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Ecofascism Is a Rising Threat. We Should Take Modi’s Ascendance as a Warning.

International greenwashing is feting and abetting Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ecofascism.

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi attends an Indian cultural event with Australia's Prime Minister Anthony Albanese on May 23, 2023, at the Qudos Bank Arena in Sydney, Australia.

As the walls of global climate apartheid solidify, the barriers to climate refugees intensify, and “ecofascist” mass killings multiply, the enduring acceptability of fascist politics is disturbingly apparent in the amazing reincarnation of India’s far right Hindu nationalist (Hindutva) regime on the world stage.

Less than 20 years ago, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and company were shunned for their genocidal violence — with Modi barred from even entering the United States and European Union countries for his role presiding over Gujarat’s 2002 anti-Muslim pogrom. But now he is celebrated as a supposed “environmental” luminary, as well as a “humanitarian” and a great “statesman” — a remarkable feat of reality inversion.

Latest in this pageant of grotesqueries were the G20 meetings — on tourism, of all things — hosted by India this May in unlawfully annexed Kashmir, the world’s most concentrated military occupation. Delegates discussed the perils of climate change and enjoyed the pleasures of nature tourism in a landscape permeated with torture centers and mass graves. Only four countries — China, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt — boycotted the meetings. In contrast, self-identified human rights paragons such as Canada, the U.S. and the United Kingdom all attended: a damning and shameful display of international complicity.

From Proto-Genocidaire to Green Guru

Far from being a pariah, Modi is currently on a veritable world tour of world leaders courting India’s allyship in the “new Cold War” with China and Russia. Coming up later this month — a White House bromance session with President Joe Biden, to “affirm the deep and close partnership between the United States and India […] including in defense, clean energy, and space.”

In 2018, Modi was even recognized by the United Nations as a “Champion of the Earth,” the institution’s highest environmental honor, for his promotion of solar energy. Modi has managed to go from being known as the “Butcher of Gujarat” to a “Champion of the Earth” in less than two decades: What an unbelievable transformation, especially given the UN’s own reports simultaneously documenting India’s targeting of environmental activists. According to the Modi government’s own figures, it has curtailed the operations of more than 19,000 nongovernmental organizations since 2014, including well-known environmental and human rights groups.

Similarly, in 2019 the Gates Foundation presented Modi with its “Global Goalkeeper” award for his public sanitation and anti-pollution “Clean Motherland” (Swachh Bharat) campaign. That same day, two Dalit children (formerly classified as “untouchables”) were beaten to death under the mantle of this same campaign for relieving themselves in a field.

Hindutva’s “green” façade has been further burnished by former UN Environment Program head Erik Solheim, who in an adulatory op-ed in February, anointed India as “the country to follow this year.” Absurdly, Solheim applauds Modi for “drawing an appealing national story in which [all] feel at home” — even as massive detention centers are being constructed to contain the millions of Muslims and other “undesirables” (including people living in poverty, Indigenous Adivasis and Dalits) to be ejected from Indian citizenship under the National Register of Citizens and Citizenship Amendment Act.

In the 1930s and ’40s, Hindutva’s founding idealogues V.D. Savarkar and M.S. Golwalkar extolled Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini for manifesting “national pride at its highest” and providing “a good lesson for us in Hindustan to learn and profit by.” Now Solheim, in turn, extols Modi for igniting “a new self-awareness and pride in India” from which “European leaders can learn a lot.” European fascists inspire Hindutvas, who inspire Europeans: a perfectly vicious circle.

Incredibly, the exaltation of Modi as a green guru persists despite his piloting of India to ever-plummeting rankings on the Environmental Performance Index — currently 180th out of 180 countries, down from 155thcalculated by Yale and Columbia universities.

This is not merely eco-hypocrisy, but ecofascism: the use of “environmentalism” to advance supremacist and genocidal ends.

“Environmentalism” According to Fascism

Nazism, too, boasted a highly “advanced” ecological program, complete with an organic herb garden at Dachau death camp, plans for air pollution monitoring at Auschwitz and laws to ensure the “racial purity” of plants.

