The trouble with spurious nationalismSpurious nationalism begets a spurious democracy. Because there won’t be much to differentiate a reign of error from a reign of terror. It will be a vicious cycle
Activists and students from various organisations during their march from Mandi House to Jantar Mantar in solidarity with the JNUSU president Kanhaiya Kumar in New Delhi on Thursday. Photo: PTIHow dangerous are errors for the well-being—emotional and integral security—of a country? This past week’s fracas over protests at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) points to a direction where lies the possibility of greater strife and further alienation—and, therefore, greater aggression—among the Hindu underclass of the Dalits and others and many in the Muslim and Christian communities who, in spite of decades of affirmative action, are today increasingly vocal victims. It doesn’t make for a pretty picture.
It is only a short step from a reign of error to a reign of terror.
Nearly two years after winning a massive political mandate in the elections to the Lok Sabha in May 2014, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance appears to be in crisis. It surely is a sign of the times that the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA), which India’s citizens emphatically voted out of power for, among other things, the perception of its sloth, inefficiency, corruption and sycophantic rule, is today gaining in public relations. While the UPA government was not exactly progressive, NDA, with its firm charioteer, the BJP, has proved to be less than democratic.
In part, this is because of the firm ideological charioteers of the BJP: the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, Hindu Mahasabha, Vishwa Hindu Parishad and others of Hindu fundamentalist mode that firmly compete with Muslim and Christian fundamentalism. Leaders of these organizations regularly motor-mouth their way through this republic of continual rage. Some, even as legislators in the Lok Sabha and various provincial assemblies on the BJP ticket, as well some vanilla BJP ministers in central and state governments, have variously asked Muslims to go to Pakistan, supported the lynching of a Muslim gentleman for allegedly eating beef, insulted Dalits, and have even asked for India’s tricolour to only retain a Hindu saffron, insisting on that most vexing of contradictions: a totalitarian India that is also benevolent.
Such singularity is distressing. The BJP’s quiet in these matters, lubricated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s long, disquieting silences, has only increased the perception of an arrogant government. In the backdrop is an implied electoral commitment as internal security threat: the insistence on building a grand temple in Ayodhya that will surely, if not spark communal conflagration, speed recruitment to several jihadist causes.
The JNU incident and its aftermath is part of this arc of command-and-control. I’m not surprised with the over-reaction in arresting JNU’s students union president on the charge of sedition. Or, to rapidly transform this episode and the suicide of Rohith Vemula, a research scholar at Hyderabad Central University, from government snafus into matters of “anti-national” interest, dealt by misapplication of law. So, the crucible is now patriotism, not the kind of disturbing politics in which BJP and its allies are as adept as any party in India. How seamlessly error turns to terror.
This nationalistic agenda presumes nobody but this government and its imagistas have national interest at heart. It is as if all socioeconomic growth, increased infrastructure, increased defence spending, and diplomatic initiatives including the nuclear deal with the US in the 10 years between 2004 and 2014 were for the express benefit of some country other than India.
It also presumes everyone but the BJP and its allies are anti-national, anti-constitutional. It is as if the land acquisition ordinance, which was bolstered by untruths spoken and tweeted by the BJP’s top leadership, including the prime minister (which will remain an anti-poor, anti-farmer millstone around the BJP’s neck), was to the detriment of land owners and to the demolition of human rights in another country. The BJP-led government of Chhattisgarh last month nixed tribal rights over forest land to make way for coal mining. But wait. Chhattisgarh might as well be in Australia.
It is good to see a handful among BJP’s leadership condemn the over-reaction in JNU. While such retrospective sanity may prove to be too little in the face of an economy in stall, share markets and currency in free fall, and several impending elections to state assemblies—all prime reasons to intensify the drumbeat of nationalism with the heaviest hands and closed minds—they do provide a slim hope.
The alternative won’t be in the national interest.
Because spurious nationalism begets a spurious democracy. Because there won’t be much to differentiate a reign of error from a reign of terror. It will be a vicious cycle.
Sudeep Chakravarti’s latest book is Clear. Hold. Build: Hard Lessons of Business and Human Rights in India. His previous books include Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country and Highway 39: Journeys through a Fractured Land. This column, which focuses on conflict situations in South Asia that directly affect business, runs on Fridays.