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A Decade of Despair

Archbp Thomas Menamparampil Archbp Thomas Menamparampil
04 Sep 2023
Hindutva nationalists want a homogeneous India. But “in fact, no single idea can possibly hope to capture the many energies, angers, and hopes of one billion Indians”

Niall Ferguson wrote in his book Civilization, “We are living through the end of 500 years of Western ascendency”. Similarly, many in India are feeling convinced today that we are living through the last days of a totalitarian regime. Seventy organizations came together under the name We20 to tell the nation’s leaders, “Let us put people on the map” not merely religious fanatics and grabbing crorepatis. In a major event in Delhi they declared, “An equal world is a political choice”. Meantime, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was telling G20 at Johannesburg how to strengthen the various dimensions of an unequal world.
 
The We20 People’s Summit condemned the recent erosion of democratic institutions and spaces in India, the attack on constitutional values, on civil society groups and human rights defenders and academic bodies, the use of digital surveillance and data privacy, criminalisation of dissent, suppression of people’s voices, and Right-wing engineered communal tension. Suppression of freedom does not go well with “the-idea-of-India”. We are long used to expressing our differences in opinion. Every voice invited respect.
 
We are told that in our neighbouring country Myanmar too, people are growing weary of military rigidities. The army is manifesting low morale with increasing number of desertions and defections. Likewise, in India, our Ruling Regime seems to be counting its last days with a desperate bid to strengthen cases against Hemant Soren, Lalu Prasad, and Rahul Gandhi. It is struggling with internal tensions, external criticisms, and negative global evaluations.

‘Homogeneous India’

Hindutva nationalists want a homogeneous India. But “in fact, no single idea can possibly hope to capture the many energies, angers, and hopes of one billion Indians”. No narrow idea can limit it, said Sunil Khilnani in his greatly hailed book “The Idea of India” (Penguin Books, New Delhi, 1999, pg. xv).  Twenty-four years have passed since the book was written. Certainly, much water has flowed down the Ganga. But Cauvery refuses to flow into Ganga. Brahmaputra seeks to preserve its proud identity. So does the waters of Loktak lake in Manipur, though much stained with blood during the last four months. 

Khilnani strongly believes that interaction among various cultures has benefitted India. It has stimulated individual creativity and stirred collective imagination. There has been continuous accommodation to each other. Rupture has not weakened continuity, diversity has not led to division. Diversity has only strengthened democracy, as factions tend to check power and moderate ideological exaggerations (Khilnani xvi). If we have failed in this respect during the last decade specially, millions are crying for an early reparation. If Khilnani notices many “angers” in India society, he places trust in its many energies and “hopes” as well! Our hope is in our togetherness.

‘Tyranny of Religious Majority’

But what threatens our future and our collective existence is the “tyranny of the religious majority” that hangs our horizon…Hindu nationalism taken to extreme (Khilnani 10). He frankly confesses, “The Brahminic order in India was certainly an oppressive system”, with degrading rules of pollution. Its eagerness was to keep the monopoly of knowledge and power within elite control. Centuries ago, it was fully conscious that ‘knowledge is power’. It insisted on “severely selective distribution of literacy”. 

Education was strictly banned to the lower classes. That was the core message of the brahminic elite to each other.  Highly tolerant of religious belief, there was no tolerance with regard to the rules of social structure… “social relationships” which regulated every aspect of social life. It imposed caste rules without any sensitivity, created a “self-coercing, self-disciplining society (Khilnani 19).

This fragmented society became one easy to conquer and to rule, but difficult to change. Over centuries, political authorities and structures changed, not the social order. Hindu monarchs merely collected “rent” from local societies, left the social order untouched (Khilnani 20). Sudra (lower caste) upstart rulers or mleccha (Muslims, British) conquerors accommodated to India’s stifling social order and rigid relationships. In response, Brahmins cooperated with the conquerors winning the support of the subjects, Banias served those exploiters as revenue officers and oppressive tax agents. The present Hindutva order is return to this old pattern…Hindurashtra incarnate. 

