21st century Indian fascism, corporate capital and the rhetoric of ‘women’s empowerment’

women's empowerment

[Editor’s note: Clifton D'Rozario, from the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Liberation, will be speaking at Ecosocialism 2024, June 28–30, Boorloo/Perth, Australia. For more information on the conference visit ecosocialism.org.au.]

First published at CPI(ML) Liberation.

The rise of fascism in India has long been characterised as a ‘war on women’. This is not surprising. Globally and historically, patriarchal oppression and violence has been central to fascist ideologies and regimes. But how exactly does India’s Hindu supremacist fascism wage its ‘war on women’? And how is this shaped by the specificities of Hindutva ideology, by neoliberal capitalism, and by imperialism?

Fascism and far-right nationalism everywhere has constructed the bodies of women of the dominant community as both vehicles for reproducing the nation and as marking the boundaries of the nation, therefore requiring constant policing and control. One of the openly stated goals at the heart of the Hindu supremacist project of establishing a Hindu Brahmanical state is the replacing of India’s Constitution and the rights embedded in it with the Manusmriti, which explicitly states that women must be under the control of a man, whether father, husband or son, throughout their lives, and dehumanises oppressed castes and queer people. We can observe too the day-to-day moral policing by the stormtroopers of Hindutva who function as extensions of the state, the legitimacy granted to the gender and caste violence of patriarchal village councils, khaap panchayats, now being invoked by the government as an authentically Indian form of democracy; the institutionalised violence against those who choose their own partners, especially if these relationships are intercaste or interfaith – and in the latter case, the laws which actually criminalise such relationships in the name of ‘love jihad’ and those which facilitate their policing and harassment such as Uttarakhand’s Uniform Civil Code and its provisions regarding live-in relationships.

Conversely, women of the demonised minority communities are seen as embodying a demographic threat to the majority making them the targets of horrific violence. India has witnessed what feminist historian Tanika Sarkar has called the ‘almost inexhaustible violence’ which the Hindu supremacists have directed at Muslim women – violence which incorporates the genocidal horror of pogroms like that in Gujarat in 2002, and the day-to-day war of attrition exemplified in the open calls by hate-preachers for mass rape of Muslim women, the police atrocities against Muslim women, as witnessed again recently in Haldwani, and the vicious online targeting of Muslim women journalists, activists and others critical of the current regime. We witness the protection, leniency and even felicitation offered to rapists of Muslim and Dalit women. The regime’s political prisoners, including women like Gulfisha Fatima and Shoma Sen, languish in jail on false charges, endlessly denied bail. Meanwhile we find that even after Bilkis Bano’s immensely courageous struggle had succeeded in sending her rapists back to jail, these ‘sanskari’ rapists and murderers are granted parole and furloughs on the flimsiest of pretexts.

Meanwhile, although ‘feminists’ are not always explicitly listed as enemies of the state, we can see the demonisation of the so-called Urban Naxal woman who is described as free-love practising, cosmopolitan, Marxist, Pakistan-loving, and terrorist-supporting.

All of this has much in common with the gender ideologies of European fascism which of course provided inspiration for Hindu supremacism from the 1920s onwards. The RSS was formed in 1925 modelled on Mussolini’s fascist youth organisation. And Hindutva ideologue MS Golwalkar notoriously hailed Nazi Germany as a ‘model of race pride’ which India should emulate.

But a marked difference with these earlier fascisms lies in the fact that central to Hindu supremacist gender discourses is the figure of the ‘excessively patriarchal’ Muslim man who represents and epitomises gendered oppression and violence. This allows core Hindutva policies such as the Uniform Civil Code or even the revocation of Article 370 in Kashmir to be championed as promoting women’s and LGBTQ+ rights, even when such false claims are thoroughly debunked.

This approach is in fact shared with Modi’s close ally and model Israel’s Zionist ideology, which weaponises the rhetoric of ‘women’s rights’ to legitimise the genocide against the Palestinian people – even pointing to Israeli women soldiers being on the front line when Israel commits its genocidal atrocities as an example of liberation. It also evokes the US imperialist wars on Afghanistan which claimed to be ‘saving’ Muslim women. More generally Hindutva shares with contemporary US-led imperialism the identification of Muslims with a series of interlinked tropes including terrorism; fanaticism; allegiance to forces external, and hostile, to the nation; illegal immigration; population growth; and women’s subordination.

Along with this, the Hindu supremacist state promotes a particular notion of women’s empowerment/naari shakti as something authentically Hindu, especially of course, when it involves the mobilisation of women within the Hindutva project and their incorporation as perpetrators of violence.

