Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Liberation leader: ‘Modi represents an Indian brand of fascism’

[Editor's note: Clifton D’Rozario, a labour lawyer and Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Liberation leader in Karnataka state, will be speaking at Ecosocialism 2023 over July 1–2 in Naarm/Melbourne, Australia. For more information about the conference, visit]

Clifton D' Rozario, a leader of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Liberation, talks to Jacob Andrewartha about the rise of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and how the left is fighting back against his Indian brand of fascism.

It is common to hear voices in the international community and liberal media describe Modi as a reformer who enjoys great popularity within India. But it was not that long ago that Modi was referred to as a tyrant overseeing the weakening of democratic institutions. Can you give us a bit of background to Modi's rise to power and what might explain this change in tune among the international community and media?

There is no consistency in terms of how the international community looks at Modi. If you go back 20 years ago, he was persona non grata, someone who was not even allowed to visit certain countries due to his role in the genocide that took place in Gujarat during his time as the state’s chief minister. Today, twenty years later, we see Australian prime minister Anthony Albanese refer to Modi as “The Boss” during his recent visit to Australia. But there is a political and economic rationale to this shift. 

Globally, we are seeing a rightward political shift occurring amid a context in which global capitalism finds itself in deep crisis and yet, at the same time, on the offensive. That is why the kind of fascism that we are seeing in India under Modi is mirrored by similar rightward shifts in other countries, as capitalism in crisis is germane ground for these kinds of regimes to arise and prop each other up. While the rise of fascism in India has been propelled primarily by India's own internal developments, the current international climate favours it by lending it considerable strategic support and legitimacy. In this kind of international economic situation, we should not expect any kind of opposition to Modi or any other authoritarian leader. Instead, what we have is collaboration and legitimisation. 

In terms of Australia, this relationship [with Modi] has been going on for some time now. We saw it in action when the two governments came together to ensure that [Indian mining company] Adani obtained its contract to mine coal in Australia, a move facilitated by the Australian government and, of course, by Modi, who ensured banks gave Adani the funds it needed for the project. This kind of collaboration and legitimisation of Modi by the international community is nothing out of the ordinary. 

Turning to Modi, to understand his rise to power, it is essential to understand the Hindu supremacist organisation, the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh or National Volunteer Organisation). Formed in 1925, it had a particular vision of India that ran completely contrary to what the freedom fighters of that time were fighting for. Since then, this organisation, which drew inspiration from Italian fascism and Nazism, has in various ways been mobilising to try and establish its notion of what India should be: a primarily Hindu majoritarian state. 

As a young boy, Modi joined his local RSS branch and attended its indoctrination camps. From there, he became an RSS full timer in the late 60s, and later went on to consolidate his rule within the RSS. His organisational skills and rhetorical flair — full of inflammatory anti-Muslim and anti-Christian rhetoric — helped him progress within the RSS. 

In 2001, he took the leap from the RSS, a mother organisation that controls several front groups, to the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party), which is the RSS’ political front. The RSS controls everything that has to do with the BJP, including its policies and the decisions it makes, and RSS members hold all of the most important positions within the BJP. That year, the RSS decided to parachute Modi into Gujarat as chief minister to replace the ailing Keshubhai Patel.  

Less than a year later, in February 2002, we had the horrific Godhra train burning in Gujarat, an absolutely horrific train disaster in which 59 Hindus, including 25 women and 14 children, who were returning from a religious ceremony in Ayodhya died. What followed in Gujarat was absolute mayhem: officially, the government says 1169 people died as a result of the subsequent anti-Muslim riots, but unofficial estimates by NGOs put the figure at more than 2000 deaths. In village after village there was murder, rape, pillage and plunder. You may have heard recently that in one of the most gruesome cases — the gang rape of a woman, Bilkis Bano, and murder of 14 people, including Bano’s three-year-old daughter, Saleha — the 11 men who were convicted of these crimes were released due to the combined efforts of the state government and central government. These kinds of incidents took place over Gujarat. 

