The patriotism of the Hindu Right, on full display in resplendent ugliness in India since 2014, was no more than a product of the old relationship of fascism and theatre. The lynchings of Muslims, assaults on Dalits, conspiracy theories centered on the alleged lack of patriotism of prominent and ordinary Muslims alike, Vande Mataram as the test of loyalty to the Indian (read Hindu) motherland, obeisance at gunpoint demanded on behalf of the cow – all were meant as a spectacular performance of the only way to be Indian, on pain of humiliation, punishment, and death by vigilante Hindus.

In a perverse way, it made sense that one of the most prominent symbols of majoritarian Hindu nationalist patriotism was the demand that the national anthem be played in movie theaters (no matter how irrelevant the film to follow might be to any kind of theme of national belonging), with mob justice meted out to those who did not or could not stand up.

But there is always an aspect of hysteria to the forced, excessive and fake patriotism of fascism. Born of overcompensation, such patriotism is always haunted by the fear of its lack of authenticity. In the case of the Hindu Right, that fear is well founded. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the mother ship of the armada of Hindu Right organisations, played no part in the Indian freedom struggle.

The historian Shahid Amin points out that it was Gandhi who turned Indian nationalism into a mass movement that could provide a basis for challenging British colonial domination. It was, predictably, a Brahmin man of the Hindu Right, devoted to the ideology of Hindutva, who murdered Gandhi, even if the RSS has screamed itself hoarse for seven decades about having no connection with Gandhi’s assassin.

A protest against a new citizenship law outside Jamia Millia Islamia in New Delhi on December 22. Credit: Danish Siddiqui/Reuters

Till just a few weeks ago, the rhetoric of the Hindu Right in Pax Modica seemed to have no ideological competitor – the very term secularism, as a competing philosophy of state and governance struck one as a relic, associated with weak Congress politicians who seemed utterly unaware of what the term even meant.

Since the anti-CAA protests that have galvanised students and other citizens across India, however, the rhetoric of the Bharatiya Janata Party has met its match. The protest movement has successfully drawn on – and so given fresh life and new resonances to – the terms, themes, and idioms of the Indian anti-colonial struggle. While the protests in various cities and arenas, from Delhi to New York, Tripura to San Francisco, have seen a multitude of strong messages on posters and an equally large number of creative chants, the most powerful calls have been for azaadi, that is, freedom and inquilab, which refers to revolution.

Both these terms were central to the Indian freedom movement, as their creative restoration by Kanhaiya Kumar in his hypnotic speech-chant “Hum Leke Rahenge Azaadi” shows. Kumar’s speech which has been repeated over and over again in protests across the globe, associates authentic azaadi or freedom with the yearnings and aspirations of seminal figures in India’s political struggle for independence, including Bhagat Singh, Bismil, and Gandhi.

Seeking real freedom

The message here is that the protesters want this real freedom for which India gained independence. It is this hard-won freedom that is at risk from the Citizenship Amendment Act and National Register of Citizens to follow. There is a deeper significance to the use of both phrases as well. They are Urdu, Hindustani, and Hindi words, and their use shatters the bigoted chain of reasoning central to the project of the Hindu Right in which Urdu=Muslim=Pakistani.

The anti-CAA protests also involve the rendition of the national anthem, readings from the Constitution, and prominent displays of the Indian tricolor. Whether deliberately intended to or not, they take back from the Hindu Right the monopoly of the use of each of these symbols of Indian nationhood. In place of Vande Mataram, Hindu sentiment, and a jingoistic, reductive association of the flag with Modi’s childish fantasies of humiliating Pakistan, the assertion of familiar tropes of nationhood signals awareness that the manner in which Modi and his band of men have sought to define India in a manner inimical to its ethos.

Regardless of whether the BJP government will roll back the CAA, the protests have already achieved much that is truly remarkable. The fact that they have successfully utilised the idioms of the anti-colonial struggle shows that the cultural and historical memory of Indian legacies of freedom, protest, and belonging have not been entirely erased by the revisionist historical project of the Hindu Right.

Rohit Chopra is an Associate Professor at Santa Clara University.