By India United Against Fascism
14 January, 2015
On 2 December 2014 , Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that in future 25 December would be celebrated as Good Governance Day because it was the birthday of Hindu nationalists Madan Mohan Malaviya and Atal Behari Vajpayee (1). Subsequently a circular was sent out to schools ordering them to cancel the public holiday on the 25 th and require children to come to school on Christmas Day for a variety of activities. Education Minister Smriti Irani was suspected of sending out the circular and lying when she denied it (2), but given PM Modi's propensity to bypass his ministers and deal directly with the bureaucrats under them, it is entirely possible that the order came from him. Even if it came from Irani, she was clearly acting in obedience to her master's voice. Notices went out to government offices, asking them to stay open and carry out similar programmes. The notice to universities had to be modified in view of the absurdity of asking students and university staff to come back in the middle of their vacation.
Christmas Day had been a public holiday throughout the history of independent India , so what changed in 2014? Obviously, the fact that it was the first Christmas with Modi in power as PM. Modi has from childhood been a member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which, along with its large number of affiliated organisations including the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), is popularly known as the 'Sangh Parivar' ('Sangh family').
Its ideology of Hindu nationalism or 'Hindutva' has been from its early days closely related to European fascism (3). Modi's role-model Hitler also had problems with Christmas: as the celebration of the birth of a Jew and a festival of peace for all humanity, it had no place in Nazi ideology.
However, in a country where the majority were Christians, it would have been impossible simply to abolish it; instead, the Nazis redesigned it, changing its name, meaning and symbols (4). Modi suffers no such compulsions. With Christians only around 2 per cent of the Indian population, he has nothing to fear from cancelling one of their two holidays (rather than touching any of the several Hindu holidays).
Soon afterwards, a series of so-called 'ghar wapsi' ('back to home') ceremonies conducted by the Sangh Parivar and aimed at converting Muslims and Christians to Hinduism received a great deal of publicity. This led to protests in parliament, especially after it came to light that these organisations were collecting money for these conversions (5). The ideology behind this programme included the following elements: (a) everyone in
India (or, in some versions, everyone in the world!) was once Hindu; (b) in the past, Hindus have been coerced into converting to other religions (6); (c) therefore reconversion to Hinduism is nothing more than restoring stolen goods to their rightful owner (7); and (d) if you oppose 'ghar wapsi' programmes, you should bring in a national anti-conversion law to prevent all conversions. Dispelling any illusion that such a law would stop 'ghar wapsi' programmes, Rajeshwar Singh of the Dharm Jagran Manch said,
'We have so far ensured "ghar wapsi" (reconversion) of three lakh Muslims and Christians back to Hinduism. By 2021, we will finish Islam and Christianity' (8). This ties up neatly with Modi's initiative of replacing Christmas with the birthday of Hindu Mahasabha founder Malaviya, who pushed the programme of reclaiming Muslims and Christians for Hinduism (9).
In fact, states in which anti-conversion laws have already been passed, including BJP-ruled Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh, make it clear that these laws, making it mandatory to obtain permission from the state to convert from Hinduism to another religion, constitute a gross violation of fundamental rights. 'That Narendra Modi and Shivraj Chauhan think that citizens need the permission of the government in order to think their thoughts and adopt beliefs or ideas is an extremely disturbing development - one that strikes a particularly large nail into the coffin of Indian liberalism' (10). The issue of conversions was debated thoroughly in the Constituent Assembly before the decision to include the right to 'propagate' a religion was included, making it clear that there was a right
not just to practise a religion but also to convert others to it (11).
Despite this, a five-judge bench of the Supreme Court presided over by Chief Justice A.N.Ray ruled in 1977 that anti-conversion laws were constitutionally valid, saying that the right to 'propagate' a religion did not include the right to convert someone else to it, seemingly failing to understand that propagation includes persuading a person to join a
religious community. Blocking this process would involve violating the freedom of expression of the first person or the freedom of faith and worship of the second person, or both. Above all, 'Anti-conversion laws...promote increased governmental involvement in matters that involve pure ethical choices' (12).
Implicit in anti-conversion laws is the conception of Indians as 'maal', goods belonging to the Sangh Parivar, without minds of their own. As many commentators have pointed out, the whole anti-conversion-plus-ghar-wapsi campaign legitimises conversions to*Hinduism while simultaneously delegitimising conversions *from *Hinduism to other religions. Given that the great majority of converts to Islam and Christianity have been Dalits and Adivasis seeking to escape from the exclusion and oppression they suffer in Hindu society, Dalit and anti-caste ideologues have pointed out the irony of referring to the community from which they suffer exclusion as 'home', and questioned whether they or their ancestors ever belonged to it in the first place. Against this background, anti-conversion legislation can be seen as analogous to an attempt to prevent slaves from escaping, while 'ghar wapsi' is an attempt to recapture escaped slaves, returning
them to their original castes: 'most converts to Islam and Christianity, being from the lower castes who had converted to escape the yoke of the caste bondage of Hinduism, would be reincarcerated into the hellhole of Hinduism which their forefathers strove to escape' (13).
