Ecofascism and Indian nationalism

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Climate breakdown represents an opportunity for ecofascists around the world. The rise of nationalism in India shows how this is playing out today.

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Indian government released plans to allow more coal mining, cement plants, chemical fertilizers, manufacturing of acids and pesticides.

Since we’ve known about climate change, there have been those who have urged us to ignore the science. Pride of place in this pantheon of shame must go to the oil companies who backed denialism for decades. They found willing accomplices in both right-wing and far-right political actors.

This is an extract from the book The Rise of Ecofascism. Buy your copy now.

Read our review of the book​​​​​​.

However, just as many oil companies have sought to rebrand themselves as ‘energy companies’ more widely, with ever-declining interests in oil specifically, so too have some on the far right begun to shift their positions away from out-and-out denialism.

Far-right parties are less concerned with matters of branding than are oil companies and this shift has been far from universal. Nevertheless, denialism is no longer the only major force on the far right. Some have opted for various degrees of acceptance. 

Irrigates

Like denialism, this ‘acceptance’ is not one single thing. It can go in stages. The first stage of acceptance acknowledges something is wrong in the relation of humans to nature. But this acceptance is still almost entirely indeterminate.

The second lays the blame with individualized consumption, often conspicuously commodified in the shape of consumer goods. The third stage entails a view of wider capitalist production that understands consumption not as individual greed but as a systemic effect of capitalism’s demand for growth. Different far-right actors have adopted differing levels of acceptance.

Even amongst the ‘acceptors’, proposals for action, perspectives on the specific social and historical processes involved and even the central mechanics (increasing levels of atmospheric carbon being the most basic) of climate change are sometimes at odds with other environmentalists. Few adequately address the problem of global climate change, perhaps because little of their politics addresses that scale at all. 

In our new book The Rise of Ecofascism, we discuss the climate politics of the Front National in France, Fidesz in Hungary, and Rodrgio Duterte in the Philippines as variants of these climate ‘acceptors’. Here, we look at one particularly important and complex group: the Indian far right, led by Narendra Modi, Indian Prime Minister since 2014.

Along the Indus river lie the territorial claims of three nuclear powers: China (through Tibet), India (through Kashmir) and Pakistan. The river is at once one of the most important in the world, particularly for Pakistan, whose breadbasket region it irrigates, and runs through one of the most heavily contested territories in the world. Important components of Hindu nationalist politics are intimately tied up with control of the river and the wider Kashmir region.

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Indian government released plans to allow more coal mining, cement plants, chemical fertilizers, manufacturing of acids and pesticides.

Ideological

A series of hydroelectric dams constructed on the Indus by India have been contested by Pakistan, who claim it would allow India to shut off the flow of the river Pakistan relies on to grow crops, a potentially devastating geopolitical weapon. It is not yet clear how exactly climate change will change its flow, but undoubtedly its variability will increase. This could lead to dangerous volatility in the region.

Into this complex situation steps Modi. Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has positioned itself to defend the interests of Hindus at the expense of minorities. Modi’s reputation was cemented by the pogrom against Muslims in Gujarat in 2002, where the official count documents 790 Muslims and 254 Hindus died - the real numbers are probably much higher.

Some have claimed that Modi ‘initiated, encouraged and condoned it’. The pogrom in Gujarat was followed by violence against minorities in Orissa in 2007 and 2008 and in Muzaffarnagar in 2013.

What is the social function of these acts of violence? Anti-caste leader Dr. B.R. Ambedkar wrote in 1936 that ‘a caste has no feeling that it is affiliated to other castes except when there is a Hindu-Muslim riot’. Class conflict (and caste conflict) in India are suppressed through the unification of the disparate groups in anti-Muslim violence.

The second leader of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a large Hindu nationalist organization in India with close ties to the BJP, M.S. Golwalkar, who remains a major ideological touchstone for the group, argued that there were three enemies that imperil the Hindu nation: Muslims, Christians and Communists.

Violence

These enemies are alike in one respect: "they threaten to disrupt the supposedly 'natural' unity and harmony of the Hindu race and Hindu civilization, which stretches back to time immemorial". In 1939, he suggested that Nazi Germany was a good model for Hindu Nationalists to follow.

Some of the places where the RSS’s vigilante ‘moral policing’ have been most prominent – such as ‘cow defenders’ who attack Muslims accused of eating or slaughtering cows, which is prohibited in Hinduism – concern the human relationship to a spiritualized nature.

Indeed, the growing vigilante militancy of the RSS, combined with its mobilization around stark religious and ethnic divisions, makes the situation in India arguably the closest in form to classical fascism of all countries of the contemporary period.

If the RSS and BJP are committed to the construction of a Hindu state, perhaps we should see Modi’s environmental politics as intertwined with this project. Modi’s report into Gujarat’s response to climate change, published when he was chief minister, opens with a discussion of the Rig Veda, the oldest of the canonical Hindu texts.

