One recent summer morning, I found myself looking for an Indian city that appeared to have vanished. I was in Delhi, arriving there not long after a brutal wave of the pandemic had sent even well-to-do Indians scrambling for oxygen cylinders and hospital beds. Now, as the public health crisis seemed all but forgotten, I made plans to travel to the North Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, hotspot of the pandemic and heartland of Hindu nationalism. In order to orient myself as I worked out a tentative route from Delhi on Google Maps, I looked for the city of Allahabad, one of the oldest and most significant cities in Uttar Pradesh, sited on the banks of the notionally sacred, and utterly polluted, Ganges River. It wasn’t there.

Once an important locus of India’s anti-colonial struggle, home to the Nehru family that produced three prime ministers in postcolonial India, Allahabad had entered a period of decline decades ago. But decline is one thing, disappearance another. How was it possible that a city of 1.8 million people could have ceased to exist without my hearing a word about it? But there was no Allahabad on Google Maps, no matter what I tried. Instead, occupying what looked suspiciously like the same pixelated spot on the screen, was “Prayagraj”, an entity I’d never heard of before.

Clarity came, eventually, accompanied by a sinking feeling. Allahabad, founded by the 16th-century Mughal emperor Akbar, had been renamed for its notionally Islamic associations, and in a perfect convergence between Hindu nationalism and global capitalism, the new Hindu nomenclature had been made official by Google. History had been rewritten, and barely anyone had noticed.

The erasure of the past and the rewriting of the present is a feature everywhere in our embattled times. But its most powerful, and its most successful iteration is in India under the Hindu-right government led by Narendra Modi. Unnoticed by the West because of its hubris as epicentre, whether of history or of the end of history, the mythmaking unleashed by Hindu nationalism in India has achieved almost total success, transforming material as well as virtual reality. Dominating the physical landscape while also taking possession of the hearts and minds of a significant section of its population, it is the most successful right-wing phenomenon of our times, bridging Western fascism from the early twentieth century with the multiple, overlapping, digitally-inflected authoritarianisms of our era.

This should not be surprising. Hindu nationalism is unrivalled in its capacity to bide its time; it outlasted the colonialism with which it collaborated during British rule; it outlasted, too, the Nehruvian decades of decolonisation during which it lurked in the slimy undercurrents of political life. It emerged into the open only when the moment was right, at the turn of the 21st century, when the left had been defeated globally and the market ruled over all. During that dawn of the new millennium – a new millennium that now, just at the beginning of its third decade, already feels tired, old, and disorienting – Hindu nationalism came into its own. As the country was eviscerated by capital both Western and domestic, erasing all memory of left, anti-colonial, and Third World ideals, stamping out any sense of alternatives to a homogeneous, soulless globalisation, Hindu nationalism inserted a mythical past that would offer a sense of belonging even as the plunder went on. The high-rises and the highways, the rich in their towers and the poor dispersed everywhere were, it insisted, not just weak simulacra of the monochromatic world being ushered in globally, but the trace of something unique, a Hindu utopia stirring into life after millennia of oppression.

This was the promise embodied by Modi as the most eloquent representation of Hindu nationalism when he became prime minister in 2014. Handed an even more resounding electoral victory five years later, in 2019, he moved swiftly to further this Hindu utopia by changing the constitutional status of Muslim-majority Kashmir, by revising India’s citizenship law in such a way that only Muslims were affected, and by rushing to complete the construction of a massive temple to the Hindu god Ram in Ayodhya, a small pilgrimage town in Uttar Pradesh. At the height of the pandemic – to which his government had responded primarily with a lockdown that sent millions of low-wage workers back to their villages on foot as they attempted to outwalk starvation – he appeared in Ayodhya to lay the foundation stone of the temple, the event broadcast live onto a billboard in New York’s Times Square.

In spite of a stuttering economy and the precariousness that had been made starkly visible by the pandemic, Hindu nationalism retained the sense that its time is now. It was in order to understand that triumphal sense of a toxic nationalism arriving at its moment, to investigate its claims that the outline of a Hindu utopia was being put in place, that I travelled to Ayodhya that summer, an account of which appears in this book.

Excerpted with permission from Twilight Prisoners: The Rise of the Hindu Right and the Decline of India, Siddhartha Deb, Context/Westland.