Where, then, did this hunger for democracy and free expression in the modern Indian come from? For, “The democratic idea has penetrated the Indian political imagination” says Khilnani. What inspires this resistance to a paternalistic state? (Khilnani 17). He has the answer: “For all its magnificent antiquity and historical depth, contemporary India is unequivocally a creation of the modern world”. 

Its present form of unity has been shaped by India’s educated urban elite (Khilnani 5). For Gandhiji, India’s united identity was derived from her culture which in turn drew from religion. For Nehru its origin was from shared history and cultural mixing. “Before nineteenth century, no residents of the subcontinent would have identified themselves as Indian”! (Khilnani 154). I would be very reluctant to say these words, but Khilnani seems to have no hesitation.

Caste system

He is very sure that it was “alien conquest and colonial subjection” that made India. In 1899 British Act of Parliament created “India” (Khilnani 155). Of course, he admits that there were pilgrimage centres at the four corners of India and Bhakti cults; there were titles like Aryavarta or Bharatavarsha; epics like Ramayana visualized a united subcontinent, tolerant political authorities (Khilnani 156). 

At the religious level they were tolerant, but with regard to the social order (caste system) religious authorities were totally intolerant. Many orientalists idealized India, glorified its thought, traditions and achievements (Khilnani 158). Indians were flattered. Evangelicals were critical of India’s superstitions and obscurantist beliefs. The same Indians were annoyed. These attitudes continue to remain:  easily flattered by international appreciation, highly sensitive about a wee bit of criticism. 

Birth of a Self-critical Idiom

When visitors casually refer to India’s poor system of waste disposal, there is no point in taking offense. Even Benares with its dead bodies and flies remains an embarrassment than pride to neutral observers (Khilnani 118-120). There is no point in roaring like Sadhvi Rithambara “Hindu loss, dispossession, insult, injury and humiliation”…self-created humiliation. Accept reality. Correct yourself. Unintently, even the movements of Ram Manohar Lohia and Jayaprakash Narayan against the English-speaking elite and their snobbishness prepared the ground for the Hindutva wave (Khilnani 187-188). Then comes Modi with his song of a 1000 years of servitude, which he keeps repeating from country to country. 

“Nehru, like Gandhi, turned around the language of victimhood,” making India a self-confident actor in international politics (Khilnani 178).  It is in this context, genuinely religious people find it difficult to join enthusiastically a religious movement launched by a non-believer like Savarkar, a Chitpavan Brahmin, and an admirer of Italian radical revolutionary, Mazzini (Khilnani 160). 

For Gandhi, strength belonged to the victims of history (Khilnani 164). If colonialism was a humiliation, it also carried the aroma of modernity, which provided a “self-critical idiom” of the past failures (Khilnani 171). 

Indian intellectuals in foreign universities were the first to press for liberalization in the 1990s (Khilnani 96). Today, unfortunately, under Modi’s inspiration, a big section of them have become advocates of Hindutva obscurantism. Hindurashtra-builders know how to turn any inter-community tension into a fight for a Hindutva cause, in Mumbai as in Manipur.  

Marathas whose resentment was against South Indians and later Biharis, who competed for jobs with them, were made to turn their anger against Muslims from the 1980’s. In 1984 they formally joined with BJP. Riots became a regular feature with the connivance of the government (Khilnani 141-43). This is exactly what has happened in Manipur. Meitei radicals who were disputing about land, jobs, and rights were driven against Christian Kukis and even against Christians among their own people. Reportedly, 300-500 churches were destroyed in 36 hours.

Doors to Liberalization

With economic liberalization, entrepreneurs strengthened their hold on Mumbai and IT experts crowded into Bangalore. Tech companies began investing there in a big way. Chennai and Hyderabad caught up in a short time. Fast enough, a new Indian middle and upper class emerged with technical skills and links with international entrepreneurs (Khilnani 147). 

A new race of people arose in India whose outward gaze deepened. People speak of secessionist movement in Punjab or Northeast. Khilnani refers to another type of “secessionists” who wish to make a bit money in India first, to take flight at the earliest (Khilnani 148). Akhilesh Yadav says, BJP’s policy has driven 6,500 millionaires out of India. Such upstarts are a drain on the national economy. Gujaratis head the list. That is the national loyalty that BJP has fostered among the rising generation. There are 4 million Indian-Americans. Numbers are increasing in UK and EU.