Modi points out that the "Rig Veda . . . emphasized on the importance [sic] of Panch Tatvas (five elements), earth, air, water, solar energy, and sky." He goes on, "any disproportionate use of these energies will cause pollution and will promote selfishness, instincts of violence, jealousy – inimical to human development".

Mining

Elsewhere, Modi has called for "special attention to yoga amidst discussions about climate change". Explaining climate change as a spiritual problem is not unique to Modi, but he is undoubtedly the most significant person to do so.

How to understand these remarks? Jyoti Puri has argued that they "derived from established discourses of Hindu spiritualism that were produced in opposition to, and as a remedy for, Western materialism".

In 2014, newly prime minister, he bordered on outright denial: "Climate has not changed. We have changed. Our habits have changed [...] If we change, it [nature] is already ready to change. Humans should not struggle with the environment. Humans should love the environment. Be it water, air, plants." Similarly, as late as 2019, his environment minister denied that the devastating floods in the country were caused by climate change.

Throughout Modi’s premiership, environmental regulations have been scrapped. Some 99.82 per cent of industrial projects proposed in forests have been approved, up from 80 per cent.

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the government released plans to exempt "coal mining, cement plants, chemical fertilizers, manufacturing of acids and pesticides" as well as those "concerning national defence and security or other strategic considerations" from public consultation.

Mitigation

Pollution targets have been scrapped for power plants and, in the first half of 2016, sixteen new power plants went online without clean air technology installed. The Modi government has also cracked down on environmental NGOs, in late 2014 blocking the flow of overseas funds to Greenpeace India because of ‘anti-national’ activities, and in 2020 targeting Indian Fridays for Future activists.

It has pushed to further remove the protections put in place after the 1984 Bhopal disaster, in which thousands died and over half a million people were exposed to highly toxic chemicals.

This rapid development at the cost of environmental destruction is not unconnected to Modi’s religious discourse: highways to pilgrimage sites have been driven through ecologically sensitive sites, in cases without compensation or consultation.

There have, nevertheless, been some moves to mitigate climate change. The measures outlined in Modi’s report from Gujarat are substantial. In 2014, Modi quintupled India’s target for solar energy production by 2022 and then in 2015, on the eve of the Paris climate summit, India indicated for the first time a willingness to commit to legally binding emissions targets.

In 2015, Modi joined calls for a framework of ‘Climate Justice’. Even here, religious discourse is intertwined: the call came at a Hindu-Buddhist conference where Modi proposed that Hinduism and Buddhism - although not Islam - were united in their ecological sensitivity. In late 2020, India signalled its intention to intensify its mitigation efforts.

Reckless

However, at the COP26 summit, India was famously involved in watering down the language of the deal from the proposed ‘phase out’ of coal to a mere ‘phase down’. Some have argued that this must be seen in the light of the history of underdevelopment in India.

This is undoubtedly true, and much of our new book The Rise of Ecofascism is dedicated to exploring the management of the climate crisis in the long duration of colonialism. More generally, defenders of Modi have argued that rapid development is essential to help people escape the ravages of poverty. It is a potent argument. 

But environmental regulations largely defend those living in poverty, and the BJP has also shredded deliberative aspects of the state, where they can be heard. Here, neoliberal marketisation and deregulation, as well as the dedemocratisation of the state, go hand in hand with religiously inflected reactionary nature politics, which understands protestors as ‘parasites’.

If Modi’s concern were for the well-being of the poor, or for social justice, then his policies could scarcely be less appropriate. Instead, the Modi government’s reckless position on climate change mitigation will likely end up as a disaster for India’s poor, just as they will be for the world at large.

Refugees

What might we expect in the future? Given India’s high risk of climate disruptions, the politics of adaptation there are just as important as mitigation.

There is a worrying possibility that the tendency towards social unification around anti-Muslim violence and exclusion will intersect in the future with climate change disasters.

It is in this context that the 2019 amendment to the citizenship law, which provided a pathway for refugees claiming religious persecution in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh, but not for Muslims, becomes relevant: it might allow for future denials of the citizenship of Muslims who cannot prove their status, and make it difficult to access disaster aid.

As Aranyo Aarjan writes, "should a Hindu nationalist government which has shown a flagrant disregard for people’s lives be in charge of the state of West Bengal, which has a sizeable impoverished Muslim population and shares a long border with the Muslim-majority Bangladesh, at a time when up to 18 million people will potentially be made into refugees by rising sea levels alone, the possible results are almost too bleak to consider."

These Authors 

Sam Moore and Alex Roberts are the authors of The Rise of Ecofascism, published by Polity today. This excerpt has been published with permission from Polity.

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