Since 2013, three noted rationalists have been shot dead—in 2013, Narendra Dabholkar was gunned down during a morning walk, and then in 2015, Govind Pansare and MM Kalburgi were murdered. Many perceived these deaths to be related directly to the views that they espoused. Towards the end of 2015, several writers, filmmakers, and academics launched a spontaneous movement against communal polarisation and attacks on free speech in the country—they began returning the awards they had received from the government or from institutions such as the Sahitya Akademi. The “award wapsi” and the rationalists’ murders, along with various other events such as the suicide of the PhD scholar Rohith Vemula and the arrests at Jawaharlal University in Delhi in February 2015, prompted a countrywide discussion on dissent—one that is still ongoing.
The following is an extract from the introduction to the 2016 book Words Matter: Writings Against Silence, written by its editor K Satchidanandan, a Malayali poet. The book is an anthology of essays by various writers, academics and intellectuals on the freedom of expression. In the extract below, Satchidandan writes that political Hindutva poses a challenge to Indian democracy and “the very integrity of our social fabric.” “It wishes to trample underfoot India’s pluralist ethos that believes in dialogue, exchange and debate,” he notes.
In order to understand democracy, we need to detach it from the instruments of the state and see it as people’s power. It is not the people who “resist” the state but the state that seeks to constrain, contain and suppress the power of the people through its institutions. True democrats always speak of expanding the base of democracy, overcoming its constraints through popular action aimed at social justice, and going beyond its present limitations and curtailments of rights. The enemies of democracy, on the other hand, fear the exercise even of existing freedoms by the common people and want to curb them further.
Democracy is not a static form of government. It is the action that constantly wrests the monopoly over public life from oligarchic rule and the omnipotence over lives from the power of wealth. No institutional form can guarantee democracy unless it is forever active and can wrench its power from those who monopolise it for their private ends. This is where politics too begins: when it converts what was just noise into language, when those men and women who don’t have time for anything other than their work prove that they are indeed speaking beings, participating in a shared world and not furious or suffering animals. Thus the inaudible is rendered audible, the invisible becomes visible, what was animal noise becomes human speech.
The challenge to Indian democracy has always come from sections that hate democracy as an idea. This hatred is rooted in a deep contempt for the people with their diverse natures and aspirations, and manifests itself chiefly in four ways: one, intolerance towards India’s religious, philosophical and cultural plurality; two, silencing of popular and intellectual opposition and the consequent thwarting of the freedom of expression; three, the enfeeblement of the federal polity and increasing centralization of power; and four, contempt towards those sections of the population whose welfare constitutes the very goal and measure of democracy: women, peasants, workers, Dalits, Adivasis and religious, ethnic and sexual minorities.
This hatred of democracy is not new and has not been confined to just one party or group. We have witnessed several instances where the state has exceeded its mandate in order to suppress popular dissent (as during the Emergency); to protect corporate interests by diluting environmental safeguards (as done both by the last UPA government and the present NDA government); used legal shortcuts and hurried executions, forgoing formalities (as in some high-profile cases); or justified or trivialised genocides as spontaneous emotional reactions (as in the anti-Sikh riots of 1984 or the Gujarat pogrom of 2002).
At the present moment, however, the biggest challenge to our democracy, and perhaps to the very integrity of our social fabric, is political Hindutva. Political Hindutva clearly finds the diversity of India an unwelcome and disturbing presence. It wishes to trample underfoot India’s pluralist ethos that believes in dialogue, exchange and debate. We see it on social media every day: every criticism, even that made in the most rational and decent language, is countered by the worst forms of abuse by the self-appointed guardians of the Hindutva ideology to which the majority of Hindus in India do not subscribe.