Modi came under a bit of flack internationally for the role that he played in all this as chief minister; for example, he was denied entry to the United States in 2014. But the corporate elites came to his aid. The main person who sought to orchestrate support for Modi from the capitalist lobby was Gautam Adani. Later that year, elections took place in Gujarat that saw Modi and the BJP returned to power with a thumping majority. 

As Chief Minister, Modi cultivated Hindu majoritarianism, populism and authoritarianism. Pro-corporate policies, weakened labour protections, sops to capitalists, decreased social expenditure, a rise in caste-related atrocities and a vicious rise in communal polarisation, with growing numbers of attacks on Muslims and Christians, marked Modi's reign in Gujarat through to 2014. Modi’s charge on the national political stage was premised on this foundation laid in Gujarat, which he flaunted as the Gujarat model of development.  

During that time, Modi also consolidated his hold over the BJP, becoming, first, the undisputed party leader in Gujarat and, then, slowly transforming himself into the main BJP leader at the national level. This is important to understanding how Modi came to power in 2014: within the BJP, he created a situation that made it inevitable that he would become the prime ministerial candidate by sidelining any other potential rival. 

But it is important to add that there were also objective factors that explain why Modi became prime minister. The first is that by 2014, India had lived through ten years of a Congress Party-led coalition government that, towards the end of its final mandate, was confronted with an economic downturn. At the same time, it was a regime marred by corruption. As a result, massive anti-corruption rallies broke out around the country, which completely delegitimised the Congress Party. The media played a very big role in all this, of course, as did the RSS, which mobilised its cadre during those anti-corruption protests. We can also add that the middle classes at the time were clamouring for a very strong leader.

Due to all this, the Congress lost its position as the natural party of the ruling classes. Seeking an alternative elsewhere, the ruling classes found what they were looking for in Modi, who had demonstrated during his ten years as chief minister that he was willing to do anything for the corporate elites. All these issues came together and catapulted Modi to the centre stage of national politics and the prime ministership. 

Modi is increasingly described as an autocratic right-wing Hindi chauvinist who presides over a government that seeks to overturn India's foundations as a secular republic. What can you tell us about the Modi government’s more recent track record on human rights and democracy? 

If Modi’s time as chief minister and his first term as prime minister was an early warning about the shape of things to come, his second term has been a period of rapid escalation of a concerted multi-pronged offensive. 

One thing that is important to understand is that, if you look at our country’s freedom struggle against colonialism, most people generally point to democracy as perhaps the biggest gain we obtained from that struggle. Before then you had feudalism, unelected rulers, etc. But out of the freedom struggle we gained democracy, something that we cherish as a legacy of that struggle. The RSS, however, does not feel the same way, because it does not believe in this kind of democracy. 

When one thinks of a democracy, you generally think of a society with regular elections; where all sections of society are treated equally; where you have freedom of speech and freedom to organise and protest; where there is an independent media and judiciary that is there to ensure the executive stays within the four corners of the constitution, etc. 

But in the Indian context, you also need to understand the role played by Dr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar — the architect of the Indian Constitution. He came from an oppressed, marginalised community: he was a Dalit who faced serious oppression during his life. But through grit, determination and struggle, he came to occupy a very important role in Indian politics during the freedom struggle. When the time came to decide what our country should look like, the task of drafting the document that we know as the constitution today was given to Dr Ambedkar. 

Basing himself on his lived experiences and the knowledge he had gathered during his life, he said that certain conditions are necessary for any working democracy to function. One was that there cannot be social or economic inequalities in a society if democracy is to succeed. He also said a democracy needs an opposition that is strong enough to hold the other powers to account. And that you need equality in the face of the law and constitutional morality, where everyone agrees to abide by the constitution and its values. He warned at the time against the tyranny of the majority over the minority. He did not just mean this in the religious sense but also in the caste sense; that is, the tyranny of the dominant caste over the other castes. And he also said a functioning democracy required public conscience, by which he meant that as an individual, as a citizen and resident of the country, one had to stand up to any injustice that happened around you. 

