Manini Chatterjee

It is not often that you come across, on the same day and in the same space, two voices from diametrically opposite ends of the ideological spectrum saying much the same thing.

The first was that of Arundhati Roy, the feisty writer who has for over two decades now relentlessly dissected the depredations of the Indian State and the festering fault lines of Indian society.

In an interview that was published on June 4 in The Indian Express, Roy said, “There are two ways of curbing speech. One, as we know, is legally, formally; the other is outsourcing the violence to the mob and creating a climate in which people start censoring themselves.”

On the same day, the newspaper carried a report on an interaction that had taken place between the Bharatiya Janata Party spokesman, Sambit Patra, and the chief minister of Goa, Manohar Parrikar, in Panaji on June 3. In the discussion, Parrikar was asked why the Modi government was not taking action against anti-nationals. He replied, “Let me tell you. This government and Modi’s biggest achievement is the change that has been brought in the way the country thinks.” The “change in people’s mindset,” he said, will “go against [the] anti-nationals,” and added for good measure, “[t]hose who are against the nation. People will stop them.”

Parrikar’s words were an eerie echo of Roy’s dark prognosis. The Modi regime, he confirmed, was indeed outsourcing the violence to the mob. The mob, in their scheme of things, were nationalist citizens who went after ‘anti-nationals’ – a term left deliberately vague to include anyone who said anything against the government, against the concept of Hindutva and its holy cows, literally and figuratively.

Almost in tandem, both Roy and Parrikar drew attention to India’s chilling new reality. Critics of the regime have come out in the open to compare today’s climate with that during Indira Gandhi’s infamous Emergency.

But there is a difference. The Emergency, to be sure, was much more overtly repressive with blanket press censorship and jail terms for Opposition leaders and activists. But at that time, both readers and writers knew that what appeared in the media was government propaganda – not to be taken seriously. And the battle lines were drawn between an authoritarian State and a hapless people, who took their revenge as soon as they got the chance when Indira Gandhi chose to go in for elections even without formally lifting the Emergency.

The situation today is qualitatively different. On the surface, there are no restrictions on the media or the Opposition. But what we are witnessing is, arguably, more insidious and sinister, more damaging in the long run than the formal lapse of democracy in those 21 months of Emergency.

For today, unlike then, both State and non-State actors are carrying out a pincer attack on secular and liberal values, on free speech and free thought, on ways of seeing and living, on a daily basis. While the State can and does use its immense powers to crack down on opponents, it is left to the mob to impose the new code of conduct – in the garb of a righteous hyper nationalism – on fellow citizens who dare to err or refuse to fall in line.

It is a perfect division of labour. So the government can use the Central Bureau of Investigation to get after a seemingly hostile television channel, announce new rules to bring a virtual end to cattle trade and the meat and leather industries, tighten the screws against all kinds of non-governmental organizations by starving them of funds. But the day-to-day intimidation – the nasty abuse, the menacing threats, the shrill diatribes, and the physical violence – is, as Roy says, outsourced to the mob, or what Parrikar and his ideological brethren regard as right-spirited nationalist citizens.

What makes the contemporary situation scary is the metamorphosis of the mob. India is no stranger to violence, and anyone who has witnessed a riot would know how perfectly normal people could turn into bloodthirsty beasts, looting and killing with mindless abandon in the space of a few hours or a few days. But once the madness was over, the situation invariably – to use the stock newspaper phrase, “limped back to normalcy”, and people resumed their old selves and returned to their quotidian concerns.

The Modi government prides itself on the fact that there has been no bloody riot under its watch. But the truth is that the temporary cleavage in society during a riot is fast becoming a permanent fault line in our collective psyche. The hate and violence that used to be episodic eruptions are now part of everyday discourse.

The second aspect of the metamorphosis is that the mob is no longer faceless groups of men who can be sneeringly dismissed as the ‘lumpen’. The vigilantes on the streets may meet that description. Usually affiliated to one or the other front of the amorphous sangh parivar, bands of young men with their saffron bandannas can switch from being ‘ghar wapsi’ crusaders to ‘anti-Romeo’ squads to ‘ gau rakshaks‘ to ‘Rana Pratap warriors’ with practised ease – loyal foot soldiers to whatever cause the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh chooses to highlight for the moment.

But the real strength of the new mob is that it is no longer confined to thugs on the streets who lynch to death a Pehlu Khan or enter the home of a Mohammad Akhlaque to kill him.

The new mob is part of our very own middle class – men and women who are ‘educated’, hold professional jobs, were beneficiaries of the old order and have now become aggressive advocates of the macho “new” India. This middle class aggression can be seen and felt every day on television channels and social media. Recently, for instance, the renowned scholar, Partha Chatterjee, was pilloried for his nuanced article on how the defence of the army chief, Bipin Rawat, of the use of a ‘human shield’ carried echoes of General Dyer’s justification of the firing at Jallianwala Bagh. Without bothering to read the article or respond to it with an equally reasoned critique, TV anchors were baying for his blood and social media warriors declaring him a paid agent of Pakistan.

Since Chatterjee does not live in a BJP-ruled state and is not beholden to the State even tangentially, he escaped more stringent ‘punishment’. But others, less brave or less free, will not dare to express a contrary opinion, for that would mean summary dismissal or worse.

That’s what happened to Keyur Joshi, the co-founder and strategic adviser of the travel portal, Make My Trip. On May 31, Joshi posted two tweets that said, “I am a strong supporter of Narendra Modi and a vegetarian for life. But I will now eat beef only in India to support freedom for food,” and “If Hinduism takes away right to choice of food, I rather not be a Hindu…”

The backlash was swift. A social media campaign was launched to uninstall the app and downgrade the travel site and it was so effective that Joshi had to issue an abject apology and delete his tweets as well as his Twitter account. This was not the first time that the social media had effectively flexed their muscle. Snapdeal was forced to drop Aamir Khan as its brand ambassador after he fell foul of the ‘nationalists’ for his comments on growing intolerance.

These public instances apart, the mentality of the mob is now omnipresent. We can see it in family WhatsApp groups, in Facebook shares – a fond uncle expressing a bigoted view about Kashmiris you never expected him to harbour, an old schoolmate sharing ‘jokes’ that are laced with prejudice. And the worst part of the coarsening discourse is that everyone – no matter which side of the fence they stand – is becoming that much more bitter and shrill.

The mob is no longer at the gate. It has entered our homes, it has invaded our minds, it has expanded its grip over family and friends, it threatens to engulf both you and me…