Aijaz Ahmad on Gramsci and Hindutva

For those that brought down the Babri Masjid, it was a symbol of a culture of cruelty, that of the invading Muslims against the Hindus. In its demolition, on the other hand, it has come to represent the exact opposite. In the following extract from an interview of Aijaz Ahmad (AA) by LeftWord’s Chief Editor Vijay Prashad (VP) for our title Nothing Human is Alien to Me, he talks about why European fascism is an inadequate category for understanding the rise of Hindutva, and that to counter this ideology one has to realize that it isn’t merely a political doctrine upheld by a fanatic fringe; it is the product of a sickness that goes much deeper.


VP: After the destruction of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya in 1992, you begin to turn your attention very seriously to the question of the rise of Hindutva, not just rise but the appearance to the surface of this force. You’re reading Gramsci perhaps to orient yourself to understand these developments. You have several important lectures and essays in this period on Hindutva, on the RSS. There is no time for a book tour. You are enmeshed in this new crisis.

AA: [W]hen I first returned to live in India I realized very quickly that my knowledge of India was actually very shallow. I had to spend some time thinking, reading, observing, seeing as much as possible. … It was the Babri Masjid demolition that forced me to renounce my inhibition about writing on India. In late December, just a few weeks after Ayodhya, I delivered the Amal Bhattacharji Memorial Lecture at the Centre for European Studies in Calcutta. The only thing on my mind was the RSS, but because it was the Centre for European Studies, I felt compelled to bring in a European thinker and Gramsci, the great intellectual of the period of fascism, seemed to be under the circumstances the right choice.

Therefore, the lecture was ‘Reading Gramsci in the Days of Hindutva’. There are two big problems with that essay. One is that it is too analogical: this is how it was in Italy according to Gramsci, and this is how that has a resonance for us here in India. By the same token, I am not thinking in that lecture about India directly in my own terms, with Gramsci’s thought incorporated into my own. Instead, I quote and cite Gramsci at great length to apply his thought, which is the wrong thing to do because political intellectuals of his kind think concretely, with reference to requirements of their time and their place. Then, I was invited to Hyderabad a year later to participate in a workshop on Culture, Community, and Nation organized by the Deccan Development Society. This was to commemorate the first anniversary of the destruction of the Ayodhya mosque. This second lecture—‘On the Ruins of Ayodhya’—was a very long one; it took something like an hour and a half to deliver. I have of course changed and refined the argument a great deal since then but I still think that the basic premises of my thought on the RSS, on the question of fascism in India and related matters were spelled out in that essay.

So, those are the two basic essays. Then there is an essay I did two years later for Germinal, the journal of the Department of Germanic and Romance Studies in Delhi University, which is on Italian fascism. That was the fruit of my extensive study of Italian fascism and the way it rose to dominance in various parts of the country, including, most importantly, the countryside. Unlike the earlier Gramsci essay which is marred by strained analogies with the Indian situation, this one reconstructs the specificity of Italian fascism and its class practices. Since then, I have always insisted that in practice every fascism takes a specifically national form and working too much with analogies is counterproductive. On a conceptual level, therefore, I have been trying to distinguish between what is specifically fascist about the RSS and, by contrast, what are its practices that are grounded in its understanding of the Indian polity and how it can make a revolution of the Right in this very concrete situation. One of the things that I’ve still not been able to think through in terms of India is the deep role of fascism in the agrarian world, which was very important in Italy. Only later I became aware of how important the agrarian question was in Germany and Spain, and generally wherever fascism grew. In India it is difficult to think about these things theoretically because the empirical base is not well developed. We don’t really know much empirically about the role of the middle and rich peasantry in the generalization of the BJP’s electoral power in so many parts of the country, not to speak of a far more generalized consent to the Hindutva view of the world. How does the UP peasantry view Adityanath and men of his ilk who lead the BJP in that state? I just don’t have enough empirical facts at my disposal to make a reliable judgment.


I started writing about communalism and political religiosity in India after some twenty years of engagement with such shifts in the Muslim majority countries. In one place after another, Islamism arose to fill the vacuum created after the defeat of the Left or of secular Arab nationalism. Islamist organizations were major collaborators of Suharto’s troops in bloodbaths of communists in Indonesia. One forgets now, in these times of Hezbollah and Amal, that Shia peasantry in Southern Lebanon had once been the social base for the Lebanese Communist Party. The ascendency of Saudi Arabia with its Wahhabism and what I call ‘Desert Islam’ was directly proportionate to the defeat of Nasser and Arab secular nationalism more generally. Same thing in Iran—in 1948, the British counsel in Tehran writes a secret memorandum to the foreign office, in which he says that the Tudeh, the Iranian communists, need make no revolution and can simply take power through the elections. That was in 1948. In 1953, the CIA overthrows the nationalists and starts training the SAVAK, the terrifying Irani secret service, which carries out the bloodbath of the communists, with the exception of those few who managed to go into exile and managed to survive in the underground. And who came eventually to fill the vacuum? The Islamists. A whole menagerie of Islamists and ethno-nationalists rose to prominence and power in Iraq as soon as the Americans had destroyed the secular Ba'athist state. The question of nationalism is an important terrain on which this conflict between the secular Left and the religious Rights gets fought out. The most retrograde kind of pan-Islamists arise after secular Arab nationalism is defeated. Nationalism is an objective necessity in recently independent societies, and in the age of imperialism. It is also an objective necessity for the transition to capitalism because that transition is a very painful process and there has to be a national cement to prevent the disintegration of society under the stresses of that process. If the secular Left fails to occupy that space, the religious Right will.

