‘I see bodies flow in the Ganges’: India, COVID, and 7 years of far-right rule

As I read an article today about the backlash to Indian poet Parul Khakkar’s ‘Shabvahini Ganga’, it struck me that most of the people I know or who engage with my work, probably don’t have a great deal of awareness of Indian politics. I can understand that. The world is a big place and concerns beyond our own ‘borders’ can seem overwhelming, but solidarity and internationalism are core tenets of socialism, whichever particular brand(s) you like, because the struggle for liberation is necessarily a global struggle. To live out our values, to struggle together, we must have some understanding of the situation faced by our Indian comrades since the election of Narendra Modi in 2014.

I should say though, that whilst I have a special interest in politics and try to pay particular attention whenever the far-right gets a foothold somewhere (especially if it’s somewhere as prominent as India), I’m not Indian, I’ve never been to India, and I’m in no way, shape or form an expert on Indian politics. I am also keenly aware of the fact that I was born and raised in a country that colonised India, stealing its resources and brutalising its people. So I write this aimed largely at those who, like myself, have no personal experience of India, but nevertheless wish to show a spirit of solidarity and internationalism. I would encourage you to seek out the voices of those on the ground and have included links to mainstream articles at the end. With that being said, I hope you will forgive any inaccuracies or ambiguities. And if any Indian friends and comrades wish to address anything you think I get wrong, I hope you will feel to do so.

“Modi’s life prior to political power has largely been defined by his membership of a far-right Hindu nationalist paramilitary”

The Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, has cultivated an image of competence and balance, but since coming to power in 2014, he’s overseen extensive neoliberal economic reforms and an authoritarian crackdown on dissent. Last year’s general strike, which was almost entirely ignored by ‘western’ media, was possibly the largest there’s ever been, with up to 250,000,000 workers downing tools in opposition to farming reforms which would see a huge transfer of power from small-scale farmers to corporations.1 The bills passed and were given presidential assent, but their implementation remains delayed after the Supreme Court ruled that a committee be set up to resolve the dispute. Farmers unions have largely rejected this step, believing that the Supreme Court’s appointees to the committee are pro-government.2 Protests are ongoing.

In reality, Narendra Modi has always been on the far-right of Indian politics and much like his contemporaries around the world – Johnson, Trump, Orbán, Bolsonaro etc. – his politics are deeply nationalistic.3 ‘Fascist’ is a label that people should use with care, but it seems to stick fairly easily on Modi, although it should be noted that some dispute this label as an essentially Eurocentric misunderstanding of Indian nationalist movements. Nevertheless, Modi’s life prior to political power has largely been defined by his membership of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a far-right Hindu nationalist paramilitary organisation. Modi is no longer a member, but his party, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), maintains deep ties with it and promotes the same brand of right-wing extremist Hindu nationalism: Hindutva.4

Conspiracy theories, such as ‘love jihad’, the discredited belief that Muslim men are marrying Hindu women in order to convert them to Islam, abound in RSS and Modi’s embrace of them has inflamed tensions that have seen a massive increase in vigilantism targeting Muslim communities. This is further compounded by numerous pieces of legislation targeting Muslims that at best exaggerate minority issues and at worst actively harm them.5 Sikhs, Christians, Dalits (people of the ‘lowest’ caste), and other minorities are also extensively targeted, with riots, the burning of places of worship, and lynchings all drastically increasing under Modi. Modi, of course, denies any responsibility and condemns ‘all violence’, rarely actually addressing the reasons for the violence or condemning those responsible because it is committed largely from within his own support base.6 This kind of implicit false equivalence ensures that he can claim to care and he can claim to take action, all whilst employing xenophobic dogwhistles that his supporters interpret as carte blanche to continue targeting minorities (sound familiar?).

In a fashion that mirrors right-wing administrations around the world, Modi’s handling of COVID-19 has been disastrous, with 388,164 deaths recorded so far, medical professionals accusing him of indifference and complicity, and supporters defecting daily.7 Modi’s technocratic image, which he has been carefully cultivating since the earliest days of his role as Chief Minister of Gujarat, has certainly been damaged, but to what extent remains to be seen.

One person Modi certainly hasn’t impressed over the course of the pandemic is the poet Parul Khakkar. Apparently, Khakkar is not usually a political poet and didn’t intend for her poem ‘Shabvahini Ganga’ to be considered so. After witnessing the burning funeral pyres of hundreds of COVID-19 victims on the banks of the Ganges however, she wrote a poem that undoubtedly follows a satirical tradition that points a profoundly sardonic finger in the direction of power. For that, she has been pilloried by misogynistic and abusive Modi supporters, locking her account and declining interviews, but steadfastly refusing to back down and remove her poem.8 So I finish by expressing my solidarity and give the final words to Parul Khakkar, ‘part-time poet, full-time home maker’:

‘Shabvahini Ganga’ by Parul Khakkar,
translated by Salil Tripathi

Don’t worry, be happy, in one voice speak the corpses
O King, in your Ram-Rajya, we see bodies flow in the Ganges

O King, the woods are ashes,
No spots remain at crematoria,
O King, there are no carers,
Nor any pall-bearers,
No mourners left
And we are bereft
With our wordless dirges of dysphoria

Libitina enters every home where she dances and then prances,
O King, in your Ram-Rajya, our bodies flow in the Ganges

O King, the melting chimney quivers, the virus has us shaken
O King, our bangles shatter, our heaving chest lies broken

The city burns as he fiddles, Billa-Ranga thrust their lances,
O King, in your Ram-Rajya, I see bodies flow in the Ganges

O King, your attire sparkles as you shine and glow and blaze
O King, this entire city has at last seen your real face
Show your guts, no ifs and buts,
Come out and shout and say it loud,
“The naked King is lame and weak”
Show me you are no longer meek,
Flames rise high and reach the sky, the furious city rages;
O King, in your Ram-Rajya, do you see bodies flow in the Ganges?

Sources and further reading:
1. https://thewire.in/law/supreme-court-farm-laws-implemntation-stay-committee-talks
2. https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/farm-laws-sc-irked-over-criticism-of-court-appointed-committee-members-101611135544809.html
3. https://www.theworldsikhnews.com/intolerant-india-sikhophobia-islamophobia-christophobia-dalitophobia/
4. https://www.wired.com/story/indias-frightening-descent-social-media-terror/
5. https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/02/19/india-government-policies-actions-target-minorities
6. https://www.nationalheraldindia.com/india/modi-of-2002-vs-modi-of-2020-appeals-for-peace-and-brotherhood-doesnt-condemns-violence
7. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/5/5/crime-against-humanity-indias-modi-slammed-for-covid-handling
8. https://thewire.in/the-arts/parul-khakkar-gujarati-poem-ganga-bodies-covid

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