Issue 188 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published July/August 1995 Copyright © Socialist Review

Dark clouds over Bombay

The largest city in India is now run by fascists. How did they get so strong and how can they be stopped? Parvinder Bhuller reports after a recent visit to India
Bal Thackeray: India's Führer

The recent results in the Indian state elections saw the right wing Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) take control of the four states of Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Gujarat and Delhi. It also became the main opposition party in five others. Between them these amount to a staggering half of the country's population. The BJP is riddled to the core with organised fascists. Their eyes are now firmly on next year's general elections. The ruling Congress(I) party on the other hand is in danger of becoming split into factions, underlining the divisions that exist in the ruling class over the direction in which the economic reform programme should go.

A further shock was the BJP-Nazi Shiv Sena's victory in the state of Maharashtra which includes the cosmopolitan city of Bombay. This brought an end to 31 years of Congress(I) party rule. The new administration have pledged themselves to Hindutva or Hindu rule. The fascists have even forced the name of the state capital, Bombay, to be changed to its Marathi name, 'Mumbai'. Shiv Sena leader Bal Thackeray is in charge of the city. A couple of weeks after being sworn in, he threatened that he would have the 'entire community' (referring to Muslims who make up 10 percent of India's population) exterminated. This is much more than an empty threat.

How have the fascists been able to become so strong? The government's economic reforms have led to austerity and the further widening of the gap between rich and poor. Bombay, a city which boasts some of the highest property prices in the world and lavish hotels, has its poor living desperately on the pavements. Privatisation is leading to more unemployment than ever before and is creating a dissatisfied youth prey to fascist propaganda. Muslims and other minorities are used as easy scapegoats.

This has combined with successive rulers of India creating divisions amongst people. When the British ruled India, they relied on their divide and rule policy. Today it's the most prized weapon of the Indian ruling class. The Congress (I) party has ruled for most of the time in post-independence India. After the repressive years of the Emergency in the late 1970s, its strength was dented. It was then that its leader Indira Gandhi began to play the communal card.

Beginning with the Punjab, the Sikh chauvinist Bhindranwale was built up to campaign on Congress (I)'s behalf against the Akali Dal, the party of wealthy Sikh farmers. The genie of communalism was out of its bottle. As Bhindranwale's base amongst the Sikh unemployed youth grew and a campaign of random sectarian killings of Hindus began, a wedge began to be driven between Punjabi Hindus and Sikhs culminating in the storming of the Golden Temple in Amritsar.

At a rally in Bombay in 1984 Mrs Gandhi declared, 'Majorities too have their rights.' Here the Shiv Sena boss Bal Thackeray was picked to organise lumpen elements to attack trade unionists and break strikes. He continued to enjoy Congress (I) protection even after a speech he made when he called for an 'operation to cut out the cancer of the growing Muslim population'. His followers took the cue. The following year saw the first pogroms against Bombay's Muslims for more than a generation.

The anti-Sikh pogroms of November 1984 following Mrs Gandhi's assassination left thousands dead in Delhi alone. According to a number of civil rights groups the killings were almost entirely political and carried out by coordinated gangs of hoodlums organised by a section of the ruling Congress (I) with the help of the local police. Local Congress (I) party workers, councillors and even MPs were involved. Many were later rewarded with government office for their part in the carnage. The present Indian prime minister, Narasima Rao, was then the home minister, who refused to call out the army until after most of the killings had taken place. To date not one person has been brought to book for the pogroms.

Rajiv Gandhi proved just as opportunist as his mother. At Faizabad, district capital of Ayodhya, he made the claim that only Congress (I) could restore Rani Rajya (the rule of the Hindu god Ram). Realising he was losing the Hindu vote in Uttar Pradesh, of which Ayodhya is a part, he unlocked the gates of the 16th century Babri mosque. Soon Ayodhya became the rallying cry for Hindu chauvinists seeking to demolish the mosque and build a temple in its place. In December 1992 they did exactly that, with the fascist RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh) playing a prominent part.

The RSS resembles a sort of modern day Hitler Youth with its infamous disciplined drills in open air morning rallies. It provides much of the cadre on the ground for the chauvinist BJP. Indeed leading members of the BJP, including its president, L K Advani, are also RSS members. The BJP can therefore be characterised as the Hindu chauvinist umbrella organisation, drawing together religious revivalists such as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) or the World Council of Hindus as well as the fascist RSS and Shiv Sena. It is traditionally based among shopkeepers and other small businessman of urban India and has begun to attract large numbers of unemployed youth.

The demolition of the Ayodhya mosque was followed by further ethnic cleansing against the Muslims of Bombay. Up to 1,000 were killed with many more forced to flee their homes. Shiv Sena thugs were again implicated. The violence even spread to neighbouring countries like Bangladesh. Here revenge attacks were carried out by right wing Islamists on the minority Hindus and their temples, so graphically described by the now exiled writer Taslima Nazreen in her book Lajja (Shame).

