— You have described how Putin is trying to portray himself as a leader of the oppressed nations, he’s talked about the “golden billion” and oppressive western liberal ideology. Why do people in India trust this discourse, regardless of the apparent contradictions (Putin is a leader of a former empire, and it was he who started the war against the former USSR republic)? What could change their attitude?
— One big reason is that Russia is not seen as an empire in India, even among the left. I understood this only five or six years ago. I may have understood that tsarist Russia was an empire, but not the Soviet Union. The fact that Russia has had colonial relationships with other nationalities, and still does, is not apparent.
The second reason is that India had a close material and emotional relationship with the Soviet Union. In India we used “Soviet Sangh” (Soviet Union) and “Soviet Rus” (Soviet Russia) interchangeably. Thus the USSR is seen as Russia, and Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan, etc., are seen as some satellites or accessories to the real country. The place I am talking to you from, my hometown, Bhilai, is a steel plant township. The plant was set up in collaboration with the USSR. When I was a child, there was an entire colony called “the Russian colony”. In the town there was a tin dome used for various passing exhibitions. Every few months, a Soviet book fair took place there. There were lovely and affordable books, and I still have some. I returned after the invasion and tried to find how these publications portrayed Ukraine. It was portrayed as a land with colorful ethnic costumes. Most Indians have nostalgic memories of these book fairs. So I am not surprised that in the Indian imagination, Russia is a country with a friendly presence. There were films made with Russian collaboration, and they had songs mentioning Russia with great affection. There is something my friend calls “Russian romance” in India.
“To change their mind, Indians must realize that Ukraine was a colony, just as India was a colony of Britain”
That makes it difficult to see Russia as a historically changing political entity with different rules, ideologies, and priorities. Due to all the Soviet aid for India, it is difficult to see that it had many oppressive elements besides a benign presence. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, one should not be romantic about Russia even by mistake, yet many Indians could not see what Putin stands for. Those who want to see Modi restore the mythical “Greater (Unbroken) India” might also want to see Putin restore “the Greater Russia.” Soon after the invasion, you could see posters saying “Hail Putin! He is going to restore Greater Russia,” put up by the same organization cutting cakes for Donald Trump’s birthday.
To change their mind, Indians must realize that Ukraine was a colony, just as India was a colony of Britain. Russia continued to have a substantial military presence and has been “a big brother” in the Hindi sense, which means “a bully.” [Note. “Dada” means “big brother” in Hindi, and the big brother type of bullying is “dadagiri”]. Russia has terrorized its neighbors, the former Soviet Republics. It has either installed client regimes or would try to invade at some point, especially under Putin. Ukraine has historical importance to Russia as an empire, and it is now the biggest hurdle for Putin’s fascist plans. If he wins this war, it will be a win for fascists everywhere. We must stop looking at the world through the division of who is with the USA and who is against it. You can’t just assume that everyone who is against the USA is your friend or the lesser evil. These fascist forces in different countries are connected, and a single victory is a victory for all of them. It is frustrating that the group that could make this considerable effort to explain this, the better part of the left in India, holds on to comforting, mythical, and deeply harmful narratives.
— You’ve been a prominent fighter for women’s rights. Why is a stance against Russian aggression essential for women’s struggles?
— I keep trying to alert my feminist friends in India and other countries about this issue. Unfortunately, most of them seem to have various illusions about the war. Very few of them understood what Putin’s fascism represents, so their position is still about war being a bad thing and opposing giving Western arms to Ukraine. They say, “Ukraine has a right to sovereignty and to defend itself, but we shouldn’t allow the USA to benefit from it.” There was a feminist antiwar statement with a similar argument, which I refused to sign, and I lost several friends because of it. So it had a position of formal support to Ukraine — but there were no mentions of Putin’s brand of fascism and its meaning for the feminist movement in Russia, Ukraine, and internationally.
I ask my friends to make a casual visit to RT [Russia Today, the state-supported TV station] and search for feminist, LGBTQ, or women’s rights. This should be eye-opening. There are hundreds of news items where they tell you that “being gay or trans is satanism,” corrupting family values, “gender does not exist”, etc. Fighting against patriarchy or homophobia makes you a Satanist in Putin’s Russia.
