The Saffron Swastika – Fascism’s India moment

In Political on November 24, 2012 at 10:36 am

Bal Thackeray, the leader of Shiv Sena died due to illness on the 17th November, 2012.  He was 86.  The political leaders of the country, along with the corporate honchos, filmdom’s Bollywood super stars and a large swath of urban Mumbai population paid rich tribute to this man.  State honors were provided as he was laid to rest in Shivaji Park.  He was wrapped in the Indian national flag, as a tearful Mumbai was artfully covered by a media that blared obsequious peans of it’s own.

In a quickly staged media event, a deferential following paying last rites to the elder Thackeray  was concocted as lending legitimacy to a leader’s factious legacy.

Most calling him Hindu Hriday Samrat or the emperor of Hindu hearts.  In a compelling The Hindu op-ed titled An Authentic Indian Fascism, Praveen Swami wrote about the abundance of tributes flowing in:

It is tempting to attribute this nauseous chorus to fear or obsequiousness. Yet, there is a deeper pathology at work. In 1967, Thackeray told the newspaper Navakal: “It is a Hitler that is needed in India today”. This is the legacy India’s reliably anti-republican elite has joined in mourning.

Swami goes on to argue that the Shiv Sena represents an authentic Indian fascism, created by the accommodations that India’s liberal democracy sought with communalism.  His litmus test of fascism has been Gramsci’s understanding that fascism is the excrement of a dysfunctional polity. He is correct in his observation that it was a dysfunctional polity that gave rise to the Shiv Sena.  But, was it fascism?

I apply a different definition and test this authentic Indian fascism.  Swami is right in his opinion that there are many fundamental building blocks within Shiv Sena that approached a classic fascism model.  I take Michael Mann’s construction instead, of classic fascism and apply it here to the Shiv Sena model.  Same subject, different angle.  According to Mann:

The pursuit of a transcendent and cleansing Nation-Statism through para-militarism. 

Let us deconstruct this a bit:

  1. Transcendent – this refers to the steam-rolling and homogenizing of class differences.  We can knock together the heads of capitalists and workers and achieve peace – they say.  Moderate violence could be used to achieve this goal.   By doing so, fascism wanted to transcend differences of ethnicity, race and religion.
  2. Cleansing nation-statism – The 20th century saw the rise of the nation-state.  Nationalism prevailed.  Citizens clung to unifying embodiments of their nations.  The French had their culture and the US had it’s freedom.  But a dangerous extreme creeped in:  Organic or Integral Nationalism.  This sort of nationalism was against diversity.  Ethnic diversity had to be cleansed, rampant racism prevailed.  Political enemies like the capitalist and the communists were also to be eliminated.
  3. Statism – The fascist thought of the state as the “bearer of the moral project”, capable of achieving economic, social and moral development.  A powerful state hence was a corporatist as well as authoritarian.  The tendency then was to worship both the state and the nation.
  4. Para-militarism – Fascists had a strong para-military organization to carry out the rule of authoritarianism.  Post the empire building, this in turn was formalized as the nations military might.  While the para-military ensured the domestic authoritarian rule, the military in-turn tackled geo-political issues.

The social power or the goals of fascism consisted of these four strong elements:

  1. Ideological power
  2. Political power
  3. Economic power and
  4. Military power

In other words, Michael Mann postulates that it is these four starter ingredients that give rise to classic fascism.  The two most important assists to the rise of fascism in Europe being:  World War I and the Great Depression.  Without these two assists, fascism ceases to exist.  It is in this classic sense that the Shiv Sena ceases to be a fascist movement but with strong elements that adhere to fascism.  It is a simplification in classification for what appears to constitute dysfunctional masculinity.  To now elaborate on the four unifying strands of Shiv Sena.

Shiv Sena’s ideology:  

Fascism rose to prominence in the inter-war period.  The period between the two world wars proved to be the powder keg for fascism’s rise to prominence.  Hitler’s Nazism and Mussolini’s Fascism inspired a few anti-imperialist Hindu groups in the 1930’s.  They adopted the authoritarian discipline and para-militarism to fight British India.  The largest among that group that continues to exist today is the Rashrtiya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).  Madhav Gowalkar, the founder of RSS said of Hitler’s attacks on the Jews:

Race pride at its highest has been manifested here… a good lesson for us in Hindustan to learn and profit by.

