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Mainstream, VOL 62 No 12, March 23, 2024

Wokeism - the new whipping horse of India’s Hindutva Right & of the Global Right | Subhash Gatade

Saturday 23 March 2024, by Subhash Gatade


The shrill voices of those who give orders
Are full of fear like the squeakings of
Piglets awaiting the butcher’s knife, as their fat arses
Sweat with anxiety in their office chairs....
Fear rules not only those who are ruled, but
The rulers too.
—Bertolt Brecht

The global right is ’terrified’ (at least that’s what it wants us to believe)

We are being increasingly told that it has finally discovered what could prove to be its nemesis.

Right from the likes of Donald Trump to the Indian origin American Vivek Ramaswamy - who has even written few tomes on this ’menace’ to the controversial hard right Florida governor De Santis, there are claims that the spectre of woke or wokeism haunts them. One can recall how De Santis had famously declared in his re-election victory speech that ’Florida is where Woke ideology goes to die’. [1]

What needs to be noted that this ’menace’ felt by the right is not limited to the Western World only.

There are newer converts to this movement.

Mohan Bhagwat, the Supremo of RSS ( Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) - a Hindutva Supremacist Organisation - happens to be the newest entrant. Sometime back he joined this chores by the global right, similarly expressing his anger against ’Wokeism’ and ’Woke People’ in no uncertain terms. For him these were ’forces’ who were ’spoiling Indian ethos’.

Irrespective of how De Santis or Vivek Ramaswamy perceive it the Supremo shared his own understanding where he even equated ’Woke’ with cultural marxists

According to him "..[t]hese forces wear the mask of some ideology or the other, and claim to be working for some lofty goals, their real objectives are something else… These destructive, all-devouring forces call themselves cultural Marxists or Woke, or the awakened ones. But they have forgotten Marx since the 1920s… Their modus operandi involve taking control of the media and academia, and plunging education, culture, politics and social environment into confusion, chaos, and corruption.” [2]

What added further heft to his claims was that they were no spontaneous remarks but part of a speech the Supremo delivers on the day this organisation was founded. The day of Vijayadashmi also called Dusshera is a Hindu festival which marks victory of good over evil. A speech on this day by the Supremo of the organisation is supposed to be a guideline to hundreds of its affiliated organisations and millions of its activists.

On further probe it became clear that Bhagwat’s outbursts against the ’menace’ which might have appeared as bolt from the blue initially but debate and discussion around ’Wokeism’ was forging ahead within this hydraheaded organisation for quite sometime.

May it be the release of a book penned down by a scholar close to Hindutva worldview or monographs / articles in newspapers / journals or brainstorming with scholars from elsewhere, the ’menace’ was discussed threadbare.


A year and half back Delhi witnessed a function around release of a book.
Leading lights of the Hindutva fraternity attended the function. Right from Dattatreya Hosballe, - the no two in the Sangh hierarchy, columnist Swapan Dasgupta, Sudhanshu Trivedi all were there.

The chief author of the book was Rajiv Malhotra, an India born American - and the co-author is one Vijaya Viswanathan, who is associated with Infinity Foundation, started by him. Rajiv has remained close to the Hindutva lobby for quite sometime and it was not surprising that he was awarded position of honorary visiting Professor ( 2018) at the once very prestigious JNU. It did not matter to the decision makers that Rajiv had a long history of courting controversy, including charges of plagiarism by renowned scholars. [3]

The book titled the snakes in India : Breaking India 2:0. ( Blueink) discussed ’‘intense warfare against India’s integrity is the work of a well-orchestrated global machinery driven by a new ideology’. [4] It also talked about how “wokeism has penetrated some of the Indian government’s policies. For instance, the National Education Policy 2020 is propagating Harvard’s liberal arts.”

The book also made a concerted attack on Ashoka University - the leading liberal arts and science University - alleging how it is ’breeding wokeism in India’ [5]

One could also see writers / scholars associated with the Hindutva world view penning monographs /articles pushing the ’Wokeism’ narrative further. Professor Santishree Dhulipudi Pandit - the Vice Chancellor of JNU - was one of those in the forefront.

