Laughter illuminated the life of the publisher Angelo Formìggini: It was, he asserted, “the foundation of solidarity between human beings”. He won a mass audience for the classics of satire, from Apuleius to Margherita d’Angoulême and Jonathan Swift. Formìggini’s contribution to the canon was his university thesis, The Woman in the Torah and the Manava Dharma Sastra, which argued that Aryans and Semites shared a common racial genesis — a text he cheerily admitted to fabricating.
For Formìggini, who like many Italian Jews supported Benito Mussolini, seeing in fascism the prospect of a great national revival, communal identity was a prison. Even when the fascists passed racial laws stripping the Jews of their rights in 1938, he defended assimilation. “This is but a break, which will be more or less long,” Formìggini wrote, “after which the journey will resume”. Then, in November that year, in a desperate effort to evade the race laws, Formìggini jumped from Modena’s magnificent Ghirlandina. “He died just like a Jew,” National Fascist Party secretary, Achille Starace spat out, in the regime’s only comment on Formìggini’s suicide. “He threw himself out of a tower to save a gunshot”.
Formìggini’s despairing suicide is a useful prism to contemplate the silence of India as it is confronted with the religious right’s apparently inexorable rise. The recent #NotInMyName protests will prove, more likely than not, a despairing lament for a dying secular order, rather than the kernel of a new politics. The remarkable feature of the ongoing communal violence in India is how much consent it enjoys: If there is public outrage, it has been remarkably slow to emerge from people’s front doors.
In order to understand just why this is so, we need to understand the mechanics of terror; how squads perpetrating ideological violence are formed; how they come to acquire legitimacy; how society’s taboos against killing degrade. Apologists for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government are, in one sense, right: The communal violence we have seen is very far from exceptional in its intensity. In contrast to the large-scale massacres of the 1980s, the 30-odd — overwhelmingly Muslim — victims of cow-lynchings since 2014 are statistically almost trivial.
It is true, too, that Hindutva is not the only form of religious terror in India. The largely unlamented killing of Tamil Nadu atheist H. Farook or the routine murder of Adivasi women proclaimed to be witches are all evidence of the deep roots of savagery in our society. Nor, even, can Prime Minister Modi’s moral equivocation be called exceptional: Silence about murder is a crime that successive prime ministers of India have been guilty of.
Yet, to end the argument here is profoundly disingenuous. The anti-Muslim violence India is witnessing is significant not principally because of its scale, but because of the processes engendering it. The new element is this: The state is abandoning the republican project, and ceding control to local squads independent of central authority. These are the seeds from which a million tyrannies may flower.
Not all revolutions are revolutionary. Hindutva has entwined itself erratically with many pre-existing relations of loyalty and patronage, built around family, caste and class. The breakdown of the old Congress order has seen rival patron-client networks compete ferociously for the spoils, using the new ideological language for legitimacy. Inside the ranks of the Hindutva movement itself, cow-protection violence is a means of mobility and advancement — operating with little central direction bar the aesthetic and ideological message of the cow.
The leaders of these new terror squads, distinct from organised terrorist groups, are often young aspirants to BJP leadership positions. Not infrequently hailing from the Other Backward Castes, as well as communities like the Jats and Gujjars, this cohort of youth leaders missed the great, career-building processes that began with the Babri Masjid movement, and the orgies of killing that accompanied it. The case of Nityanand Mahato, the low-level Ramgarh BJP leader held for the murder of Jharkhand resident Alimuddin Ansari, is illustrative.
Elsewhere, as in Rajasthan’s Pehlu Khan murder case, we see the role of local power seeking legitimacy through association with the ideological order. One of the key accused, Om Prakash Yadav, owns shops and land along the highway where Khan was attacked and his wife, Nidhi Yadav, is a municipal corporator.
For their followers, largely semi-employed or unemployed lumpen youth, this is a welcome opportunity to engage in violence — an activity that gives masculine agency and meaning that their everyday lives hold out no prospect of. These young people see themselves as crusaders for a utopian new world, spilling blood to excise evil from the body of civil society. For them, savagery is also a kind of narcotic high, a means of extracting respect from a world that otherwise despises them.
To understand the rewards such activity holds out, we need to understand how thin and worn the “New India” Prime Minister Modi is building in fact is. R.J.B. Bosworth, the pre-eminent scholar of fascism, referred to fascist Italy as a “propaganda state”. “For much of the time”, Bosworth noted, “Mussolini was foreshadowing the behaviour and the intellectual processes of the chat-show host”. “Here a pretty woman, there a family member, minister, party chief or military officer, were ushered in and out of his grandiose office”. His was not the granular business of policy.
Leaders as diverse as Silvio Berlusconi, Hugo Chávez, Donald Trump and Modi have used personal charisma, and in certain cases, even an aesthetic attraction to their personal mores. The new world full of jobs and opportunity they promise, their own followers rapidly come to understand, is a chimera.
Like the fascist state in Italy, the Indian state, however, does hold out a road to riches — a system of patronage. In 1933, the fascist leader Starace, ruefully noted that the party had banned the use of raccomandazioni — the Italian version of sifarish — in 1924, 1926, 1927 and 1928, each time to no effect. The reason was simple. The fascist state, like the liberal state, simply did not have the capacity to enforce new institutional norms in the place of traditional ones. New élites emerging from the Hindutva movement, thus, hope to milk the state just as old, Congress-linked élites did.
Indians have stood aside while this violence plays out, for the perpetrators are from among it, and promise to share those rewards. This terror is civil society’s bastard child, not an outsider who imposes himself upon it. The victims are of no great consequence unless one happens to be among them, and most are not.
Formìggini, silent when Italian socialists and communists were subjugated by fascism, committed suicide long before violence confronted him. The horrors faced by Italian Jewry were still years ahead, and to many, simply inconceivable. His choice of death, it seems likely, came in that moment of realisation that there are things which cannot be laughed away.