The Republic of Gloom

(AFP photo)

Freedom and memories of freedom trigger moments of carnival and a festival, a mnemonic of liberation. The flag becomes iconic for this moment. Yet, often, the same flag becomes a pall of doom, an ironic coffin of the very ideas we hold sacramental. August 15, 2019, invokes such a moment when our democracy itself has become a cage of paradoxes. 

The tragedy began when democracy which should have outgrown the idea of the nation-state succumbed to its categories. Nationalism was a plural, eccentric phenomenon. It was literally a costume ball of differences, while the nation-state marched in uniform. The sense of liberation that nationalism offered was dampened by two genocides -- Partition and the Bengal famine. Since then, the emphasis was more on governance rather than democracy. Today, the nation-state, with its bagpipes of security and patriotism, is the prime and primal imagination.

To the tragedy of the nation-state as a procrustean form of thinking, we can add the majoritarian nature of democracy. Democracy is no longer a normative force but an electoral farce. Numbers announce their own morality, impetus, and direction. Numbers allow a rewriting of history. The majority demands uniformity to deny plurality. Democracy becomes ironic as electoral democracy threatens plural democracy, destroying dissent. By then, civil society has become an empty word and an empty world. The BJP has a mimic world of civil society in the form of the RSS and Bajrang Dal. NGOs that challenge the idea of the State are immediately proclaimed ‘anti-national’ and the new idolatry centers around concepts like security, patriotism while civil society stands mute before mob violence. Mob and majority become twins in this populist world. 

Two examples would convince anyone of the authoritarian nature of India’s future. Kashmir as geography, as history, as memory has been rewritten, transformed by diktat into a Union Territory. India, or rather the regime in Delhi, has no sense of Kashmiris as a people. The Opposition leaders are placed under house arrest. What one witnesses here is an AFSPA of the mind, where the national security state justifies any move in governance, any form of authoritarianism. The Kashmiris have no voice; they are seen as retarded people who need to be colonised through real estate operations. Suddenly, one senses that the development and colonisation are twin processes of the securitarian mind. 

As devious as the Kashmir takeover is the ‘regularisation’ of Assam. For decades, as one read Solzhenitsyn’s monumental Gulag Archipelago, one felt India was immune from Stalinisation of the mind. One did not think India could create an enclosure movement around four million people. But then, one has not read Hannah Arendt’s wise essay on the banalisation of evil. Arendt showed that genocide today does not need a Stalin or Hitler. Any clerk with an app would do. One is even more stunned that the courts have asked for the eviction of another two million tribals. 

Violence appears to be a part of governmentality today. It is seen as iconic of decisiveness and masculine governance. Decisive decisions have a halo that wise decisions do not. They seem to be music to the popular mind. 

The sadness does not end there, because acts of commission are being complemented by acts of omission. Obsolescence and displacement as acts of violence haunt us as much as mob violence. The lay-off of workers in the automobile industry is frightening, but the silence that meets it is even more distressing. The trade union movement seems dead, and the Left relegated to lotus-eating. It is a human tragedy that middle-class India greets with silence. One wishes newspapers had storytellers, even bards to sing the sadness of Assam and Haryana. It is almost as if ‘aspiring India’ does not care for defeated and vulnerable people. In fact, more than brutality or the genocidal impulse, the populist celebration of Modi, Amit Shah and the bandwagon world of the BJP, what haunts India, is a new India of indifference. 

A friend of mine in a combination of disgust and despair put it differently. India, he complained, does not need Trump or Modi to create a post-truth society. All it needs is an upwardly aspiring middle class. The middle class has projected a mix of majoritarian mediocrity and conformity. Its sense of jingoism blended with correctness is lethal. It does not care for drought, about floods, about census registers or brutalised people. It lives in its own world, preferring to watch Discovery Channel adventures of Modi than the ordeal of Kashmir.

This brings us to the greatest paradox. India as the Republic of Gloom pretends it is the time of the Great Indian Celebration. We talk of a five trillion-dollar economy, the machismo of our PM, the achievements of Chandrayaan as if drought, displacement or the crisis of the Anthropocene did not exist. As amnesia, it is fatal, but India does not care as the festival of autism we call Modi’s India races past like a juggernaut of lemmings. India needs a mourning wall, not a day of celebration.  

 

(Shiv Visvanathan is a social science nomad)

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