These are the roots of the Hindu Rashtra (Hindu Nation) and Hindutva (Hinduness) as a viable ideological and military opposition to the British rule in India.  The hindu nationalist, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in the 1980s.  It had the support of various voluntary organizations across the country who upheld the same hindu nationalist ideological values.  Together they were the Sangh Parivar or the family of associations.   The Shiv Sena (Shiva’s army) is one such militant groups.  They were founded on the pro-Marathi stance in Bombay, but aspired to become pro-Hindu hardliners for political advancements in local elections.

Shiv Sena’s Politics:  

Politically, Shiv Sena along with the BJP, had a brief stint of just over four years in the Maharashtra government in his almost fifty years of existence.  An insignificant blip in development politics.  While he heaped abuses on the opposition parties, much to the embarrassment of the BJP, he also cut deals and pledged allegiance with them on the side.

His xenophobic vitriol against Muslims, western influences and non-Marathis provided the unifying glue for his Sainiks or para-military force.  While the SS and the RSS can be considered para-military forces of the BJP, it actually proved detrimental to BJP’s democratic alliances and aspirations.  National elections are not won by wielding influences over citizens and businesses through clout over street gangs in India.  Plus the influence of the SS did not spread beyond the urban Bombay and Thane districts.  The Marathi manoos agenda never spread beyond the urban spere.  The rural hinterland was ruled by Congress with strong support from cooperative sugar cane producers and wealthy land banks.  This well-oiled vote bank was a jaggernaut that crushed the Sena’s political aspirations for decades.  Their political clout both at a national and at a state level was reduced to naught.

After being fashionably late to the promise of liberal democracy of nation-states, the BJP is now trying to re-fashion what Hindutva actually means.  Their most recent updated political resolution states that:

Theocracy or any form of bigotry is alien to our ethos. Hinduism or Hindutva is not to be understood or, construed narrowly confined only to religious practices, or expressed in extreme forms.

This volte-face is a hands down victory to Indian democracy.  But will the remainder of the Sangh Parivar take note and make changes accordingly to their ingrained ideology?  Will the public lend credence and cast their votes accordingly?  Possibly not quickly, as memories of violence will be hard to cleanse.

Shiv Sena’s Economic theory:

Fascists, in general do not have an economic theory.  There center of gravity lay elsewhere, possibly in simply being xenophobic.  His brand of Hindutva or Hinduness was meant to improve the lot of Maharashtrians, but left them economically and socially underwhelmed by his actions.  Thackeray’s strong leanings towards the corporates or the employers was something Mussolini strongly proposed in his fascist ideals:

Fascism should more appropriately be called Corporatism because it is a merger of state and corporate power


On display on Thackeray’s funeral were many business honchos who mourned the loss of a willy-nilly negotiator and arbiter of mediocre settlements through fear and violence.  Bollywood and it’s grease paint gods were quick to contribute towards the lachrymose affair too.  The SS acted as protection squad to anybody that wanted it.  Socialists and Communists were their enemies.  Their ideological opponents were Marxists and Naxalites, who blamed them of an exclusive religious chauvinism.  Without a modern and actionable economic theory, they are fundamentally a street gang that lived off of protection money from corporates.

Shiv Sena’s para-military:    

Bal Keshav Thackeray has issued innumerable death threats in his vitriol against diversity.  His exhortations to armed thuggery, suicide squads, retaliation terrorism, spewing out day in and day out has never got him into legal trouble in this free country.  SS’ first political assassination was that of the communist trade union activist and MLA, Krishna Desai.  Bringing home the ideology of corporatism into fascism with one anti-communist killing, corporates were mighty pleased at this extra-judicial setup they could lean towards to silence a resistant working class.  In doing so, they also inked a partnership with the ruling Congress Party in Maharashtra.  The trail of deaths left behind by the SS’ obsessive pogroms to cleanse the state of Muslims and Indians from the North and South, stained the ethos of a cosmopolitan Bombay.  He epitomized Benito Mussolini’s ideal:

War is to man what maternity is to a woman. From a philosophical and doctrinal viewpoint, I do not believe in perpetual peace.

