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Nation’s Existential Crisis

Mathew John Mathew John
04 Sep 2023
My generation of midnight’s children grew up at a time when we willed ourselves to celebrate our common nationhood. “Unity in diversity”

This is no place for the minorities. I fear for the future of a country that has declared war against a section of its people. I fear the dissolution of the Republic as our founding fathers had conceived it. 

When I shared my misgivings with a dear friend, his glib response was that if the BJP loses the 2024 General Election, the cowardly saffron hordes will fade away into the woodwork and our bustling, chaotic democracy will once again reassert itself. The mistake he makes is in presuming that the colossal damage done to institutions and the social fabric in the last few years stem purely from politics and will be mended once the authoritarian ruler and his minions are booted out, bag and baggage, the way the dictator and her hoodlums were, after the Emergency.

What my simple-minded buddy has ignored is that in the last nine years there has been a frontal assault on our culture, of which politics is only one component. This regime – gravedigger of culture, no less -- has consciously divided us on religious lines and attacked lifestyles, traditions, art, learning, our collective memory, even how we love one another. It has devastated the very idea of a multicultural ethos based on liberal humanism that our founding fathers had conceived, and which was hitherto a stop-start work in progress. The damage inflicted seems irreparable. But I am getting ahead of the story.

My generation of midnight’s children grew up at a time when we willed ourselves to celebrate our common nationhood. “Unity in diversity” was the hopeful shibboleth by which we defined our priceless heritage of religions, languages, ethnicities. “Amar, Akbar, Antony” were catchwords that represented our collective aspiration for brotherhood by setting aside our differences. Our founding fathers spun the enchanting myth that we are a tolerant, non-violent people, in the hope that, although blood-soaked at the nation’s birth, we would endeavour to live up to the Nehruvian idea of a modern, inclusive democracy of religious tolerance and cultural pluralism. That ideal lies in tatters today. 

Our road to freedom was besmirched by unspeakable inhumanity on either side of the border as man killed man in crazed religious frenzy. In lieu of gas chambers but equally productive, ordinary citizens brandishing swords, butchers’ knives, guns and even their bare hands, went on a killing spree in a collective state of “thoughtlessness”, a term used by Hannah Arendt to describe the irrationality of the unspeakable evil committed by the Nazis. It is estimated that up to two million men, women and children were butchered and twenty million people displaced in the holocaust of Partition. And there was no retribution for such evil.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn had observed with devastating prescience that “when we neither punish nor reproach evil doers, we are ripping the foundations of justice from future generations.” While the Nazis were hunted down and made to pay for their crimes, the millions of killers and their abettors during Partition quietly returned as anonymous lawful citizens of the two newly independent nations. It is not difficult to infer that these criminals slipped back to their everyday roles as teachers, workers, maulvis, sadhus, government employees and what have you; but by letting these murderous vectors of hate go scot-free without even so much as a condemnation of their bestiality, there has been neither repentance nor redemptive change. (Is it any surprise that this regime that has fattened on hatred, has declared August 14 as Partition Horrors Remembrance Day in order to keep alive the fratricidal bitterness? With like intent, the film “Kashmir Files” that spews venom against the Muslim community has been bestowed the Nargis Dutt Award for Best Film on National Integration at the 69th National Film Awards.) 

The miasma of distrust and hate engendered by Partition suppurated in these diseased souls out of the public eye, ready to strike when the time was ripe. The Partition savagery provided the template for the mass killings in Delhi in 1984, in Mumbai in 1992-93, in Gujarat in 2002 and myriads of lesser conflagrations. In no other country on earth have civilians killed their fellow beings in such monstrous numbers and with such frequency. We are undoubtedly among the cruelest people on earth!

The seeds of the religious bigotry plaguing this country were planted a century ago. As far back as 1921, the All India Hindu Mahasabha at its very inception pronounced that Hindus need a separate nation and Muslims denied any rights in it. This fuzzy notion of Hindu nationalism was formalised by V D Savarkar as an exclusivist and homogenising doctrine called Hindutva that is underpinned by an obsessive, visceral hatred of Muslims. 

Over the decades, behind the benign façade of nurturing Bharatiya culture, ethnocentric Hindutva has spread across the land through the furtive but relentless RSS machinery. Millions of young and old in Shishu Mandirs, Vidya Bharati schools and the ubiquitous Shakhas across the country have been tutored in a hyper-nationalism that fosters an implacable hatred of Muslims who must pay for historical wrongs committed against Hindus. Even the Amar Chitra Katha comic series are exploited for propaganda and the “cultural” conditioning of minds in what Sumit Sarkar terms “a Gramscian process of building up hegemony through molecular permeation.” 

The saffron brigade has succeeded in capturing the collective consciousness of a large section of Hindus and indoctrinating them in the gospel of Hindutva. A study across four States by the CSDS (Centre for Study of Developing Societies) in 2019 showed that 72 percent of Indians had clear majoritarian views on issues relating to beef ban, religious conversions, love jihad, etc. Since then, their numbers could only have grown.

What we see today is Hindutva with a swagger. In January this year, the reigning pontiff of Hindutva, Mohan Bhagwat, publicly enunciated the Hindutva doctrine with staggering bluntness. In a textbook case of hate speech, he brazenly stated that Hindu society had finally wakened after being at war for over 1000 years and was now ready to do battle to defend Hindu society, Hindu Dharma and Hindu culture, “not against an enemy without but against an enemy within.” In the same breath, he warned Muslims to “abandon their boisterous rhetoric of supremacy”, leaving no doubt who he considered the enemy. And for good measure, he reiterated the majoritarian trope: “The simple truth is this; Hindustan (the land of the Hindus) should remain Hindustan”, the unspoken implication being that minorities live here on sufferance. There was no public outrage as he was merely articulating this majoritarian government’s creed of governance.

It is undeniable that in the two largest democracies, the invasion of neo-Nazis, supremacists and extreme right-wing nationalists into the mainstream of political and cultural discourse has coincided with the advent of Modi and Trump. There is an eerie similarity in the concepts deployed by their advocates to foment fear and loathing among their constituents. The toxic disinformation regarding an embattled white majority population being soon overwhelmed by immigrants is twinned with the criminal predisposition of immigrants. This is matched by the Hindu majoritarian propaganda of disproportionate increase in the Muslim population, their enticement of Hindu women through love jihad, their food jihad and the enduring theme of their disloyalty.

But whereas the white supremacists’ strategy of expanding their base is limited to tapping potential fellow-travellers and sneaking into mainstream media and political debate, the majoritarian nationalism in our midst that is on a crusade against Muslims, Christians and anything or anybody perceived as inimical to the Hindutva project, has now spread its tentacles everywhere. With its arsenal of zealous mobs, Goebbelsian propaganda, media lapdogs, infiltrated institutions, inexhaustible funds et al., majoritarianism has captured the social space. Manipur and Nuh are a foretaste of things to come.

We are staring into the abyss!

(This piece first appeared in The Wire. The writer is a former civil servant. The views are personal)

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