In one of her articles she attacked Wokeism and its ’preferential manipulation of identiy’

— The wokes are so caught up in inequalities of power and culture wars that they have forgotten how to struggle together for justice. Wokism reduces our complex identities to the narrow axes of race, gender (or caste or sexual orientation) alone, and fixates on the idea that only those exactly like us can be our comrades... [6]

In another of her writeups titled ’’Woke chokehold on debate, discussion is growing’ she blamed how

’ [a]scent of woke culture poses a deep concern, casting a shadow over the once-vibrant spaces of debate and discussion. [7]

Another writer named Arindam Mukherjee [8] who considers how ’wokeism has become the latest acquisition in the US geopolitical arsenal for destabilization’ underlined how
[t]he ugly head of wokeism in India has conveniently created a ‘minority oppressor’ for the lack of a ‘minority oppressed’ class. Thus, Brahmins (4% of the Indian population) have become the ones that according to the different woke literatures, need to be demolished, dismantled, and cancelled.

From finding ‘Brahminical patriarchy’ in art and architecture to literature and all forms of communication, the narrative has built enough wing-span to fan out from its breeding ground (academia and universities) and is now at large, trying to subvert even policy-making and judiciary."

The brainstorming organised by Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha (BJYM) - an affiliated organisation of the Bharatiya Janata Party- in Delhi was the latest in the series to further the debate. [9]

What surprised observers was that BJYM has not been known earlier for such intellectual exercises. The discussion undertaken during this interaction also witnessed participation of Conservatives from US, Germany and other Western countries alongwith academics from India.

No detailed reports are available but few of the available details tell us that the gathering did discuss ’wokeism’ apart from other issues.


A pertinent question arises, what is ’Wokeism’ or ’Woke ’ - which still remains undefined here.

How it has been proving to be a ’menace’ simultaneously to many leading Republicans as well as Sarsanghchalak of RSS?

One could also raise the query in another way.

What connects Donald Trump [10] - the ex-President of USA, a man who is fighting cases of financial embezzlement or mismanagement in US Courts, a man who has been accused of harasment by women [11]; a man who has bragged about Groping Women in Vulgar Remarks [12] and Mohan Bhagwat, Supremo of a ’Cultural Organisation’ which claims that it is committed to Character Building

Agree that US and India are two - strongest and biggest- democracies in the world, but their social composition is also different, their histories are quite different and how can the same ’menace’ is felt at both the places at around same time.

Now coming to word itself , remember ’woke’ has its genesis in the black movement in US where the slogan was to ’Stay Woke’ against racist oppression and discrimination. Tracing the history of ’wokeness’ one can see that the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri,( 2014) “stay woke” suddenly became the cautionary watchword of black activists on the street [13]

The idea of being ’woke’ -thus deals with ’’promotion of liberal progressive ideology and policy as an expression of sensitivity to systemic injustices and prejudices’ originated in the USA and is a black terminology, [14] which speaks ’specifically and directly to black people regarding the need to wake up and stay alert, to be consciously aware. So it is not just a mere word, it is a movement.’ ( -do-) and thanks to the movement Black Lives Matter, a growing section of progressives also has started using it. With passage of time being woke also means being sensitive to environmental degradation.
What is disturbing to note this watchword of the black / progressive movement has got slowly coopted in the ’culture war’ [15] and it has been slowly ’weaponised by the right’

Like “politically correct” before it, the word “woke” has come to connote the opposite of what it means. Technically, going by the Merriam-Webster dictionary’s definition, woke means “aware of and actively attentive to important facts and issues (especially issues of racial and social justice)”, but today we are more likely to see it being used as a stick with which to beat people who aspire to such values, often wielded by those who don’t recognise how un-woke they are, or are proud of the fact. [16]

A logical corrollary of this ’weaponisation’ is that the right has to grapple with lot of anxieties about ’woke’’.

A progressive journal had raised this question itself ’why-the-right-is-so-terrified-of-woke’ and shared its understanding about it. [17] For it ’Conservatives didn’t want to hear about white privilege. So they abandoned reality and joined the orange man’s cult’ ( * orange man’s cult refers here to Trump)

Right’s disdain had its basis in the awakening of the people.For the right it
..[i]s an existential battle against allowing people to be awakened — by reading novels and history, by attending plays, by watching and listening to actual news — through open discussion of privilege or systemic racism or, to use a different but related term, the underlying and nearly invisible structures of caste in America. It is a fight to stop people from talking about those social structures, or about the combination of religious zealotry and political ideology at work to foreclose women’s bodily autonomy. It’s a fight to prevent young people from expressing their sexual and gender preferences, to make it more difficult for certain groups of citizens to vote, and to keep books that might make the most hypocritical and closed-minded evangelical Christian pastors uncomfortable off the shelves of public schools and libraries...