On one level, it is easy to see that the government’s ‘women’s empowerment’ rhetoric is simply a veneer designed to try to win women’s votes, as with the passing of the flawed Women’s Reservation Bill with no date for implementation, and the seemingly endless announcements of flimsy new government schemes aimed at women.

But today’s Hindutva is also inextricably entwined with neoliberal corporate capital. And its brand of naari shakti/women’s empowerment is also inseparable from a neoliberal discourse of gender equality mobilised for expanding corporate profits in various ways. It is used to legitimise policies of incorporating women as underpaid or unpaid workers into labour markets, without challenging the gender division of labour in which women continue to do the lion’s share of domestic work. As the State of Working India 2023 report explains, female employment rates have risen in India since 2019, a time when growth was slowing down. Underlying this is the fact that women have been forced into precarious work, including unpaid work as ‘family helpers’ often categorised as self-employment, by falling household incomes. And crucially, the report reminds us that ‘a shift in current weekly status from domestic duties to employment need not mean a reduction in hours spent in care work and other domestic activities…we find that increased workforce participation may be accompanied by constant or even increased time spent in housework for women’.

The Indian state’s women’s empowerment discourse is used to promote the financialisation of women’s debt through self-help group and microfinance schemes which are increasingly integrated into global financial flows and profit-making. Women taking these loans find themselves harassed and persecuted for repayments, only escaping the clutches of microfinance companies when they have organised vibrant collective movements against debt.

This neoliberal form of naari shakti/women’s empowerment is also invoked to promote population policies which are shaped at global as well as national level. These have long been partially driven by commitments made by the Indian government under global population control programmes like FP2030, which was set up by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundations alongside US and UK governments and the UNFPA. Women from poor households – mainly Dalit, OBC and Adivasi women, instead of being given access to safe contraception which they can control, continue to be targeted for coercive sterilisations and unsafe injectable and implantable contraceptives, practices which have long been a focus of feminist resistance. As with the Chhattisgarh sterilisation massacre of 2014 this targeting often coincides with campaigns of dispossession and displacement to make way for mining and environmental destruction by transnational corporates like Adani and Vedanta.

At the same time calls for coercive population control explicitly directed at Muslim women’s bodies have become a key part of the Hindu supremacist arsenal. In UP under Yogi Adityanath, alongside the bulldozing of Muslim homes and the mass killing of Muslim youths by the police in fake encounters, the government introduced the Uttar Pradesh Population (Control, Stabilisation and Welfare) Bill, ahead of the 2022 elections in the state. This proposes restricted access to food distribution schemes, disqualification from applying for government jobs, a bar on promotions for existing government employees, and ineligibility for receiving any government subsidy for people who have more than two children. Further, sterilization of one partner, which in practice means almost exclusively tubectomies for women, is specifically mandated to access certain benefits after two children. These laws invoke and legitimise the ongoing stream of false claims and hate speech about Muslims in India being set to ‘outnumber’ Hindus’. In BJP-ruled Assam, in the context of the violent campaigns against its Muslim minority who are demonised as ‘Bangladeshi immigrants’ a similar bill was introduced in 2021, with the Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma announcing the formation of what he called a 1,000 strong 'Population Army' to distribute contraceptives and create awareness about population control in Muslim-dominated areas of the state. This January he further announced that a new welfare scheme aimed at ‘developing entrepreneurship among women’ would only be provided to women with three children or less.

Understanding these intimate connections between Hindu supremacist fascism, neoliberal corporate capital and the women’s empowerment discourse perhaps makes it easier to understand why Melinda Gates, a leading advocate of the neoliberal approach to gender equality, could be all praise for Yogi Adityanath, who notoriously wrote in 2014, echoing the Manusmriti, that ‘Women must not be left free and independent’. In the midst of an epidemic of rapes and murders in which Dalit women and girls were especially targeted and state forces repeatedly shielded upper caste and powerful perpetrators, Gates actually enthused that “Uttar Pradesh is a model not only for India but for the whole world” praising it in many fields including women’s empowerment.

Confronting this 21st century fascism in India, resistance to the ‘war on women’ takes many different forms. We have seen it in the students rising up against sexual harassment and violence and administrative collusion and repression, in the iconic Shaheen Bagh occupations of public space by Muslim women in the anti-CAA movement, in the resistance by Adivasi women to the acute gendered violence of the state and corporate land-grabbers, in the demands of women scheme workers and sanitation workers for decent wages and conditions, recognition and dignity. We see it in the insistence of Kashmiri women who refuse the erasure of mass rapes by the Indian Army, in the voices of Kuki-Zo women demanding an end to the atrocities in Manipur, and in the trans activists resisting exclusion from citizenship. This resistance continually exposes the lies of patriarchal, Islamophobic, neoliberal and imperialist claims to women’s empowerment, reaffirming radical visions of hope, possibility and freedom.