Moreover, this insistence on a monolithic religious identity conflicts with the way that religion is practised in India . 'Christian and Islamic doctrines have interacted with Dalit and tribal cosmologies, and been moulded by them. There is no fixed or unchanging essence of any religion here' (14). This flexibility is strikingly illustrated by a group of 70
Bible-reading Hindus in Shahjahanpur (UP), who refused to give up their practice when urged to do so by the Sangh Parivar. '"We are doing nothing wrong," said Verma. "There is no question of giving up the Bible. I will continue to organise the gathering at my house for Bible-reading sessions.
None of us attended their (the VHP-Bajrang Dal) meeting because we do not believe in their ideology. We read holy books of both Hinduism and Christianity and follow the best things from both. Reading Bible doesn't change our religion. We are Hindus and will remain Hindus"' (15).
What is particularly notable is the statement that 'we do not believe in their ideology'. This articulates a clear distinction between the religion, Hinduism, and the ideology of the Sangh Parivar, Hindutva or Hindu nationalism, the goal of which is the establishment of a Hindu Rashtra or Hindu state. Nothing could highlight this distinction more glaringly than the unbridgeable gulf between Mahatma Gandhi, a devout Hindu who believed
in non-violence and a secular state, and his killer Nathuram Godse, an activist of the Sangh Parivar. As Gandhi's grandson remarked, one of the most extraordinary features of 2014 was the openly-expressed adulation for Godse (16), including plans to erect statues of him and dedicate temples to him. At a more mundane level, Sangh Parivar protests against the Bollywood film PK, which debunks organised religion and includes a romance between a Muslim man and Hindu woman (which the Sangh perceives as 'love jihad'), were completely rejected by the film-going Hindu public, as its record-breaking box office success showed (17).
Evidently, then, the 'ghar wapsi' drive is aimed at converting people not to Hinduism but to the 20 th -century right-wing ideology of Hindutva, as part of the process of turning India into a Hindu state (18). According to this ideology, Jainism, Buddhism, Sikkhism, thousands of Adivasi religions and even atheism can be assimilated into the Hindu nation because they originate in India; Jews and Zoroastrians (Parsees) can be tolerated because they are few in number and do not proselytise; it is Christians and Muslims who are the biggest enemies because their religions originate outside India and they do proselytise (19). Hence the compulsion to wipe them out, and the escalation of hate speech and hate crimes against them in recent months.
Is any of this compatible with 'good governance'? Not if that term refers to upholding the Constitution of India, which pledges to secure to all citizens:
'JUSTICE, social, economic and political;
LIBERTY of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship;
EQUALITY of status and of opportunity;
and to promote among them all
FRATERNITY assuring the dignity of the individual and the unity and
integrity of the Nation.'
As the articles referred to above (and there are many more) show, the print media and alternative websites have taken the threat to the Constitution seriously. Opposition parties, too, united to condemn what was called in parliament 'an attack on the secular fabric of the country,' and to call for Modi to clarify his position (20). As a result, some of the BJP's proposed legislation failed to clear parliament and was later introduced as ordinances. The BJP hit back by castigating the opposition for derailing Modi's 'development' agenda. The response of the electronic media was less than satisfactory. With very few exceptions, TV anchors either parroted the BJP line (without answering the question why robbing the 99% to enrich the 1% was so urgent that constitutional democracy could be sacrificed to it (21)), or rued the fact that Modi allowed the opposition to derail his development agenda by failing to speak out against the 'extremists' in his camp. But what, exactly, did they expect him to say? How could he possibly criticise them, given his record as Chief Minister of Gujarat (22)? Why would he even *want *to criticise them, when his election campaign drew so heavily on his reputation as an aggressive Hindu nationalist (23)? Why would he cancel Christmas unless he concurred with their goal of a Hindu state? The most he was willing to do was to tell his stormtroopers in private that they shouldn't court publicity about what they were doing, because it made some of his corporate supporters and foreign friends uncomfortable. 'What head-in-the-sand liberals and Modi's newly-discovered liberal friends abroad (Obama, for instance) missed is that Modi and the right-wing see no contradiction between communalism and development' (24).
To end on a humorous note: attempting to answer the question posed in the title of this article - namely, why did Narendra Modi steal Christmas? - one commentator (25) has quoted Dr Seuss:
It could be his head was not screwed on just right,
It could be, perhaps, that his shoes were too tight.
But I think that the most likely reason of all
May have been that his heart was two sizes too small.
*India United Against Fascism* was formed to campaign against BJP in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections in the belief that their success would lead to a fascist transformation of the Indian state.