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Pro-Palestine Campus Protests: US Rightwing's 'Toolkit' Mirrors the One in India

The chorus of authoritarian propaganda against democratic protests should concern us all.

Kavita Krishnan
Opinion
Published:
<div class="paragraphs"><p><em>Police officials watch over a pro-Palestine protest outside the gates of Columbia University in New York City.</em></p></div>
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Police officials watch over a pro-Palestine protest outside the gates of Columbia University in New York City.

(Photo: Meghnad Bose)

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When Greta Thunberg, a student activist against climate change, tweeted a “toolkit” comprising resources to support India’s protesting farmers, the Modi regime immediately alleged an international conspiracy and even arrested climate change activists in India. They claimed that the farmers and their supporters were using the “toolkit” prepared by their foreign agents to destabilise the Modi Government. Thunberg, however, was simply sharing material, on an open platform, that could help people outside of India understand the issues raised by Indian farmers. 

If we look at Donald Trump and his supporters, raging their ideological attack against the US campuses protesting Israel's atrocities in Gaza, it's hard to tell apart their language and that of Modi propagandists. There seems to be a “toolkit” that the likes of Trump, Modi, and other international anti-democratic figures appear to rely on, which results in near-identical language and ideological strategy. 

Regarding the campus protests, Trump said, “The radical extremists and far-left agitators are terrorizing college campuses.” He further demanded, “Remove the encampments immediately, vanquish the radicals and take back our campuses for all of the normal students who want a safe place to learn.” It is important to note that the language used by the Modi regime and its propagandists towards Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) and other university campuses in India has been exactly the same. 

For instance, a BJP youth leader termed JNU as a “centre for excellence” which has been “infested with left-wing extremism.” He further said, “It's necessary to get rid of the anti-nationals to make the campus safe for the model student - a student who learns diligently and then serves the nation – like Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman.” The dehumanising and violent language with the usage of the word “infestation” isn’t surprising. He wrote this piece a few months after cadres of his party’s student wing, armed with iron rods, besieged the campus, raided rooms, and attempted to assault targeted faculty members and student union leaders.

American students are protesting against Joe Biden’s support for Israel's brutality in Gaza, but that hasn’t stopped Trump from saying, “Crooked Joe is taking the side of these terrorists (Hamas), just like he has sided with the radical mobs taking over our college campuses.” This is similar to how Amit Shah accused Rahul Gandhi and Arvind Kejriwal of being kin to the JNU ‘anti-nationals’; and to Modi’s recent election speeches accusing the Congress party of being run by ‘Urban Naxals’ (a term used in Modi's ecosystem to suggest that intellectuals are proxies for Maoists/far-left terrorists).

A New York Police official, on social media, said, “An unknown entity was ‘radicalising our vulnerable students’ and taking advantage of their young minds.” Here, we may recall Gurmehar Kaur, a Delhi University student and daughter of an army officer martyred in war with Pakistan, who spoke against war-mongering and ABVP violence. Modi’s Minister Kiren Rijiju responded by asking, “Who is polluting this young girl’s mind.” He further answered his own question, “Leftists are polluting her mind.”

Modi’s “toolkit” trope is also a favourite of the US far-right, which sees a foreign-funded conspiracy in the tents used by students in the campus sit-ins. Modi’s agencies, whether against terrorism or economic crime, have made it a common practice to open ‘investigations’ into protestors suggesting that farmers, students, lawyers, journalists, and human rights activists are conduits for funding by terrorists. 

Trump is appreciative of violent far-right terrorism while accusing peaceful protesters of being terrorists. Trump called the police crackdown on the pro-Palestine campus protests “a beautiful thing to watch”; whereas he has said he would “absolutely like” to pardon his far-right supporters who attempted a coup to overturn his electoral defeat. He had notoriously found “fine people” on “both sides” at the Charlottesville fascist rally, an event so violent that a woman in a peaceful counter-protest was killed. Now he is suggesting that the sit-ins demanding a Gaza ceasefire are more violent, racist, and hateful than the Charlottesville Nazis who openly raised slogans against Jewish people and people of colour.