One can see that the right which could easily perceive how this growing assertion of the blacks - which became more widespread after the black lives matter movement - where it could even rope in a section of the non-black or white population to its side, and widening its concerns like environmental destruction could prove detrimental to its longheld dominance and it started mentioning the word with a negativity. [18]

The fright of the illieberal or conservative sections of society towards ’woke culture’ was not limited to verbal duels. Quantum jump in book bans could be seen as a direct result of it :

One of the most alarming political trends spreading across the country are book bans. PEN America, a nonprofit organization that supports freedom of expression in public school classrooms and libraries, has recorded 3,362 instances of book bans or censorship in the 2022-23 school year, a 33 percent increase from the year prior.

Many of the cases took place in Florida and Texas, where governors of both states have openly supported these bans as a challenge against what they deem as “woke ideology.” As a result, most of the books being banned span topics about women, people of color and members of the LGBTQ+ community. [19]

Reports have appeared which tell us how the fight over book bans has in fact spread across US. [20] and this strugge books in schools is part of a much bigger struggle, revealing where ’conservatism is today’ [21]

Another aspect of ’end woke ideology’ is cut in public funding for programmes which promote Diversity, Equity and Inclusion programmes within educational and related institutions which not only cuts down courses but also severly impacts employment opportunities to eligible candidates.
DEI is "any program, campus activity, or policy that classifies individuals on the basis of race, color, sex, national origin, gender identity, or sexual orientation and promotes differential or preferential treatment of individuals on the basis of such classification." [22]

Florida under the governorship of the hard right Republican De Santis, who had declared earlier to ’end Woke Ideology’ seems to be leading such efforts. It stopped funding for DEI programmes [23]


As we move towards the end of this story, one thing is absolutely clear how radical slogans of yesterdays can be turned into their exact opposite.
How Stay Woke - a radical slogan of the black movement - has been smartly coopted by the establishment so much so that the idea of ’woke’ itself is being made suspicious.

Analysts rightly say that it is not the first time that ’Worst People’ have been found to be ’..Stealing the Language of Black Struggle’ or how a radical message can be muddled enough to turn it into its opposite. [24]

Today, whatever might be the claims of the ’anti woke’ brigade, or claims of the ’anti Woke warriors who want woke ideology to die’ it is increasingly clear that all the talk around ’wokeism’ is humbug and it is another bogey raised by the Global Right to escape its growing criticism by the wider populace, for its policies of appropriation, exploitation of human beings and also of nature and its conscious moves to polarise people on the basis of race, religion etc.

It is a blatant attempt to shut the aspirations of the oppressed - who have faced systemic exploitation since centuries under the name of race, caste and other ascriptive categories ; it is rather a smart move to deny opportunities for them that they are able to study the roots of their oppression and also curb independent thinking.

Barring a significant minority among them the historically priviledged people of the west and this part of South Asia, fear that their privileges will be short lived if such sections of people are not kept subjugated in very many ways. It is not for nothing that Republicans - which largely represent the interests of the priviledged white - and leaders of the organisations like RSS - who quintessentially represent Conservative world view, find themselves on the same page.

Like the priviledged white in the West the Upper Castes / dominant sections here - at least a major chucnk of these sections are not ready to abandon their age old privileges.

RSS’s sudden embrace of this ’western’ narrative does not appear surprising. It feels that it would be easier for it to push its agenda in a more ’cool’ and more ’sanitised’ manner.

One can recall when the founders of the Republic here envisaged the idea of reservation - as a measure of affirmative action towards socially oppressed communities - there was a resistance to this idea from the so-called upper castes / dominant castes, who feared that it will encroach upon the special privileges they have enjoyed since quite some time. There is enough documentary evidence to show how they resisted it in very many ways as well but willingly - unwillingly there was a realisation that these suppressed classes need to be given reservation to ameliorate their situation.

Approach of the Hindutva forces - right from the likes of Savarkar to the then RSS Supremo Golwalka was not different. They never agreed with the idea that an independent India should move towards a Constitution based on modern principles of individual rights and reason and rationality. Time and again they emphasised that when Manusmriti is very much there, why need for an independent Constitution, When Dr Ambedkar initiated the process of passing Hindu Code Bill by the parliament, which could have given Hindu women right to property and a ban on polygamy, for the first time in history, the RSS alongwith other religious conservative forces opposed it and RSS people even held demonstrations in front of Dr Ambedkar’s house.

