Mussolini confided in his son that one of his nightmares was that he would be put on trial at New York’s Madison Square Garden, in case of capture by the Allies. Narendra Modi’s fantasy was to hold his victory rally there, as he did in September 2014, soon after being elected prime minister of India. Returning triumphantly to the heart of the very empire that denied him a diplomatic visa and revoked his tourist visa for an anti-Muslim pogrom carried out while he was chief minister in Gujarat in 2002, Modi’s presence at Madison Square Garden sparked off the rapturous belligerence of 20,000 supporters. Since then, through events like “Howdy Modi” and “Namaste Trump”, Modi appears to have made America his second home and Donald Trump a buddy, a coming together of civilisations ancient and modern as well as a merger of two failed states with among the highest rates of Covid-19 infection in the world.
The coronavirus might have been expected to put a halt to Modi’s American fantasies, it being as difficult to leave the United States now as it is to enter India. Nevertheless, this didn’t stop Modi’s Hindu right supporters in the United States – fronted by a group called the American Indian Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) – who decided to lease giant screens in Times Square on Wednesday 5 August to display images of the Hindu god Ram and a temple to Ram being inaugurated that day in India by Modi.
There was a demo and a counter-demo and, while the plan to project an image of the proposed temple on the high-profile Nasdaq screen in Times Square did not materialise, one digital board showing the temple aired over the Hershey’s store for a limited part of the day. As their celebration of the temple appeared on a giant screen, the “Indian community” distributed sweets in Times Square. Protests were lodged with the mayor and with the billboard companies by a diverse range of groups, and were apparently successful in preventing the images from being displayed on a majority of the screens, including those on the Nasdaq building, but even the solitary airbrushed image of the Ram temple concealed far more than it revealed.
The temple construction is taking place in the provincial north Indian city of Ayodhya. This demolition was the high point of a long campaign by the Hindu right, so successful in creating an imagined grievance that it turned the BJP from a political oddity to the totalitarian behemoth it is today.
Modi knows how to unleash beasts as well as how to render them acceptable on a global stage, airbrushed and Disneyfied, while his engine of cruelty rolls on
Even before the mosque was demolished, Hindus in India and abroad were asked to donate bricks to build a Ram temple, based on the claim that the mosque stood on the alleged birthplace of Ram. Bricks, some made of gold, arrived from Britain and the United States as well as from thousands of villages and towns in India in response to this campaign. Yet rather than birth, violent death was the true shrine of this campaign. Around 2,000 people died in the spiral of violence set off by the demolition of the mosque; soon the vilification of Muslims had become an everyday affair in India. Even the Gujarat pogroms in 2002 were set off by an incident involving the death of Hindu pilgrims returning to Gujarat from Ayodhya after a celebration of the demolition of the mosque.
Not surprisingly, such belligerence produced nothing in the way of the sacred. In a scene in Ram Ke Naam (1992), Anand Patwardhan’s remarkable documentary of the Ayodhya campaign – and a film routinely prevented from being screened in India by Hindu-right organisations – one can observe the barrage of threats directed against Muslims by men marching toward the still existing mosque, even as an elderly Hindu pilgrim who has been visiting a nearby sacred site for years shakes his head in dismay and wants nothing to do with the campaign instigated by the BJP. In the decades since then, Ayodhya has spiralled further downhill.
The poet Vivek Narayanan, who has been working on a book of poems inspired by the Ramayana, the epic detailing Ram’s exploits, emailed me last December after a visit to Ayodhya. He described something that was “almost a ghost town,” with crumbling houses, a population almost crazed by anger and deprivation, and soldiers guarding the temple construction site in a manner that made it feel “like a maximum security prison”.
If this is what is being celebrated as Hindu culture in Times Square, it is because Modi and his acolytes know well how one hand washes the other. We see today an agile fascism of the 21st century. It understands well that in Ayodhya, in an India reeling from a failed lockdown and a thousand other miseries, the apparent victory in Times Square will have as much weight as the victory of the temple being constructed in India. Since 5 August also happened to be the one-year anniversary of the BJP’s unilateral suspension of the special status of Kashmir, a move that led to Kashmiris being subjected to suspension of all civil liberties, this brazen celebration will also serve to remind Muslims in India of their subjugated status in every way, a reminder that nothing is available to them in Modi’s India, neither history nor geography.
Mussolini was an old-school fascist who feared being stared at by an accusing crowd in New York, of appearing to them as something like a “caged wild beast”. Modi, far more clever, knows how to unleash beasts as well as how to render them acceptable on a global stage, airbrushed and Disneyfied, while his engine of cruelty rolls on, expanding his maximum security prisons from Kashmir and Ayodhya to India at large. In order for this not to continue with impunity, the beast will have to be caged. Hatred should never have been allowed to express itself in one of the most diverse cities in the world.
• Siddhartha Deb is an Indian author and journalist. His non-fiction book, The Beautiful and the Damned, was a finalist for the Orwell Prize and the winner of the PEN Open award