As explained by Holocaust architect Heinrich Himmler: “We Germans, who are the only people in the world who have a decent attitude towards animals, will also assume a decent attitude towards these human animals” — obscenely portraying the Nazi enterprise as an ecologically enlightened and “humane” genocide.

The “father” of modern zoology, Konrad Lorenz, was a member of the Nazi Party, yet was still awarded a Nobel Prize in 1973. Meanwhile the “father” of conservation, American Aldo Leopold, traveled from the U.S. to Germany to learn from Nazi forestry. His co-“father” of conservation, Madison Grant, also helped birth the U.S.’s eugenics movement, and wrote The Passing of the Great Race, the book that Hitler acclaimed as his “bible.”

Now, in the gospel of environmentalism à la Modi, “cleaning” the homeland becomes “cleansing” the homeland — accomplished via mass evictions, systematic mosque demolitions and Dalit persecution. “Animal welfare” protection translates into “cow vigilantism”: lynchings of Muslims and Dalits for allegedly violating Hinduism’s sacred animal.

Reforestation,” “wildlife habitat preservation” and “green energy production” have become bywords for the extrajudicial killing, torture and dispossession of Indigenous peoples, funded and supported by international conservation and development organizations. Finally, curbing “over-population” serves as a mantra for culling the marginalized, whether by mass coercive sterilization programs or pogroms.

For instance, during the Gujarat massacres, majoritarian mobs severed Muslim women’s breasts and vaginas and cut the fetuses from their wombs. For his part, then-State Minister Modi’s concern was that the camps for the displaced, filled with rape survivors, not turn into Muslim “baby-making factories.” Incidentally, this is the same Modi who claimed in his 2019 propagandistic special guest appearance on the Discovery Channel show “Man vs. Wild” that his “beliefs don’t allow [him] to kill.”

The very site where Modi launched his flagship “Lifestyle for Environment” initiative in October, standing alongside the UN secretary general at Gujarat’s so-called Statue of Unity, is a monument to state atrocity. It faces the infamous Sardar Sarovar dam, for the sake of which as many as half a million people were cast out and immiserated, while another 5,000 Adivasis were removed to “clear” the ground around the statue itself. It is the tallest statue in the world, built to overlook the scene of one of the largest mass industrial expulsions in the world; the sadism of this is only compounded by naming this a tribute to “unity.”

To call these “human rights violations” is a gross euphemism, since it is not only the “rights” of the targets that are negated but their humanity itself. Unfolding in India is a chilling echo of fascism’s past, and a horrific preview of possible ecofascist futures to come. Dissecting it provides a vital anatomy of the workings of genocidal ethnonationalism, in an age of climate apocalypticism.

Seven Habits of Highly “Effective” Ecofascists

One: Mythologize a glorious past to be restored. For example, one World Wildlife Fund-backed conservation project in Uttar Pradesh advocated resurrecting the “ancient and time-tested technology” for waste management of requiring Dalits to transport human sewage on their heads.

Two: Produce an “enemy” to be purged. When Hindutva political leaders refer to Muslims as “pollution,” “viruses,” “termites” and various other biohazards, extermination becomes a logical “solution” — as under Nazism, in which Jews were characterized as “parasites” and “weeds.”

Three: Depict those marked for elimination as aggressors. The function of Muslims as an all-purpose enemy is increasingly useful for deflecting attention away from government policies as the “not-so-natural” disasters mount. Poorly managed monsoon deluges are blamed on a fictitious Muslim “flood jihad”; uncontrolled COVID outbreaks, on an equally concocted Muslim “spit jihad.” Muslims having houses, marrying Hindus and having children are “land jihad,” “love jihad” and “population jihad.” All fascisms are “based not only on prejudice but also on complete unreason, in the sense that no amount of evidence can possibly shake off such prejudice,” as the prominent Indian economist Prabhat Patnaik remarked.