Here it is pertinent to remember what the late Umberto Eco in his Five Moral Pieces (2002) calls “ur-fascism,” a kind of universal, omnipresent fascist trend with certain common features: One is the cult of tradition that considers truth as already revealed or known that goes against the grain of scientific thinking. In this “cult” mentality, any dissent is seen as betrayal; it fears difference and defines the nation in negative and exclusivist ways leading to xenophobia and the creation of an “other” who is always wrong. This kind of fascism derives its strength by appealing to the frustrated middle classes who are scared of the struggles and successes of the lower classes. The middle classes are led to believe in a vision of a past golden age that they can restore by aligning themselves with the fascist forces and battle the mushrooming “conspiracies.” The result is a form of politics that is popular in form and elitist in content that identifies the voice of one small group with the voice of the whole people. This elitist group scorns the weak and the disadvantaged based on a machismo that harbours a suspicion of intellectuals and of progressive thought. It desires “new speak”—a term used in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four—that sees everything in black and white, abhors all complex thinking and wishes to limit the tools available for critical thinking. Finally, there is the cult of death (“Viva la muerte” was a slogan of the Falangists of Spain) that prefers death to life, this readiness to die also justifying the readiness to kill.
It is true that the present Indian government cannot be called fascist in the classical sense since the country still holds free and fair elections, has a relatively independent judiciary and an army that does not serve any single party or ideology. However, readers will be able to discern almost all the above symptoms, at times in transformed, veiled or diluted forms, in the attitudes and practices of the Hindu right wing. Hindu cultural nationalism is nationalism shorn of the respect for other identities and cultural differences on the one hand, and of the vision of a cosmopolitan internationalism on the other.
Right-wing outfits carrying different names have been involved in the murders of Christian missionaries (as in Orissa), vandalizing churches (like in Delhi and, more recently, Chhattisgarh), provoking communal riots (as in Muzaffarnagar), burning the Constitution (as in Pune), abusing actors (Aamir Khan, Shah Rukh Khan) and film-makers (Anand Patwardhan, Nakul Sawhney, Deepa Mehta, Nandita Das), to give just a few instances. These activities are not unlike those of the Stormtroopers in Germany, and their use of symbols and mythological figures remind one of the Nazi deployment of Nordic symbols. Again, what the Jew was to the Nazi, the Muslim (also the Christian, and minorities in general) is to the Hindutva ideologues. The Muslim is the first “other”—the “haramzada,” in the words of a sadhvi who happens to be a minister—held responsible for all the ills of society and for the apparent suffering of the majority. Add to this their vain racist belief in their Aryan origins and you are even closer to the Nazi model. This racism manifests itself most potently in the suppression of the lower castes and adivasis.
A distinguishing characteristic of the right wing is their overriding machismo: their cadres are largely men and their approach patriarchal and militaristic, mostly operating outside of the legal process. Their fear of the feminine is evident not only in their moral policing but also in the violent and abusive language they use against women who demand freedom and equality. Their women cadres and leaders too have internalised the same ethic.
Where does this bring us? The question hinges on how we wish to go forward as a nation. In the words of philosopher Ernest Gellner, “Nationalism is not the awakening of nations to self-consciousness; it invents nations where they do not exist” (Thought and Change, 1964). For him, the nation is more a fabrication just as it was to Rabindranath Tagore, rather than, as for Benedict Anderson, something created or imagined into being. The makers of our Constitution had put forward a progressive, democratic and secular idea of the nation instead of modelling it on Western nationalism, which Tagore had fiercely opposed as selfish and belligerent. This founding ideal has always been in conflict with the revivalist and sectarian idea of a chauvinistic “Hindu” nation, proposed by one of the architects of Hindutva, MS Golwalkar, and modelled on Nazi Germany.
Anyone’s idea of the nation must have space for others within it, otherwise that idea can turn exclusivist. As soon as one section begins to impose its exclusivist idea of the nation on others, and labels those who imagine the nation differently as traitors, it becomes anti-democratic and potentially dangerous. The present situation where several Indian citizens are being charged with ‘sedition’ calls to mind several historical nightmares from Nazism to Stalinism. Rather than being a “nationalistic” law, sedition is, ironically, an imperialist law brought into force during colonial rule that sought to crush the struggle for freedom. Both Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru had been highly critical of this law.
German thinker Rosa Luxemburg, in her arguments with Lenin, had famously said that freedom means the freedom to oppose. Today, that freedom is becoming more and more constrained and therefore more and more necessary, for without dissent that speaks truth to power democracy dies.
This is an excerpt from Words Matter: Writings Against Silence, published by Penguin Books.
K Satchidanandan is a poet and critic.