Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is set to visit South Africa at the end of the week, but VASHNA JAGARNATH explains why she won’t be attending the community reception planned for his arrival on July 7th.
Since the announcement that the very dishonourable Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, will be visiting South Africa I have been scowling into my beef biriyani. But this morning things got considerably worse. I had the egregious misfortune of stumbling across the South Africa Welcomes Modi website.
Two questions came to my mind with particular force: 1. How could anyone rally support for a man who is so problematic that he makes Zuma seem like a cute puppy wrapped in a red ribbon on Christmas morning? 2. Who and what is this so-called South African Indian community?
The short answer to the first question is that Modi is a fascist; a fascist who openly declares that he has been inspired by Mein Kampf. In fact, according to Mark Dery, during Modi’s 2015 campaign trail Mein Kampf became the 11th best-selling book in India. Modi is a fascist with blood on his hands, a fascist who has brought India a poisonous mix of hyper-capitalism and Hindu fundamentalism. For South African Hindus to rush to a stadium to celebrate Modi is a prospect at least as grim as whites rushing to a stadium to celebrate President Trump.
The idea that there is a homogenous South African Indian community all waiting to explode into nationalist fervour at a Modi rally is a fiction. To start, plenty of us are enthusiastic beef-eaters. Modi, as part of a strategy of redefining India as a Hindu state, has suppressed the beef industry. On March 3, 2016, the rightwing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), of which Modi is the leader, banned the sale and eating of beef in the state of Maharashtra. The reasoning behind this is that beef eating is considered to be unholy by some – note some – versions of Hinduism. The first problem here is that an inclusive secularism has been cast aside in favour of an exclusionary form of (high caste) Hindu fundamentalism. Like most of India, Maharashtra is home to people who are considerably diverse in terms of religion and caste. Yet the beef ban has been imposed on everyone with the result that citizenship is, in practice, being redefined in an exclusionary way.
According to recent statistics, the beef ban has also had devastating material effects on minority communities in both urban and rural spaces. Since the ban, the price of cattle has fallen by 13%. Millions of farmers suffering from years of droughts are struggling to sell their cattle to raise alternate funding streams. Farmer suicides, which have been high in India in the last two decades, have nearly doubled in the drought-hit regions of Maharashtra. So there’s clearly no place for the beef eaters in the ‘community’ getting ready to welcome Modi.
Another group of people who aren’t going to find any place in Modi’s fan club are people who are of Indian descent but who are not Hindus. That’s true for Christians, who have faced serious and sometimes violent hostility from the BJP. It is also true for secular leftists. But it is particularly true for Muslims. Modi’s rise to power was, in classic fascist style, organised around the scapegoating of vulnerable minorities and Muslims have borne the brunt of this. Modi’s tenure as the state minister of Gujarat was marked by his complicity with an anti-Muslim pogrom in 2002 during which at least 2, 000 children, women and men were murdered and a further 200, 000 people displaced. There is compelling evidence that the pogrom was planned months in advance with the support of the state government.
Another constituency that will find no home in “the South African Indian community” readying itself for Modi is the LGBTQIA+ community. Modi’s government is so homophobic that it did not even let a bill to decriminalise homosexuality be introduced into Parliament.
The BJP is also committed to entirely reactionary ideas about the role of women in society. Gang rape has been used as a political weapon and as been a consistent feature of attacks on Muslims and Christians. Dalit women, as well as Hindu girls and women seen to be disobedient, have also been subject to rape and other forms of violence and abuse. The BJP has actively sought to police the sexuality and other freedoms of Hindu girls and women, including those involved in consensual sexual and romantic relations with men who are not Hindus. No woman who values her freedom, and the freedom of other women, can be part of any “community” that heralds Modi as some kind of hero.
And for anyone with socialist or social-democratic commitments, Modi’s hyper-capitalism can only be understood as a brutal attack on any idea of society as a collective project. It has also been a ruthless attack on the environment. The unchecked power of big capital under Modi has led to ruinous social, environmental and economic consequences. In Gujarat, he developed special economic zones that subsidised big business and allowed capital in the hands of few families to flourish as the cost of devastation for minorities, lower classes and castes. Many farmers in Gujarat have been left devastated, as vast tracts of land are non-arable because of the pollution caused by unregulated industry.
And, of course, under Modi, India has become an enthusiastic ally of the state of Israel. So if you are a feminist, a socialist, an environmentalist or concerned with the oppression of the Palestinians there is no place for you in any idea of an Indian “community” that sees Modi as some kind of political rock star.
South Africans of Indian descent have always been a diverse group of people in terms of language, religion, class and politics. Some were collaborators with apartheid. Others were committed to trade unions, the African National Congress, the Communist Party, Black Consciousness, etc. Many South Africans with ancestral links to India have very little contemporary connection to India. For some of us, the only languages that we speak apart from English are Afrikaans or Zulu. But there is also a deeply reactionary current that has links to the fascist religious organisations that support Modi and the broader Hindu fundamentalist project in India. It is these people who are now claiming to speak for all South Africans of Indian ancestry as they get ready to welcome their fascist hero.
We should not be entirely surprised by the enthusiastic support in some quarters for Modi. Before the onset of World War II, Adolf Hitler received enthusiastic support from some Americans with German ancestry. Reactionary nationalism is often a temptation for diasporic communities.
But as the reactionary nationalists beat their drums for Modi and his fascist politics, those of us who are deeply appalled by Modi and what he stands for, will make it clear that those who choose to fete a violent fascist leader do not do so in our name.
Vashna Jagarnath currently lectures at the Department of History at Rhodes University. She writes and researches on Indian Cinema, and the history of Pan African intellectuals. Her PhD looked specifically at the various ways Gandhi shaped and impacted upon early 19th and 20th century South African public sphere.