Inequality Accentuates

But life in India has not changed much. Luxury and destitution that Khilnani noticed side by side continue. Mumbai combines parochialism with cosmopolitanism; inequality is well distributed in various cities (Khilnani 10-11), today severely accentuated. Modi claims that the average income of Indians rose three times during his tenure of office, from 3 lakhs to 9 lakhs in 9 years. Possibly, when Ambani-Adanis enriched themselves with a 1000-fold, the average man may have improved his position by 0.02%. With inflation what does it amount to? The poor man suffers from the soaring oil prices by paying high for his necessities. 

How do Gujaratis fare in Modiji’s own home state? Jairam Ramesh quotes Niti Aayog report: Over 38% in Gujarat are under-nourished, half rural population is without nutrition, Gujarat occupies the 4th worst position for stunted children, 2nd worst for wasted underweight children. No wonder, those who can afford, take flight westwards risking their very lives. For them Gujarat is a “stopping place”, as Khilnani referred to Bangalore (Khilnani 149). 

Khilnani notices there was a strong demand for autonomy and separation from the 1980s in regions like Punjab and Kashmir (Khilnani 182). This resistance to forced over-centralization led to more vocal demand for regionalisms and localisms. Exaggeration invites exaggeration (Khilnani 184). With Modi-Amit Shah’s centralisation efforts, regionalism is going to awaken again, not only in Punjab and Kashmir, but several places along the peripheries that dread the “tyranny” of the religious and cultural majority (Khilnani 10). 

The world takes note of trends in India. Recently, Ro Khanna, 46, an Indian American Congress man, who intends to stand for Presidential elections was on a visit to India. He was eager to meet people from Manipur and Haryana. He spoke out against Hindutva. So, not all NRIs are supporters of Modi’s Hindutva.  Certainly, not Kamala Harris, who is a defender of Human Rights. Eric Gorcetti, the new Ambassador of the US to India, has been vocal on Human Rights. But all are quiet when business deals are in negotiation. Let what is needed for the respective economies be done, then we will talk about more pious things like justice!

Moody’s has noted that “political risks associated with investing in India is growing”. Electoral dominance of the BJP is not everything. There is global unease about Indian politics. People look back to the coalitions of 1990-2014,  how diverse thinking contributed to togetherness, harmony and prosperity. 

“No” to What is Wrong 

Lalu Prasad suggests the cry “Modi Hatao, Desh Bachao” for the 2024 elections. Politically neutral persons will readily accept at least the second part. Desh ko bachane hoga. The first part is for the people to decide. In any case, this decade of despair must come to an end. When RSS students went round Jadavpur University combining “Jai Shree Ram” with “goli maro” slogans, we know what is the type of religion that is being taught in training centres run by a movement (RSS) that calls itself merely ‘cultural”. We know what message is being passed on to the rising generation. From this form of education, Desh Bachao.

When Suvendu Adhikari suggests that “Encounter Killings” should be introduced into West Bengal, we understand that such methods of governance are not the fanaticism of a rare BJP Chief Minister, but approved strategy of Hindutva High Command. Be sure, it will be applied only against the Muslims, lower classes, and tribal protesters! Selective targeting of minorities wins approval at the highest level, whether it be in Manipur or Delhi. The other day there was an attack on a Christian place of worship in the national capital. From such a culture of hate, Desh Bachao!

When Chandrayaan-3’s achievement won world attention, we did not sufficiently remember those who fostered a “scientific temper” in society and launched scientific initiatives during the first decades after independence. All glory was grabbed by the ruling party and its leader who are merely reaping the fruits of others’ labour, who today are teaching obscurantist tales and proposing inter-species head-transplant! Creative research is discouraged. Intelligence Bureau is closely following up Sabyasachi Das of Ashoka University who reportedly was working on a thesis, “Democratic Backsliding in the World’s Greatest Democracy”. From such negative attitudes to objective search for truth, Desh Bachao. 

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