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Indian Nationalism in a New Guise

A united India was envisaged at the time of Independence in 1947—an inclusive and pluralistic country that would respect all the religious denominations. These past years, however, have seen this vision transform into an intolerant nationalistic stance where being an enemy of the nation overrides all other positions. Salil Tripathi describes how the fight for the freedom of speech in India is becoming ever more imperative.

Credits Text: Salil Tripathi September 17 2016
Hundreds of people, including children, are filling hospitals in Kashmir. Many of them have been blinded after Indian security forces shot pellets at them to disperse the crowds that were protesting after the security forces had killed a young militant leader earlier this July. Some of those demonstrators may have hurled stones at the security forces and some may have simply been caught in the chaos, but the pellets cannot distinguish between them.
When photographs of the maimed faces of these young people were revealed to the media, the most astonishing feature was not the cruelty—India has seen worse—but the callous response from many people on social media. The kinder respondents among the critics said that those victims should have known better than to have gone to a crowded place at a sensitive time. The unkind ones said they had it coming since anyone who was on the streets challenging the government was questioning the notion of the Indian state itself, whether it has any legitimacy in Kashmir where Indian nationalism is being questioned.
This is a new manifestation of Indian nationalism. It is more virulent, more jingoistic, more chest-thumping, less tolerant of dissenting views, less inclusive, and further apart from what the political scientist Sunil Khilnani described as “the idea of India” at the time of India’s Independence in 1947, when the British rule ended, and two nations—India and Pakistan—were born. (Bangladesh was separated from Pakistan much later, in 1971).
That ‘idea’ of India was a syncretic and inclusive one and was drawn from Mohandas Gandhi’s belief in non-violence and self-rule, from Jawaharlal Nehru’s internationalism and sense of modernity guided by a deep understanding of India’s ethos, and from Rabindranath Tagore’s idealistic notion of nationalism, which defied the idea of political boundaries and sought instead to form its identity through culture, art, and poetry.
The ‘idea’ of Pakistan was different: it may have been part of the same geographic land mass and shared civilizational continuities, but its sense of nationhood was based on the notion that the Muslims of the Indian subcontinent would not be able to survive in a Hindu-dominated India.
In choosing to respect all faiths but to prioritize none, Indian nationalism at Independence chose secularism. But step-by-step, in the past quarter century, that idea has been under attack. Successive Indian governments have understood secularism to mean the appeasement of minorities, for example, by pandering to the dominant elite in each faith and by not empowering the vulnerable groups. This was most notable in the case of the Muslims. In 1987, for example, India changed some laws in order to overturn a court judgment that gave divorced Muslim women the right to alimony since Muslim leaders said that a more progressive judgment interfered with religious laws.
Moreover, in 1988 India became the first country in the world to ban the import of Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses (the Ayatollah’s fatwa would follow a few months later) because Muslim leaders had been protesting against the novel. These instances, combined with perceived wrongs over the centuries, have created a narrative among Hindu nationalists claiming that the Hindus in the Indian state are second-class citizens. This is far from true; by all indices—social, economic, and educational—the Hindus do much better than the Muslims. But when have facts been allowed to get in the way of a good narrative?
And so, often borrowing the language of rights and equality, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a right-wing Hindu nationalist party, started campaigns that privileged the Hindus and undermined the Muslims. Its leaders oversaw the destruction of a 16th century mosque in Ayodhya in 1992, leading to riots in which hundreds died. In 1984 the BJP had won only two seats in the Indian Parliament; in 1989 it had eighty-eight seats; and by 1998 it led a coalition that ruled India for six years. Voted out in 2004 it nevertheless won a thumping majority on its own in 2014, being the first party to do so since 1984.
The elected Prime Minister Narendra Modi had been the chief minister of the prosperous Indian state of Gujarat for a little more than a decade and during his rule in 2002 riots broke out and at least nine hundred people died by an official count—a vast majority of them were Muslim.
The following are examples of the Modi administration’s early acts once it had come to power: removing the heads of academic institutions whose views clashed with the government’s; doing nothing when its leaders made incendiary speeches against Muslims; strengthening laws against cow slaughter which discriminated against religious minorities; and letting loose its supporters who shouted down critics of the government. Moreover, anchors on private television broadcasts harassed critics of the government questioning their patriotism; soldiers who died in action were routinely referred to as “bravehearts” and calling them anything less became almost an act of treason.
In the last two years, along the same vein, three writers who have written against Hindu nationalism or superstition have been murdered. They include MM Kalburgi, a distinguished Kannada writer, Narendra Dabholkar, a Marathi rationalist, and Govind Pansare, a Communist activist writer. Investigations into these murders have been lackadaisical, and when more than forty writers and artists across India returned awards given to them by state academies, thereby protesting the academies’ silence concerning these murders, nationalistic politicians and their supporters humiliated the writers who were returning the awards and ridiculed them, questioning their patriotism and even arguing that they had never deserved those awards in the first place.
When Aamir Khan, a prominent Bollywood actor who happens to be Muslim, mentioned that his wife had wondered whether they were safe in India or not, there had been a strange outcry against him suggesting that she had no reason to fear living in India, and he, in turn, had no business articulating her concerns at a public forum. When the acclaimed economist Raghuram Rajan, the outgoing governor of the Reserve Bank of India (India’s central bank), said that economic progress is conditional and depends on tolerance and an open spirit of inquiry, BJP supporters told him to mind his own business.