“I watched bits of Russian TV, and I was horror-struck that it is neither a parody nor satire, that this genocidal fascist talk is done so openly on primetime”
Indian TV is a complete nightmare, as fascist as it can be. Americans always cry about Fox News, but it is a joke compared to what we have to put up with. I stopped going on Indian TV because they use me as a villain. I wouldn’t believe you if you told me that any TV could be worse. But then I watched bits of Russian TV, and I was horror-struck that it is neither a parody nor satire, that this genocidal fascist talk is done so openly on primetime. A backbone of fascist ideology in Russia is an appeal to homophobic and patriarchal values, telling that it is the Kali Yuga or the coming of the Antichrist era. It says that there is a natural way relationships between men and women are supposed to be, and we must go back to this time. In India, there is a subtler version of this narrative because Indian fascism is experienced and has learned to hide behind rhetoric.
Hindu supremacists, however, say that according to Hindu scripture, women can not be allowed to be free. Women have great power in motherhood, and it becomes destructive if it is not controlled. So women must be controlled by their husbands, sons and fathers. If they do men’s jobs, they become demonic, so they should do what is in their nature as women. It is a part of the caste ideology with a description of hierarchies. These leaders reference the Manusmṛiti and want the constitution to be based on this text. This text has acquired much more importance in its ideological and political use, but it is not a text many Hindus consider a part of everyday usage. According to it, caste determines nature, and one’s duty is to act in accordance with caste and gender. It is deeply antifeminist, because the caste system is maintained through endogamy [marrying only within the caste] and strict rules. If a woman of the upper caste marries a man from the untouchables or a lower caste, it is considered a wound on the social body. The Manusmṛiti prescribes punishment for this act, and it is death. Sometimes even those who haven’t read this text do this kind of killing to maintain the caste system. When the influential Russian fascist Alexander Dugin says we must fight the “Kali Yuga” (the Hindu term signifying the overturning of caste and gender hierarchies) and fight all “anti-hierarchy” ideologies, he is taking a key tenet of Hindu-supremacist fascism and incorporating it in global fascism.
Feminists in India are challenging caste patriarchy. Along with anti-caste activists, they hold protests, symbolically burning the Manusmṛiti and calling for protection for the interfaith and intercaste couples. This kind of activism is also seen as anti-Indian now. The Hindu supremacists are fighting this kind of activism in other parts of the world, in the UK, for example. They try to prevent any legislation that will outlaw caste discrimination. When people from India go to other countries, they take their caste with them, which is reproduced there. There are many examples of caste discrimination, like doctors of Indian origin who refused to treat someone from the untouchable caste. Hindu supremacists say that anti-discrimination activism is “hinduphobic.” But they are smarter than other fascists because they imply they it is they who is actually feminist, while the real antifeminists are the Muslims. Many Hindu women fall for this trap because no one likes looking closely at patriarchy in their communities. When Shah said that the Western standards don’t apply in India, he also claimed that Indian families operate on an inbuilt human rights framework. Indian rights ensure the protection of women and children. This is all bullshit. You can not find a single Indian village where spaces are not divided in the form of apartheid based on castes. Indian families are also full of violence.
“Any country fighting against occupation should be supported, irrespective of what kind of government there is and what it can be criticized for”
Fascism has a robust antifeminist agenda. Russian fascism has to be taken seriously because of the enormous sums of money it commands. India also has some of the world’s wealthiest capitalists, personal bankers, and funders of Modi. However, they fall short compared to Putin’s abilities in money and propaganda. Someone says that there are extremely powerful oligarchs in the USA as well, but it is a bit different because they are not the direct instruments of the state. Take RT as an example; it is an official Russian channel that caters to the far right around the globe. Putin’s regime also funds some far-right organizations in Europe and the USA. They might be doing it in India as well.
— Post-colonial theory spared no effort in decrying western logocentric discourse with its exclusion of the other (be it natives, women, LGBTQ, illiterate, etc.). At the same time, claiming that universal values are necessarily western, those influential left theorists seem to have discarded any universalism. And the only thing that remains is the idea of multipolarity… Do you think there is a need for some kind of universalism in struggles against oppression?
— Yes, very much. There is a difference between discarding universalism and continuously interrogating universalism. You can check whether one’s account of universalism omits a portion of the population or is blind to particular relationships. Universalism can be blind to the history of colonialism, and you can see this very often in France, for example.
