Good Luck Controlling It.

The demonisation of intellectuals, the glorification of brute force and the weakening of institutional practices are all indications of Indian democracy turning into a dystopia.

ABVP activists at a protest against "anti-national" elements in Delhi on February 24. Credit: Shome Basu

ABVP activists at a protest against “anti-national” elements in Delhi on February 24. Credit: Shome Basu

The recent call by a top Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh functionary to “purge all universities of anti-national elements” is not just another barb in the ongoing controversy over recent events at JNU. It indicates the RSS’s resolve to achieve as much of its agenda as possible through the first-ever majority government formed by its affiliate party, the BJP. The RSS hopes, and not without basis, that even if ousted from power in 2019, its ‘achievements’ will remain intact, given the support it has built amongst the vocal middle class, aided by the political naivety of its opponents.

Since its inception, the RSS has been following a well prepared agenda of replacing the inclusive, democratic and secular idea of India with its own. The call to ‘purge’ and the campaign against JNU are but manifestations of this far-reaching design.

Nationalism is a complex and potent sentiment. It is an elevated and constructed abstraction of community feeling, which is integral to the human mind. It is also used as a psychological and ideological justification for different political orientations. Some space for critical enquiry and even existential interrogation is a must for any nationalism that intends to remain democratic and inclusive. Such nationalism tries to accommodate those who for whatever reason feel wronged or excluded; it tries to assimilate them by giving them a space to vent their frustrations within the framework of law, based on democratic consensus and facilitated by autonomous institutions such as universities. Our national movement was broadly based on this kind of nationalism, as opposed to the one obsessed with fantasies of domination and rooted in the ideas of blood and racial or religious ‘authenticity’.

Hyper-tense nationalism

Any democratic nationalism is both aware of its historical (not ‘eternal’) existence and confident of its potential for inclusion and assimilation. As opposed to such confident nationalism, we have the perpetually hyper-tense nationalism of the RSS variety, which in spite of all the hype generated, is weak at its core and hence cannot but adopt an aggressive, abusive and irrational posture.   It has been justifiably compared with Fascist and other totalitarian ideologies.

Over the last couple of decades, global developments have contributed to a sense of unease even for the traditionally inclusive Indian nationalism. Prominent among these is the spread of jihadism and its horrifying manifestations like Al-Qaeda and ISIS. The deliberate portrayal of a local event at JNU as a threat to the nation is an attempt to exploit these fears for the RSS’s political agenda. The place being JNU (a ‘left-liberal bastion’) and the issue being discontent in Kashmir presented the RSS with an opportunity too tempting to be missed. And, it could, of course depend on the shrill, unethical ‘nationalist’ sections of the media to push under the carpet not only the larger issues of democracy as such, but also immediate ones like the BJP’s new found love for the Peoples Democratic Party – which officially holds a position on Afzal Guru’s hanging that is much sharper than those of most of the JNU ‘anti-nationals’.

The RSS seeks to make fundamental changes in the way an ordinary citizen would see the achievements of, and threats to, the nation. The BJP hopes to reap rich electoral dividends by presenting JNU as a den of  ‘anti-nationals’ and by posing itself as the sole champion of nationalism. The friends of the BJP in the media are only too willing to help and oblige. The airing of doctored videos is only one example. There are several ‘patriotic’ tricks of earning high viewership ratings: provocative and judgmental headlines, deliberately and misleadingly rendering the legal term ‘sedition’ into emotionally loaded terms like ‘anti-national’ and ‘deshdrohi’ (traitor) and the not-too-subtle communal profiling of ‘targeted’ individuals. Such ‘patriotic’ tricks, when coupled with the posters that have been appearing in various cities that contain hate propaganda and that are either anonymous or bear the names of obscure organisations, lead to a situation of unprecedented gravity.

A sinister tapestry 

One is reminded of the meticulously documented and horrifying portrayal of ‘Hitler’s willing executioners’ by Daniel Goldhagen in his 1996 book of the same title. Fortunately for India, at this moment, we are still far from that nightmare. However, given the presence of 24/7 TV contributing to hype and jingoism, are we in the first throes of fascism, as some scholars are arguing? One is also reminded of Hans Fallada’s novel Alone in Berlin, based on the true story of a working class, ‘Aryan,’ ‘patriotic’ couple who lost their only son at the altar of Hitler’s nationalism and were left so alone in their anguished realisation of the deceit that almost all the post-cards written and left at various places by them in order to awaken people to the danger of brutalisation of everyday life actually landed up in the hands of the Gestapo. Imaginable consequences follow.

Let us look at the tapestry of nationalism being woven around JNU events.

First, demonisation of not only ‘JNU types’ but of the intellectual class as a whole is taking place. The social media as well as the so-called mainstream television media is overflowing with condemnation of intellectuals. In other circumstances, this could have been pitiable or even laughable – but here is an organised attempt to turn the word ‘intellectual’ into an abuse to be hurled at anyone who seeks to form an opinion through dialogue and the objective appraisal of facts. The intention is to marginalise the very idea and practice of rational enquiry. This is bound to lead to a situation where the word of the powers that be is seen as divine diktat and submission as nationalist duty. Remember, during the bloody repression in Bangladesh in 1971, intellectuals, teachers, writers, journalists and students were the first target of the Pakistani army.

Then, we have the glorification of brute force coupled with the evergreen rhetoric of hurt sentiments. The lawyers and elected representatives of the people feel free to beat an accused in the court premises. They are confident of teaching journalists a lesson or two, and even hurl abuses at the senior lawyers sent by the Supreme Court to oversee the situation. All this is accepted as ‘natural’ – as hurt national sentiment is involved. It is okay to harass senior academics for hours, it is okay to ‘profile’ a person of a Muslim background, even if he or she is an atheist, it is patriotic for the police to describe a brutal assault as a ‘minor scuffle,’ and it does not matter at all if a couple of young lives are sacrificed to domination fantasies masquerading as nationalist sentiment.

Meanwhile, the ruling party can breathe easy on all its failures, and can do whatever it pleases with natural resources and the lives of Adivasi and Dalit citizens as long as it can be seen teaching the ‘enemies of the nation’ a lesson.

Democracy is not a mere game of numbers. It is a matter of individual and collective temperament, of the autonomy and credibility of institutions, and a sense of participation for the most marginalised. The current campaign of demonisation of intellectuals, mob frenzy, the systematic weakening of institutional practices ranging from universities and the media to the judiciary and police are indications of Indian democracy turning into a dystopia.

Those knowledgable about Hindu mythology – and hopefully this included the political Hindutva types – are surely aware of the story of Bhasmasura. The demon was granted a boon by Shiva to turn anybody he wished into ashes, but he soon turned upon Shiva himself. The myth holds lessons for those who believe that their power and the forces that they have unleashed will remain under their control.

Purushottam Agrawal is a writer, academic and political commentator.