Four: Recruit the foot soldiers. This common anti-sense is enforced by the mobilization of the masses into violence and conspiracism: the feature distinguishing fascism from simple top-down authoritarianism. In 2019, the U.S.-based Nonhuman Rights Project praised an Indian court’s recognition of cows and other non-human animals as “legal persons” in the state of Haryana — where those on the receiving end of Hindutva cow “protection” mobs have been forced to eat bovine feces, beaten so badly their livers ruptured and burned to death. (How the sacredness of cows is squared with India being among the top global beef exporters remains unexplained.)

Five: Remake the state around a cult of personality. The “cult,” in Modi’s case, extends into the international arena, the adherents professed liberals and conservatives alike. In addition to being a “champion of the Earth” and “global goalkeeper,” Modi is also, apparently, a “global energy and environment leader” (Cambridge Energy Research Associates), a “global peace” contributor (Seoul Peace Prize), “the most loved leader around the world” (Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni), “the boss [like] Bruce Springsteen” (Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese), a “great guy doing a terrific job” (former President Donald Trump), and so on.

Six: Present mass violence as benevolence. According to India’s Housing and Land Rights Network, “environmental protection” is now the government’s most common rationalization for its large-scale evictions, which total more than 500 people per day. (The testimonies of the dispossessed recorded in the Rights Network’s reports are harrowing.) This even as environmental laws have been Modi-fied to clear the way for even greater corporate exploitation of mines and other “natural resources” inconveniently located in once-protected forests, wetlands and Indigenous territories. Beneficiaries of this “merger of state and corporate power” — said to have been Mussolini’s definition of fascism — include regime cronies like coal profiteer Gautam Adani, head of “Adani Green Energy Ltd,” also implicated by a UN fact-finding mission for complicity in Myanmar’s genocide of the Rohingya.

Seven: Eradicate resistance. Predictably, it is the organizations and activists opposing these exercises in ecocide and sociocide who are labelled the “ecofascists” and “terrorists” — whether they be “gun-toting or pen-wielding,” in Modi’s words. The equation of pens with guns guarantees a constant supply of “threats” to be destroyed, fascism’s essential resource. (Of course, as self-proclaimed masters of propaganda, Modi et al. know how powerful words can be.)

Resisting vs. Colluding in Ecofascism’s Conquest of the Earth

In the estimation of eminent Dalit scholar Anand Teltumbde, who was finally released in November after two and a half years’ pre-trial incarceration under the “Unlawful Activities Prevention Act,” the Hindutva variant of fascism may prove to be even “more dangerous” than Nazism. Indeed, as the great historian of India Tanika Sarkar has pointed out, “whereas Nazi power lasted twelve years, the Hindu Right has been pursuing knowledge-production and dissemination for ninety-three [now ninety-seven] years.”

And yet, despite this being one of the world’s longest and now largest fascist projects, its ascent into power has not only been permitted but praised.

With Hindutva feted and abetted by international greenwashing, and consciously overlooked in Eurocentric anti-fascist theorizing — for instance, Routledge’s 2020 anthology on The Far Right and the Environment comprises three separate sections on different regions of Europe but not even a single chapter on India, “due to [unspecified] pragmatic reasons” — the non-white “wretched of the Earth” continue to be treated as disposable sacrificial subjects in the colonial gaze. As previously the concentration camps, slave labors and death marches inflicted on the colonized were countenanced and normalized, until their horrors were returned home with the Nazi Holocaust to Europe’s heart.

Inscribed on the undersides of fascist brutality, however, is also an archive of wisdom on how to resist. From the Adivasi women hugging trees to protect them from coal miners, to the peoples’ movements impeding dam projects imperiling vital rivers, to the ancestral forest-dwellers who provide food and care to endangered non-humans such as tigers, to the Kashmiris defending depredated forests and ancient melting glaciers, to the dadis (grandmothers) and farmers on the front lines of confronting state terror — all show what it means for humans to nurture the life systems that nurture us, even in the face of extreme repression.

The international community’s ongoing collusion in ecofascism’s conquest of the world is not only a grave peril, but also a great betrayal to all those desperately struggling — and dying — to bring a radically different reality to life.

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