The bandh call or the shuttering of businesses issued by SS is the trademark weapon of mass destruction.  It’s origin dates back to a bandh issued in 1969 by the Sainiks that lead to an excessive use of force by the police, which saw Bombay burn for over a week.  Thackeray emerged the champion of the street wars and gangs after this event.  It has been used for everything and sundry ever since.

If we consider the Shiv Sena as the bearer of the moral project at a State level, then the BJP is the political arm at a National level.  But this military stance and statism has proved to be detrimental to BJP’s national agenda and ambition.  L.K. Advani insists that Hindutva today is an inclusive and tolerant philosophy not averse to change with the changing times.  It appears that by his own admission, Hindutva was not like this in it’s earlier form.  On Muslims and Christians not conviced of this new party stance, the party has declared:  We have to try to take everyone along, but also realise that some people will not respond to us. We don’t have to treat them as enemies.

This thawing of the militaristic stand is welcome to the ears of the Indian democratic republic and one hopes the Sainiks will pay heed to it at a local level too.  Hindutva came to be regarded as perpetrating anti-Valentine card and anti-women in pubs, sentiments in a rapidly changing India.  An ideology bewildered by 20th century flux and modernity.

The future of the Shiv Sena:

It has become increasingly clear that the Shiv Sena in it’s current petty ideology will never expand beyond the realms of a gang war confined to a few gullies and by-lanes.  They have to go beyond their narrow definitions of Hindutva and pay heed to their Nationalist brothers who have offered a new vision.  They cannot be xenophobic and anti-diversity.  India is in the throes of a huge economic upturn and it depends heavily on the maturity, peace and progress of the individual, state and nation.  The economy must be allowed to fruition and the fruits of this economy must be distributed equitably among all gardeners who toiled hard to make this nation prosper.

Conflicts will always be around us and we need to not only resolve them but transform the community to look beyond and work amicably and in harmony.  SS should engage in development policies for all within the state.

It needs to understand how the economy is organized, because it never did.  It needs to understand why education is important, because it never did.  It needs to understand how enriching cultural diversity is, because it never did.

And why are good policies to be studied and adhered to?  Adlai Stevenson once said of the German Nazi machinery – The really basic thing in government is policy.  Bad administration, to be sure, can destroy good policy, but good administration can never save bad policy.

He was commenting on the Nazi holocaust that killed 6 million Jews, history’s most outrageous ethnic cleansing.  Apparently the German trains were spot-on in their scheduled arrivals and departures.  Great administration, bad policies indeed!  In effect the Shiv Sena’s policies are dismal and administration through violence is a neolithic era idea whose time has passed.

Nobody, not even the Shiv Sena can hang onto Musollini’s words – For my part I prefer fifty thousand rifles to five million votes.  Development politics have shunned such violence a long time ago.  The liberal democracies of nation-states demand and actually out-perform what fascists could only yearn for with their warped ideology:  

The progress of liberal democracy with it’s nation-states is through the unification of diverse classes towards an economic and political goal common to all.  That diversity in religion, race, caste, nativity, buttress the common goal.


  1. Professor Michael Mann (UCLA): Explaining the Rise and Fall of Fascism
  2. Bal Thackeray – an interview
  3. Michael Mann – Fascist
  4. Praveen Swami’s editorial in The Hindu
  5. Bal Thackeray’s Fractured Legacy
  6. Fourteen Defining Characteristics Of Fascism – Dr. Lawrence Britt
  7. KAFILA: Ek Tha Tiger: Death and Bal K. Thackeray – Shuddhabrata Sengupta
  8. Without ideology, BJP is nothing
  9. Why an ideology received its marching orders…Michael Mann
  10. Leader who brought ethnic politics to Mumbai melting pot
  11. The poor man’s statism – Aashis Nandy
  12. Ayodhya, the battle for India’s soul
  13. Human Rights Watch: State Participation and Complicity in Communal Violence in Gujarat

PS:  Flemish Indologist, Koenraad Elst who coined the term The Saffron Swastika actually contends in that book that the Sangh Parivar is not fascist- So far, the polemical arrows have all been shot from one side, replies from the other side being extremely rare or never more than piecemeal


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