But since coming to power, the BJP has made a mockery of the constitution. I’ll give you an example: you may have seen the recent inauguration of the new Parliament House in Delhi on May 28. The event was basically converted into a spectacle resembling the coronation of a king. The entire notion of separation of powers, of secularism, of the will of the people, everything contained in the constitution was cast aside in this one act where you had religious leaders walking around parliament literally crowning Modi as if he was the king. 

What we are seeing is that basic constitutional values, whether they be secularism, federalism, etc, every single one of them is under attack. India practises a very different form of secularism to that of American secularism or French secularism, which views secularism as a strict separation of church and state. In India, secularism refers to equal treatment of all religions. But today, the RSS and Modi government promote Hindu majoritarianism. 

In this situation, any kind of dissent — especially ideological dissent — is completely clampdown upon. As a result of this, you have some of the brightest young minds in our country, who were part of various struggles including the anti-communal citizenship struggles, languishing in jail. Furthermore, you have so-called public institutions and agencies, such as the police and the tax authorities, being deployed against political opponents. And you have unprecedented communal polarisation: it is impossible to imagine what it must be like to be a Muslim in this country, given the constant demonisation and attacks against every single aspect of Muslim life. 

Another factor to consider is the privatisation of violence. As I mentioned, the RSS has several front organisations; some of them are ultra-violent organisations that have taken the law into their own hands to carry out lynchings of Muslims across the country. You have situations on Sundays, when Christians are gathering for prayers, and these organisations barge in saying, “you cannot pray here”, “you are converting Hindus to Christianity”, and proceed to beat them up. Then the police come and arrest the pastor or priest, while taking no action against the Hindi supremacists. 

In sum, you have the collapse of how one would understand a functioning democracy. The media only further contributes to this, not just parroting the BJP line but actively seeking to promote division and communalisation. I'll give you one example: the issue of violence against women is a very serious problem in the country. When an incident of murder or violence against a woman is committed by a Muslim, that particular crime becomes national news and the identity of the perpetrator is drummed up over and over again to create an impression that all Muslims are the same. Yet, the same crimes committed by other communities are allowed to slip by without notice by the media — that is the role that the media play. The judiciary has also not played the role of defending constitutional values and the fundamental rights of people. 

Essentially we see four compelling features of the Modi government: populism, nationalism, authoritarianism and majoritarianism. All this is a matter of concern and paints a very bleak picture. But it is also the case that within these institutions you have a fight back. And there are people on the streets fighting back. So, there is a pushback happening, but overall the trend appears to be towards undoing any sense of constitutional morality, towards making redundant any existing constitutional value: that is the scale of attack that we face.

In light of all this, the CPI(ML) Liberation has labelled the Modi-BJP government as fascist. Why do you believe this is the case?

There are two points I would like to make. First, whether we call Modi fascist or not, the point is that the elements that I have outlined are acknowledged by everyone; no one disputes that this particular regime rules by attacking society, attacking the constitution, attacking the secular fabric of society, attacking all the institutions of accountability and democracy. Everyone accepts this. 

Some organisations are reluctant to say this amounts to fascism. I imagine this is because if you look at fascism in the historical, traditional sense, as a reactionary ideological political trend that emerged when capitalism was in crisis in the 1920s and ’30s, you could say what we have in India looks different to what the Nazis or Mussolini looked like. But we cannot sit back and wait for that exact same scenario to replay itself today. Obviously, fascism has different features in different governments; in different countries it will have its own local particularities. But what we are saying is that, if you put together all these elements of Modi’s rule that I have described, then what you have is Indian fascism. 

Having said that, I think it is OK to call it whatever you want — the point is to understand the scale of the challenge that we face. We have to accept that this is not business as usual: the BJP is not just another party of the ruling class. We cannot make the mistake of saying: “Congress is a party of the ruling class and the BJP is just another party of the ruling class”. There is a substantial difference. This is a party based on the ideology of the RSS and backed by private militia groups who will not think twice before taking the law into their own hands and killing people. This is a party that has actively spoken out against the constitution and openly talks about replacing it. So, there are several aspects of this regime that separate it out from other ruling class regimes: the unabashed crony capitalism, the subservience to imperialism, the aggressive majoritarianism, the dismantling of the constitution,  the relentless attacks on dissent and on minorities and the working class — all of this together represents the Indian brand of fascism.  