The late Umberto Eco, in an essay in the New York Review of Books (1995), describes in detail the characteristics of ‘eternal fascism’ (or Ur-Fascism): the creation of a cult of tradition; a rejection of modernism; embracing a cult of action for its own sake and a distrust of intellectuals (even referring to them as degenerates or effete snobs); attacks on those who disagree, particularly the elite; and therefore attacks on diversity and consensus; playing up the frustrations of the middle class; giving a clear identity to those who feel deprived; describing the enemy both as too strong (and hence to be fought) and too weak (and hence to be ridiculed); calling for long-term battle with the enemies of the state; celebrating martyrs; opposing anything that undermines machismo (including homosexuality); and making selective use of populism.
To be sure, India has its press, parliament, and judiciary system; it has a thriving civil society; and it has tens of thousands of public-spirited citizens fighting the good fight. However, the institutions are being systematically weakened.
Khilnani’s conceptualization of the idea of India was based on that spirit of openness. His book is in fact a long lucid essay focusing on the conflicts between tradition and modernity, faith and secularism, religious orthodoxy and the development of a scientific temper, and between an inclusive society that respects plurality and a society that prefers a majoritarian monotheistic worldview.
In the two years since Modi’s victory the debate over the idea of India, the spirit of openness, tolerance of dissent, and, indeed, free expression, has become more urgent. The government has not banned books and films—it is too clever to do so itself—but universities are getting textbooks rewritten, museums are holding exhibitions about a different set of heroes, in some cities road names are being changed, in the case of government institutions advisory boards are being reconstituted, the central board of film certification bans a film that criticizes drug abuse in Punjab, and Perumal Murugan, a renowned Tamil writer, commits “literary suicide” by saying he would not write anymore and withdraws all his works, because his highly-praised novel has upset upper caste Hindus. (This July the Madras high court ruled in his favour, saying the state had a duty to protect his rights, and it is hoped that he will start writing again).
Early this year, left-wing students from the prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi were arrested and after some demonstrators had raised slogans seeking Kashmir’s independence at a public protest meeting on the university campus, politicians spoke of charging them with sedition. A student leader called Kanhaiya Kumar was arrested and lawyers associated with the BJP beat him up even as he was in police custody; after his release he has received death threats.
‘Anti-national’ has become the handle to snuff out all criticism. A reporter called Malini Subramaniam on the website was forced to leave Chhattisgarh because the police disliked her reporting from Bastar in central India where local communities oppose mining projects. Other journalists have been charged for posting “inflammatory” messages on social media. The Editors Guild of India sent an investigative team that has noted the aura of surveillance and fear under which journalists function in the state of Chhattisgarh. The more often reporters pack up and leave the less likelihood there is of anyone being informed that an activist fighting for tribal rights has been attacked, a doctor arrested, or that lawyers offering legal aid to the communities have had to pack up and leave.
The BJP’s long-term objective is to transform India into a nation more tuned in to the Hindu ethos as they define it. There are problems with such a project; Hinduism is not monotheistic, nor is it a faith where only one view or one interpretation prevails. Scholars of Hinduism have argued that Hinduism does not offer a singular way, and indeed, its philosophy is eclectic enough to even have room for atheism. Former Prime Minister Morarji Desai (1977-79) once told me in an interview that the fundamental conceit of the movement that led to the destruction of the mosque in Ayodhya in 1992 was its aim to convert a multi-everything religion into one pursuing a single path with one god (Rama), one sacred book (Ramayana), and one holy place (Ayodhya). Hindu nationalism wants to impose a specific singular view on a diverse country.
Nehru was concerned about this specific kind of nationalism and the country’s retreat into narrower identities. While he was not perfect—no leader is—he envisioned an India that had a place for everyone and where mutual tolerance would guide social relationships. As with all ideals, reality fell short. But it was far from being the only ideal that Indians believed in; other ideals and dreams competed for attention. However, an inclusive pluralistic tolerant India was “the dream we had all agreed to dream” as Rushdie put it in his 1981 novel Midnight’s Children.
BJP’s major accomplishment in the past two years has been to undermine such a pluralistic view by imposing a hard-edged nationalism that is more virile, militaristic, nationalistic, and intolerant of dissenting or opposing views. Patriotism, Samuel Johnson warned, was the last refuge of the scoundrel. In India it is fast becoming the first port of call. Its strategy rests on its ability to let its foot soldiers do the unpleasant job so that a culture of compliant complicity prevails. It is in its early days yet and the BJP’s eyes are not fixed on the next election but on the next generation.
At its best the Indian ethos has always been synthetic—absorbing mutually contradictory positions to create unity in diversity. How India will emerge out of the current churning of an ascendant Hindu nationalism determined to weaken the country’s pluralistic ethos is the profound challenge India faces.
Unthinking nationalism is immature and perilous. It is immature because it is bereft of any reflection; it is perilous because it can lead to a further erosion of liberties. And the easiest way tyranny can creep in is by scaring a population into believing that the nation’s stability is at stake. Rabindranath Tagore warned against “the fierce idolatry of nation-worship.” What he wrote about Japan in Nationalism applies just as easily to India today, where a people’s voluntary submission to “the trimming of their minds and clipping of their freedom by their government” leads them along a narrow path towards a uniform mass, where the people “accept this all-pervading mental slavery with cheerfulness and pride because of their nervous desire to turn themselves into a machine of power.”
Instead, Tagore wanted his country to awaken in the heaven of freedom “where the mind is without fear and the head is held high (and) where knowledge is free.”

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