In 2019, it was not just people versus government, but one definition of people jostling against another.
Written by Pratap Bhanu Mehta | Updated: January 1, 2020
The CAA protests are a moment of anger where citizens refuse to take the government at its word; they are willing to tell the highest functionaries in the land that mere repetition of a lie, backed by power, does not make something a truth. (Express Photo by Jaipal Singh)
In a brilliant and moving essay on Lessing, Hannah Arendt described three political emotions in terms of what she called “awareness of reality.” Political emotion is not always about passion or excitement; it is rather an approach to reality. Arendt wrote, “In hope the soul overleaps reality, as in fear it shrinks back from it.” But more surprisingly she wrote, “anger reveals and exposes the world”.
What does the trinity of hope, fear and anger look like at the end of the year in which the government, in all but name, instigated civil war on its own citizens? Our laws have many debatable provisions. But for the first time, religion-based discrimination in citizenship is enshrined in law. The standing of protesting citizens is denied. All protestors are “Islamists” or “urban Naxals” who deserve only one fate: To be rooted out. In Uttar Pradesh, the government has used the pretext of violent protest to unleash a chain of retribution, collective punishment, lawlessness and intimidation, whose end point is too disturbing to even contemplate. The whole arsenal of surveillance, detention, shutdowns, disinformation, and threats is becoming the norm elsewhere. Public discourse is now suffused with communalism, or risks being hijacked by it at every turn. We are, literally and figuratively, gasping for air.
This is a different world from a decade ago. A decade ago, we were hopeful. The financial crisis was just beginning to unfold, and the two biggest worries India seemed to have were plutocracy and policy paralysis. But these seemed fixable problems — temporary dips that the self-correcting mechanisms of democracy could cure. India was fated to experience unprecedented economic growth, the exuberance of a new economy at least threw cold water over communalism, and Indian democracy would retain a modicum of civility. There was anger, but it was an anger born of hope and high expectations. India was doing decently by historical standards. But the anger was that it was not doing better. We overleapt reality in expectations of what we could achieve; and perhaps underplayed the dire possibility that we could be doing much worse. We were so hopeful we took a leap into what we thought was a new reality. It, in fact, turned out to be darkness.
The BJP came to power in what, to those who voted for it, looked like a crescendo of hope. The old regime had crumbled in its refusal to fight. It listened but did not act on criticisms that could have saved it. It would be foolish to deny that the BJP had a democratic imprimatur behind it. What makes this a fraught moment that has the mental feel of a civil conflict is that the contest is not just people versus government, but one definition of the people jostling against another.
But the hope the BJP carried already had deep portents of fear. There was a shrinking back from reality in more ways than one could list. It was manifest in the will to simplification this government represented: As if all of India’s policy problems could be solved by deferring to a leader. The fear was manifest in the refusal to come to terms with the truth that the Indian economy was in dire straits. But the shrinking from reality was most manifest in the denial of India’s plenitude and diversity. India’s identity needed to be simplified, made to march to one pied piper.
Not only did minorities need to be shown their place, any trace of authentic spirituality in Hinduism was emptied out into a collective narcissism. Instead of the Self embracing the plenitude of the world, the world was cut to size to fit the small Ego of an insecure nationalism. Arendt was right that in fear we shrink back from the world. But fear does not only shrink back from the world, it literally tries to shrink it. India has shrunk in the last decade. Ten years ago our anger was, why aren’t we doing much better? Now the anger is: How much lower can we go?
The current moment of anger, promoted by the CAA, is that moment of revealing that Arendt talks about. It is not a moment of anger that is born of the illusory hopes of a decade ago, or the denials of the last five years. It is the anger that seeks to expose the world that we are constructing for what it is. It is, at last, an attempt to reclaim reality in three ways. First to reclaim a basic moral reality, that there is a baseline of values, enshrined in non-discrimination, that we refuse to surrender. Second, there is a reclaiming of the world itself. It is a mark of fearful regimes that they want to make our hold over reality more tenuous. They don’t want to argue about the truth, they want to make the idea of truth irrelevant, so that the world becomes just a theatre of combat.
This is the moment of anger where citizens refuse to take the government at its word; they are willing to tell the highest functionaries in the land that mere repetition of a lie, backed by power, does not make something a truth. And finally, this is a moment of reclaiming a semblance of political agency. One way in which a regime takes us from reality is by invoking necessity. “There is no alternative” can, in some circumstances be the ultimate lie. For it is a way of saying that citizens are our prisoners, they don’t have a choice. They always do. They are beginning to exercise it again.
But this anger is still a long way from reversing the shrinking of India. What constellation of political forces will be up to reversing a tide of communalisation, authoritarianism, economic stagnation, environmental depredation, institutional decay with which we end the decade? To remind us of the enormity of this challenge is not a counsel of despair. It is not to induce fear of another kind where we throw up hands in the face of reality. It is, rather, to say this. In the last decade we gave in to both unfounded hope, and then unbounded fear. Will this be the decade where we finally come to terms with our reality, we find the will not to be deceived? And in that refusal of deception, will we find new beginnings — a new way of relating to each other that does not diminish any one of us? Happy New Year.