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Mainstream, VOL LIII No 44 New Delhi October 24, 2015

Will India Survive?: Reasons to believe she may

Saturday 24 October 2015, by Badri Raina

In the past week or so, one writer after another, who has been a recipient of a state award, has been returning that award to the state in protest against the targeted mafia-style killing of a renowned dissident scholar/writer, M.M. Kalburgi, also an awardee of the Sahitya Academy. That assassination, it will be recalled, was to come after similar killings of two other prominent rationalist thinkers, Dabholkar and Pansare, all of that rather menacingly like the series of murders of free-thinking bloggers in Bangladesh. The current protest action by droves of writers associated with the Sahitya Academy is thus explicitly against a milieu of a murderous intolerance of difference and dissent, and of the failure of the apex institution of writers, the Academy, to register its condemnation in any formal or public manner. Although only a few of the protesting writers have said this upfront, the greater anguish concerns what seems the benign silence of the state at the goings-on.

Those who speak for the ruling Hindutva ideology debates, have been finding recourse to a wholly specioius argument, namely, that if no intellectuals protested against the imposition of the Emergency in June of 1975, why should the present breed do so now when no Emergency has been imposed? Plausible as this reposte may seem, the analogy sought to be drawn is wholly inapposite. But if we may preface a scrutiny of that analogy by a counter-argument: why was the economy opened up in 1991 when it hadn’t been done before, or the Babri mosque demolished in 1992 and not before, or a single party majority returned to the Lok Sabha in 2014 when if hadn’t happened in many previous elections? Indeed, why have lakhs of farmers been committing suicide in recent decades when they never did so before? You will agree that these posers are quite as stupid and silly as asking why writers are protesting now when they may not have done so before. Why did Indain Independence come in 1947 and not in 1931?

 The declaration of the Internal Emergency by the then government, apart from being constitutionally valid—since a provision for such imposition did exist in the Constitution of India, thankfully amended since then to render such imposition null in future, whereas there is no provision in the Constitution that those who do not see eye to eye with ruling ideas be subjected to vigilante liquidation—was not the result of any creeping invasion of the right to hold an opinion, or of India’s pluralist polity and/or of diverse cultural practices. That ill-conceived recourse to authoritarian governance was a frightened response first to a court verdict, then to gathering social unrest, and, in the last analysis, to a call that went out to India’s state apparatus not to obey official orders. None of which ought to have justified the suspensioin of civil liberties, negation of the freedom of expression and association, and the incarceration of those who stood for those values in the face of coercive diktat, whether Left or Right-of-Centre. Indeed, the best course might have been to return to the people for a fresh verdict on the contentions. The fact that such a call for a fresh electoral verdict did come in less than some two years of totalitarian rule may have been too little too late. The point to note, however, is that the snuffing out of democracy was not the expression of a long-held ideological predilection aimed to obtaining on a permanent basis a monochro-matic transformaltion in the charater of the Indian state and of the software of educa-tional, cultural, and administrative mechanisms charged with furnishing a communally majori-tarian political and cultural order. Nor is it true that nobody was seen or known to protest at the time. The hundreds of teachers, journalists, other public intellectuals who were sent off to jail repudiates that canard. And, as stated above, they were drawn from all sides of the political/ideological spectrum. Instructively, none of them were killed off in mysterious ways.

What has been happening over the last year-and-a-quarter, as Nayantara Sehgal has rightly underlined, falls into a distinctly recognisable political paradigm—one that recalls in multiple ways events in Europe between the Beer Hall Putsch and the rise of the Third Reich, and during the era of Stalinist purges. It comprises making the state the all-powerful tool of an ideology that seeks total and unquestioning allegiance to itself in the smallest of matters and on a daily basis, that emboldens non-state accessories to enforce that allegiance through threat, menace, and, if necessary, the liquidation of the recalcitrant individuals in ominously secretive ways, so that fear becomes the key to social domination. And the slogan of “nationa-lism” under which it operates is propa-gated to require the abject surrender of the cultural and religious “other” to majoritarian fancy, failing which their loyalty to the nation must be in doubt. This vision necessitates the dimunition of the pluralist streams of hisjtorical formation to a single discourse, and the deployment of any and all forms of propaganda to ram home the authenticity of that monochromatic discourse, however the facts of history may repudiate that narrative. It requires not the advancement of thinking abilities among the young of the land but their closure into a venomous “purity” that is simply handed down through discipline, chant, and the mythic construction of potent falsehoods. And it requires a militarisation of the psyche of the majority community that is taught to reduce all comple-xities of analysis and argument to a binary contention between the true lovers of “Mother India” and those others who needlessly compli-cate that required devotion with all sorts of critical appraisals of a self-evidently glorious past. This fearsome vision of state and polity, loudly declaimed through the majoritarian system of public rituals, seeks a grand alliance between religious display and market fecundity, where the icons and observances of non-majoritarian faiths are expected to sort of slink shamefacedly into the nooks and cranies at the sufferance of the true owners of the land. And, to be taught Dadri-like lessons if even a whiff of rumour should hold them in non-compliance. Or if they should muster the gumption to seem any equivalence between their cultural/religious prerogatives and those of the authentically nationalist majority.

This is not what either the Emergency was about. And those who are returning their state awards are wise to the difference. That fact—their cognisance of the difference and their bold and honourable defiance—the gathering impatience of the Corporate overlords of the present government, and the fear that India’s “image” abroad may come to be dented by the goings-on, give hope that India is standing up for its hard-earned modern history. So, only fingers crossed for now, because unless these recognitions are assiduously made part of the awareness of the hoi polloi, no decisive repu-diation of the current onslaught may happen. Which is why, at the risk of sounding like that proverbial broken record, the results to the currently underway Assembly elections in Bihar will furnish some lessons.

But a wide spectrum of India’s public activists and intellectuals now do understand that something unprecedented is on the agenda, something that involves a radical transmogri-fication of India’s constitutional structures and the nature and content of Indian citizenship rights.

The author, who taught English literature at the University of Delhi for over four decades and is now retired, is a prominent writer and poet. A well-known commentator on politics, culture and society, he wrote the much acclaimed Dickens and the Dialectic of Growth. His latest book, The Underside of Things—India and the World: A Citizen’s Miscellany, 2006-2011, came out in August 2012.

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