VP: The second point you make here, very chillingly, is about the culture of cruelty. You say that ‘the political discourse of the Sangh has a ring of familiarity in a culture replete with authoritarian forms of religiosity and every failure to build the new in ways vigorous enough to allow large masses of people to take the risk of novelty must always push large sections of those people to seek refuge in what seems familiar; conservatism is born not only from privilege and the will to protect that privilege, but also and perhaps decisively from the experience of pain and the fear of future pain’.

AA: The plebeian mass base of fascism is very much tied up with not class privilege but with class and caste suffering. If you look at the images of the Babri Masjid being destroyed, you ask about those who climbed up to the domes, ‘Who are these people? What class do they belong to?’ They don’t come from the upper classes or upper castes; these are people who are the ultimate victims of capitalism and caste society. This kind of gratuitous violence gives them a feeling of power—an illusory overcoming of their own powerlessness. There’s no other way in which they have any sense of dignity, so this is the fiction of dignity for them. My thinking on this comes from thinking about the role of the lumpen-proletariat, their role over two hundred years in counter-revolutionary movements. How is it that the lumpen-proletariat, which is even poorer than the proletariat, becomes the fodder of all counter-revolutionary work? How is it that it is the Adivasis who participate quite prominently in the killings in Gujarat or the Dalits in the 1984 killing of Sikhs? All that is there in that passage you have quoted. The Sangh can call upon all this in the name of Hinduism, caste-less people being given the dignity of being called Hindus. This is a very violent version of Mahatma Gandhi’s eccentric idea that replacing the word ‘Dalit’ with the word ‘Harijan’ would somehow enhance the dignity of the untouchable.


The Left grows against the odds; odds are always against the Left. … Mobilizing thousands upon thousands, and in the Indian case hundreds of thousands of people, actually millions—it’s an incredible achievement. It is really quite impressive how well Brahminism has survived millennia of challenges to the caste system. Communism works in opposition to that very solid, very historically grounded power.


VP: In a number of your essays in the 1990s, you used the phrase ‘culture of cruelty’. Could you reflect on that a little?

AA: I have actually published a full-length essay entitled ‘Cultures of Cruelty’. Thousands of women get killed in India every year, often by members of their own family, out of pure gender violence; other thousands get beaten up or get their faces disfigured for not having brought enough dowry or being disobedient to husbands or in-laws, and things of that sort. Thousands of Dalits get killed every year, countless Dalit women get raped, out of sheer class and caste hatred. In this sort of world, killing or raping out of communal motives comes easy. My view is that communal violence, specifically anti-Muslim violence is just one aspect of a much wider grid of daily cruelties. Many more Dalits have been killed in independent India than Muslims. Many more non-Muslim women have been killed or raped. There are all kinds of cruelties. I do believe that Nehru was right when he said that Hindu communalism needs to be opposed with particular force because it is the only organized tendency in India that can potentially turn into fascism. However, I think there is something deeply wrong with the way we are always talking about RSS and the like as if the rest of society was just very decent, liberal, very modern, and as if there is just this fringe that is carrying on with all this terrible cruelty against Muslims. Let us put this cruelty against Muslims into perspective. The RSS wants to occupy the souls of liberal Hindus by creating a hysteria around the Hindu-Muslim question. Because who defends the Muslims? It is the leftists and liberals of Hindu origin. Without that solidarity from leftists and liberals of Hindu origin, the RSS would find it much easier to kill a very large number of Muslims and relegate the rest to the margins of society as second-class citizens. RSS wants to create a mass hysteria against the Muslims so that they can designate as anti-nationals and even anti-Hindu those Hindu leftists and liberals who defend the equal rights of religious minorities. In all this, Zionism is the real model for the RSS, just as Nazism is the real model for the Zionist extremists in Israel for their treatment of the Palestinians. Even so, there is another side to this that should never be neglected, that this total concentration on the communal question tends to objectively suppress the question of violence against Dalits, against women, and so on. Whereas all those other cruelties are actually the structural feature of our society which you can’t even connect with a certain regressive, fascistic politics—it’s just how our society is. Caste violence is partly class, but partly just caste. There is the brutalization of Adivasis. That is the origin of the phrase the ‘culture of cruelty’.


Indian propertied classes and upper castes find it so easy to molest and rape a Dalit woman. What difference does it make for them whether the woman they are raping is Dalit or Muslim? It is part of the same spectrum. An answering politics would not be just anti-communal but work for a genuinely united struggle for victims of communal, caste and gender violences; against that whole national condition that I have called a ‘culture of cruelty’.

Featured image: Aijaz Ahmad at May Day Bookstore. Courtesy: Newsclick.