Our party has identified the Modi regime as a fascist regime and called for all-out resistance to this growing fascist offensive and its consolidation. We emphasise the need to step up opposition to the regime’s offensive through determined mass struggles and exploring possibilities of broad-based electoral alliances among opposition parties. 

As you noted, there is also resistance. What can you tell us about the resistance to Modi, in particular the recent protests by female wrestlers?

One of the distinctive features of any populist authoritarian regime is that it presents itself as speaking on behalf of the people. It says “I know what you want, I know what the people want”. It not only claims to speak to the people but for the people. This is particularly true of Modi: he has this sense of ideological arrogance. When you add to that political power, it gives him a feeling of being almost invincible. It also means that he never actually listens to people. But people have been speaking out against his rule for a long time now. 

Prior to Modi coming to power, there was a kind of paralysis in terms of protest. The situation is all different now. Whether it is students protesting over various issues, including the new education policy, or landless labourers protesting, or the Adivasi, the original inhabitants, protesting various projects, we are seeing rising resistance across the country. 

One of the most remarkable fightbacks was the one by farmers [in 2020-21]. For a year, farmers from all over the country set up tents outside Delhi, basically occupying every corner and encircling Delhi, to demand the government withdraw three anti-farmer laws. They said: “Unless you withdraw those laws, we are not going back home”. More than 800 farmers died in that protest. In the end, the Modi government had to give in and the laws were withdrawn. I would say, as a political activist in this country, that was one of the most inspiring struggles that I've seen. 

We have also seen workers fight back: when Modi announced a snap lockdown during COVID, giving people just 4 hours to prepare before not being able to leave their houses again for two weeks, workers who did not have food to eat at home or who were desperate to travel to get back to their houses took to the streets. There were even protests in Gujarat, with rioting taking place in the city of Surat. Workers have also protested against Modi’s restructuring of the Labour Code to make it more pro-capital and push workers back into a situation where basic rights are denied. The Modi government passed changes to the Labour Code in parliament, but it has still not been able to enforce the new code because workers have stood up and said, “we will not accept them”. 

And now, as you mentioned, we have the struggle of the wrestlers. It is very inspiring to see these wrestlers, some of them Olympic medal winners who have brought sporting glory to the country, protesting on the streets. The protests arose after complaints were filed against Wrestling Federation of India chief Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh alleging he had sexually harassed seven women wrestlers, including a minor, over the past 10 years. When the government refused to act on this, the wrestlers took their protest to the Supreme Court and succeeded in officially having two First Information Reports filed against this man. Despite this, he has still not been arrested. 

This is not the first time that we have seen the BJP protecting one of their own — we have even seen the BJP protect people accused of terror acts, such as Pragya Singh Thakur, who today sits in parliament. The hubris is such that they will not bow down to anyone or anything. The government has taken the stand that “whatever you do, we are not going to take action”. That is why, on the day of the inauguration of the new Parliament House, as wrestlers were being rudely beaten up by police and a number of them arrested, Modi was getting his photo taken standing alongside the perpetrator at the inauguration. 

But these wrestlers have stuck to their guns and a remarkable mobilisation is taking place around their struggle: student organisations, women's organisations, trade unions, farmer organisations and various political parties have all come out and expressed their solidarity. We are seeing a mass surge of protest against the inaction, or more accurately the protection that the Modi government is given to this man. 

Would you like to make any final comments?

The challenge we face across the globe is that when we say democracy is in crisis, that democracy is in peril, we must understand that our fight is not for a return to the status quo ante. Our fight is not to just go back to the kind of democracy that existed before, which itself was inadequate. For us the question is: how do we fight and get to the point where proletarian democracy becomes a reality. 

So, for instance, the kind of struggles that are happening in our country are very inspirational. But the fight against Modi and his fascist regime is not just a fight against an individual, it is against an ideology. That means it has to be a fight for communal harmony, against crony capitalism and to eliminate the caste system and patriarchy. That is something we all need to bear in mind in our struggles, wherever we are fighting these kinds of regimes.