ascetic and the erotic have always coexisted in our culture and in our people's psyche. The one or the other comes up in different periods. From the 4th to the 10th centuries, the erotic dominated. For the last 200 years, the ascetic has ruled."

This was itself the consequence of interplay between the puritanical attitudes of the upper castes, especially Brahmins, and the Victorian morality of the conquering British. Says Kakar, "the two became powerful, if unconscious, allies of each other in imposing stringent sexual mores and eroding people's freedoms." The most fanatical representatives of these taboo-driven attitudes today are India's arch-conservatives the Hindu Taliban.

Many Indian males have acute sexual anxieties, and are unable to relate to women as equals. "Psychoanalysts have an explanation," says Madhu Sarin, a philosopher who trained as an analyst for 11 years in the U.S. and India. "The Indian boy's intimate relationship with the mother is abruptly terminated at the age of five or six. This causes a traumatic loss. His instinctive reaction is to identify with the lost object. Unlike in the West, where the young boy fears the father's envy and develops the `castration anxiety' described by Freud, the Indian boy allies with the father against the mother, rather than as a competitive rival, in order to shore up his sense of masculinity. He sacrifices his libidinal urges towards women."

According to Sarin, this decisively affects many men's long-term sexual attitudes, leaving them with deep-seated and enduring inhibitions towards women "who are either idealised or feared and therefore dominated." Many men cannot balance the intimate and aggressive components of their sexuality.

All this makes for terribly repressed personalities. It is temping for repressed men to gravitate towards an authority figure and vent their frustration through ritual violence burning, killing, looting, of the kind witnessed in post-Godhra Gujarat. Such aggressive traits tend to get especially concentrated and amplified in all-male groups such as the Hindu Taliban, who pursue shady agendas, and who mortally fear openness and accountability. The Hindu Taliban pracharak, forced to be ascetic, austere and celibate, is among the most repressed of Indian males and particularly prone to violence.

MERCIFULLY, sexual repression in India is not an immutable or unchanging reality. Rigid sexual norms are weakening or breaking down in many social groups. Young people are becoming aware of their sexuality as something normal and enjoyable, not as a source of guilt. The process is not confined to the metropolitan cities alone.

However, along with this welcome change towards sexual emancipation, there is also the opposite, ultra-conservative tendency, obsessed with control, which appropriates the female body to the ends and goals of The Nation. Woman here is not seen as an independent person, with her own agency, but as an adjunct of man mother, wife or daughter.

Such reactionary ideas are among the main inspirations of the Hindu-fascist movement now unfolding before us. Central to it is a culture of authoritarianism in society, in the family, in sexual relations. We cannot win the battle against Hindutva unless we also fight repression and authoritarianism.

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