Sangh’s anxieties vis-a-vis ’Woke People’ or ’Wokeism’ raise questions.
Why does RSS and the larger Hindutva fraternity - which keeps celebrating its native roots and its celebration of India’s age old culture , civilisation and which never looses any opportunity to castigate the liberals, lefts for import of ’Western Ideas’ finds the idea of ’Wokeism’ attractive, which is of very recent origin.

In fact, a close look at its around century old history makes clear the big hiatus which separates is claim and actuall situation. As far as embrace of ’western ideas’ are concerned instances galore where it had no qualms in embracing such ideas and later not admitting it.

First major step in this direction seems to be acceptance of colonial view of history :

Uncritical acceptance colonial understanding of India’ history presented by the likes of James Mill, without even acknowledging the source. We can recall James Mill had written a history of India basically for British officers / employees coming to Iis already before us. - whose problematic periodisation of India’s history as ’Hindu Period’, Muslim Period and British Period is still being debated. It not only accepted it but and packaged and peddled it for furthering its own agenda of Hindu Rashtra.

Secondly, learning from Nazi and Fascism experiences

There is enough documentary evidence to show how Dr Munje - one of the founders of RSS had visited Italy, met with Mussolini and had felt inspired with their experiment and on return to India took initiative to found the controversial Bhonsla Military School.

Golwalkar - the Second Supremo of RSS - has written appreciatively about the happenings there in Germany and elsewhere and had even talked of learning from the ’final solution’ there.

Third, present zeal to embrace the idea of Woke

It feels that the idea of ’wokeism’ can serve its purpose in today’ times. May be it feelsthat it presents before it an opportunity to package its agenda of Hindu Unity in a more sanitised form before the new generation? We should not forget that it has never acknowledged the internal asymmetries of Hindu society and has always blamed this lack of unity on ’others’ and has consciously tried to exteriorise genesis of its problems.

Question arises does not this idea of wokeism - which as per dictionary is a ’usually disparaging term’ - which effectively denies that all the talk of systemic insults, humiliations and prejudices by the blacks or the other oppressed is humbug, sits contrary to what RSS itself had been talking about in recent times- like end of caste discrimination or stopping environmental degradation ?

One thing is certain that the Sangh ideologues would never address these obvious contradictions in their worldview or would never elaborate how in practice they are very much engaged in blurring all such distinctions between historical insults and humiliations and general grievances of people - the way rightwingers in US, especially belonging to the Republican Party - are engaged in.

Instances galore - especially since around a decade old ascent of Hindutva Supremacism at the Centre and many states, and the idea of Hindutva fascinating a large section of society, where there have been conscious attempt to deny caste discrimination or conflating / mixing it with other discriminations? [25] Instances where there is growing talk of ’dereservation’ [26] or legal manouvering even to provide benefits of reservation to the upper castes - denying the Constitutional principles and values that they had their genesis in the historical injustices and discriminations faced by the dalits, tribals and other oppressed castes.

With passage of time what one witnesses is that gradually the initial concerns behind this policy have been diluted consciously / inadvertently and now the very dominant castes / sections of society have no qualms in demanding reservation for themselves.

And with the ascent of an overtly rightwing government at the centre even such demands have also been made into a law - the hurried manner in which reservation for economically weaker sections - which was basically a ruse to give reservation to the upper castes needs to be understood.

The attack of ’wokeism’ on independent thinking and progressive politics also very much gels with the overall modus operandi of RSS, BJP and other affiliated organisations. Organisations whose longtime project is carving out a Hindu Rashtra out of a formal secular, democratic, socialist and sovereign India.

The manner in which routinely such liberal spaces or intellectuals are castigaged as ’Khan Market gang’ or the way Hindutva has unleashed an organised, systematic and conscious attack on educational institutions - who still valued independent thinking - can be considered a mere detail in this overall pattern of domesticating the thinking people of the country.

One can also say that with growing discrediting of the whole idea of ’tukde tukde gang’ or ’urban naxals’ [27] invented and popularised by the Hindutva cheerleaders - which was conveniently used against all dissenting voices, perhaps the idea of ’wokeism’ or ’woke people’ can serve them similar purpose for them.

No doubt the ambience at Taj Ambassadors must have facilitated the brainstorming of Conservatives in a good way.

And this brainstorming also presents before all liberal and progressive voices an interesting challenge, how prepared we are to understand the dynamics of Hindutva Supremacism and present an effective alternative in the field of ideas and actions. How is it that despite its essentially inegalitarian, exclusivist agenda based on hate and otherings - Hindutva is ready to package its worldview in a more sanitised and more cool form and more creative ways but we are still far away from it.

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