After his party's election victory recently the Nazi Bal Thackeray served notice to Bombay's Muslim minority, many of them living in its slums, that he intends to 'clean' the streets and deport 'illegal aliens'. The number of special branch deportation squads has been increased and civic squads have begun demolishing the pavement huts where the poor live. Loyal Shiv Sainiks are preparing to give a helping hand in the hunt and hound campaign.

A welfare worker in Bombay, Mohammed Hanif, states, 'The fear we experienced during the riots has come back. Even people who settled down here 20 years ago are picked up, always in the night. It's enough that they are Muslims or speak Bengali.' In a recent Interview Thackeray paid tribute to his hero, Adolf Hitler, describing him as 'an artist who wanted Germany to be free from corruption'.

For the vast majority of Hindus, the fascist surge spells disaster as well. In Bombay the fascists have their own union, the Bharatiya Kamgar Sena (BKS), which claims to have 150,000 members in companies such as Reliance Industries and Nirlon, as well as some of the five star hotels (the rival Communist backed unions number 250,000 workers). It sees the employers as partners, is against strikes and turns a blind eye if the company decides to hire contract labour. Not surprisingly, the bosses are happy. Nirlon's general manager, Mr Malhotra, says that 'unlike other unions, the BKS's commitment to production and discipline gives a very comfortable feeling.'

A key area that has always been out of the reach of the Shiv Sena is in the large textile mills. Under the Industrial Relations Act only the largest unions are recognised, in this case the Union of Textile Workers. Shiv Sena's election pledge is to repeal the act and so allow its BKS to gain a foothold in the mills.

The existing left, the two Communist parties, have been preoccupied with the electoral machine and opportunist pacts with bourgeois parties, rather than pushing for action on the ground. This has allowed the fascists a free run. What is desperately needed is a genuine socialist organisation which bases itself on action from below and the power of the working class to transform society for the better.

India has one of the most militant working classes in the world, numbering more than 100 million strong. Their strength is the key to stopping the fascists. A strong, fighting workers' movement organising to improve living standards can not only undermine the fascist base amongst the unemployed and poor but become a barrier to its growth. In Britain the Anti Nazi League's work based itself on working class organisation and activity, preventing the Nazis making any inroads into workers' organisations. In India there is a more urgent need to organise the millions who hate the fascists. The Nazis should be exposed for what they really stand for and a campaign of non-cooperation with their state administrations should be started. This must be combined with mass mobilisations to reclaim the streets from the Nazis in order to stifle their ability to launch anymore pogroms against vulnerable minorities. The tide can be turned.


Mixed feelings

Bombay

Bombay is also the home of India's thriving film industry. The bulk of the films Bollywood produces are pure escapism with an endless string of love stories and family weepies. Mani Ratnam's Hindi film Bombay however is different. The film was deemed such a threat to Shiv Sena and the government that it was banned in India for a period, after which some scenes were censored. Despite this the film remains intact.

It centres on the relationship and subsequent marriage between a Hindu and a Muslim, set amidst the violence that engulfed Bombay after the Babri mosque was demolished.

In this respect, Bombay has broken into new ground. Hence the furore surrounding it. The response of religious leaders has so far been to call for a ban, arguing it may cause violence and disrupt the communal peace (!), even stating the Hindu-Muslim marriage depicted in the film is illegitimate.

A genuine criticism of the film, though, is of the sequence of events that appears to show Muslims starting the riots. This is untrue and it is obvious that the censors had a hand in this. In reality the response of Muslims in Bombay to the mosque demolition was peaceful marches which ended in random police fire. This was then followed by pogroms organised by Shiv Sena.

Bombay attempts to look at the root cause of the bloodshed and clearly points the finger at those who rule, the politicians and religious leaders. In one of the riot scenes a leading character intervenes to stop the bloodletting explaining, 'By dividing us they carry on robbing us'. These appeals begin to be heard towards the end of the film when those on both sides of the communal divide, previously silenced by the chauvinists, begin to come out of their houses to actively stop the bloodletting.

These scenes are very reminiscent of real events in both Delhi and Bombay. During the pogroms of 1984 in Delhi large numbers of Sikhs were saved by their Hindu and Muslim neighbours. At Delhi University teachers and students kept vigil around areas where Sikhs lived, guarding them against the rampaging mobs.

In the Bombay pogroms two years ago anti-communal groups such as the Ekta Samiti (Unity Organisation) were set up not only to help the victims of the pogroms but attempted to address some of the problems Hindu and Muslim slum dwellers faced. Where such fights were initiated the fascist mobs were repelled, and no communal violence took place. The underlining spirit of the film is that communalism can be fought by ordinary people taking a stand.


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