In the name of universal theories, they insist that French definitions of liberty, equality, and fraternity have nothing to do with colonialism. If you even suggest that the hijab ban in France is racist, they immediately call this nonsense, and insist that French values are universal. It would help if you interrogated universalism which is Eurocentric, Americacentric, or blind to structural forms of oppression and exploitation. However, those who have been on the receiving end of colonialism, patriarchy, and racism are just now coming to the table and saying that they have to be included in the universal values. And if someone says that universalism is bad in this context, then there is a huge problem. Those values are not bad; the whole point is that they were said to be universal when they were not universal enough.
You can not say: “There should not be universal adult suffrage because it was never universal”, you need to say the opposite:“We need to fight for suffrage to make sure everyone gets to vote.” Criticizing something for having colonial and oppressive origins doesn’t mean you can just throw it out the window. Of course, you should be alarmed by anyone who says that we don’t have to be bound by democracy or believe that all human beings are equal, or who says that social hierarchies are a good thing, as Dugin, Putin, Modi, and others are saying. Xi also makes a lot of speeches against universalism, arguing that universal values were used to cause the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the drastic changes in Eastern Europe, the color revolutions, and the Arab Spring. Then he claims there are some universal values for humanity, but they can be interpreted differently by every civilization.
Suppose you are a Muslim in India, whose life is in danger because of Hindu supremacists rapidly turning the constitutional democracy into an authoritarian regime. Aren’t you going to hope that someone in the world will come to rescue you? Whatever is needed to be done to save your life from genocide, you will be welcoming it. How can the left, of all people, speak about national sovereignty and interpret it as a right to repress people within the border without international interference? It is one thing to criticize international institutions like the UN because they have double standards (for the USA, Israel, etc.), but quite another to say that all unversal standards and institutions like the UN are illegitimate.
“Lenin didn’t favor any imperialism over the other”
With postmodernism comes the denial of the existence of any verifiable facts. And this is beneficial to fascists and authoritarian leaders. At this point, Hindu supremacists are using decolonial theory as an appeal to re-legitimize themselves, and say that their politics is anti-imperialist. The biggest problem with colonialism discourse is that it always refers to a particular nation as a victim. However, there are multiple struggles within those nations. Marxism was clear about its internationalism and belief in working classes of different countries uniting against oppressive rulers. We, as a left movement, have to adhere to these basics. Any country fighting against occupation should be supported, irrespective of what kind of government there is and what it can be criticized for. This is a good reminder for the left, especially because they like saying that [Ukrainian president Volodymyr] Zelensky is a neoliberal president dismantling labor rights. That is true, but that is for the Ukrainian leftists to fight against. But this is all after, and only if, they survive — because Ukrainians can be just wiped out of the Earth; look at what Ramzan Kadyrov [head of the Chechen republic and leader of Russian militia in Ukraine] and other propagandists are saying. There are priorities.
The general secretary of our party wrote in an article an answer to the questions I was raising: “Regardless of the internal character of the competing global powers, a multipolar world is certainly more advantageous to progressive forces and movements worldwide in their quest for reversal of the new neoliberal policies, social transformation, and political advance.” He is saying that it does not matter whether these powers are democratic or fascist. China may be authoritarian, and Russia may be fascist, but their existence as a multipolar challenge to the USA is good. Therefore, any support we give against these multipolar powers can disturb the balance and benefit the USA. So our solidarity with Ukraine should not be too eager because it is on the USA’s or the Western side. It is a very dangerous argument, because it overlaps with the appeal to a world order based on anti-democratic multipolarity by authoritarian leaders like Putin and Xi. The left should realize that the language of multipolarity can no longer be used in this manner.
The language of polarity, in general, belongs to the realist school, and it is a capitalist school of understanding the world order. According to it, countries have national interests and compete based on these interests. This means that the history of the world is just a story of the big powers and their competition. It is not a Leninist idea. When people tell me: “Haven’t you read Lenin’s theory of imperialism?” I don’t think they have read it. Lenin didn’t favor any imperialism over the other. Today, the dominant definition of multipolarity is not just non-Marxist and non-Leninist, it is outright fascist.
Even if you don’t like some leaders, the moment forces us to value those of them who are not fascist. In India, we have to align with parties we have never thought of supporting because unity is needed in the face of enormous danger. The left had been critical of India’s democracy before 2014, but at least those leaders could have been shamed for human rights violations. If one can understand that approach in the context of India, it should also be recognized for global affairs.