But in both the US and India, the most striking theme binding together the various elements (terrorists, toolkits, tents, and so forth) is the name “Soros”, i.e., as the conspiratorial force behind the protests. 

For most Indians, the political symbolism of blaming Soros for a global conspiracy to fund dangerous ideas and violence is not obvious. You might abhor the German Nazis for their genocide of the Jews, and yet your eyes may not be trained to recognise Nazi anti-semitic propaganda in plain sight. So, here’s some context.

We probably recognise that ‘terrorist’ is the most common Islamophobic dog whistle that's heard loud and clear in the propaganda against solidarity for Palestine. The most common anti-semitic trope, straight from Goebbels’ “toolkit”, is to claim that rich Jews head a secret international conspiratorial cabal that spreads a liberal, elite ideology and puppeteers nations and institutions across the world. To accuse George Soros, a Jew, of exactly this, is anti-Semitism 101. And it is the Trumpists who rehabilitate this and other anti-Semitic propaganda under the cover of branding pro-Palestine protests.

In India, the BJP has repeated such anti-Semitism in posters showing Soros puppeteering Opposition leaders; MEA Jaishankar called Soros “old, rich, opinionated and dangerous” who invests “resources in shaping narratives.” What narratives? The ones supporting people protesting the democratic decline in India, the US, and other countries. 

In a speech given by the Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels in 1935, he said that Communism was a “war by Jewish-led international subhumans against culture itself,” and the destruction of Western civilisation “for the benefit of a rootless and nomadic international clique of conspirators, who have found their representation in the Jewry.” Ironically, after the Second World War, Stalin repeated this propaganda, this time as a dog whistle.

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Today, across the world, each of those Geobbelsian buzzwords can be heard in far-right, anti-democratic discourse, including in India. The attack on Universities by Republican Senator Ted Cruz is a good instance; it could just as easily have been written by a BJP ideologue in India. Cruz says that communists, under the guise of “Cultural Marxism”, adopted a tactic of “slowly infiltrating the institutions that form the foundation of Western society.” 

Elon Musk has, likewise, accused Soros of conspiring “to destroy Western civilisation”, for supporting refugees seeking asylum in Western countries. Netanyahu too accused Soros of funding protests against Israel’s forcible deportation of refugees and asylum-seekers to countries where their lives were in danger.

If Ted Cruz echoes Goebbels, then Ram Madhav echoes Ted Cruz. The day after Modi was elected to his second term in 2019, Madhav said that the mandate was a rejection of “pseudo-secular/liberal cartels that held a disproportionate sway and stranglehold over the intellectual and policy establishment of the country.” Under Modi-II, he said, “the remnants of that cartel need to be discarded from the country’s academic, cultural and intellectual landscape.” Much as Cruz said, “Left-wing activists embarked on a mission to take over government, boardrooms, Hollywood, and academia.” 

If we look at the lines from Cruz’s piece, we can see that they could have been lifted verbatim from the post-2016 propaganda against the JNU PhD students being anti-national at taxpayers’ expense: “As Cultural Marxism took over, many students—unburdened by the need to work or seek life’s basic necessities like food, water, or shelter, and from the comfort of a taxpayer-subsidised dorm room—have become completely dedicated to cooking up grand Marxist schemes.” 

This discourse accusing protests of being “foreign-funded” is common among authoritarian regimes and far-right forces worldwide. Xi Jinping said that “universal values of freedom, democracy, and human rights” were a Western ploy to “cause the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the drastic changes in Eastern Europe, the “colour revolutions,” and the “Arab Springs”.

This chorus of authoritarian propaganda against democratic protests should concern us all. The health of a democracy is best measured, not by the words and actions of its rulers, but by the courage of conscience of its people, especially when displaying such courage comes at the cost of being pilloried as an enemy of the nation. 

When the world’s most powerful states or the “oldest/largest democracies” make a mockery of the very principles they profess – of justice, human rights, rule of law, democracy, freedom of expression and association – protests affirm those principles. They remind the world that those rights and principles are neither the product nor property of states and regimes; they belong to all of humanity and are the birthright of the powerless whether or not they’re recognised and respected by the powerful.

(Kavita Krishnan is a women's rights activist. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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