The BJP’s victory in the Lok Sabha elections of 2014 has ushered in an unprecedented attack on India’s democracy and injected new elements of intolerance and authoritarianism in the lives of people living in the country. Behind the mask of a developmental regime promising rapid industrial expansion and millions of jobs for the mass of unemployed youth, we’ve seen instead a hideous explosion of the cultural politics of the Extreme Right, overt acclamations of a Hindu rashtra; a wide-ranging takeover of educational and cultural institutions by the RSS; a rampant culture of violence targeting freedom of expression, freedom of religion, intellectual freedoms, even the freedom of the young to love; a calculated drive to communalise voters in North India with hate campaigns that have led to the horrid lynchings at Dadri and Udhampur; a shocking subversion of the judicial system through a concerted drive to secure the release of elements indicted on fake encounter and terrorism charges; fabrication of evidence to crush a handful of individuals who have campaigned for justice for the victims of the Gujarat violence; and of course the brazen murder of anti-superstition crusaders.
The fabric of India’s democracy is today being torn to shreds. This is the first government in independent India where the RSS is overtly in command. We are further away from both Nehru and Ambedkar than ever before, from Nehru’s contempt for the RSS as a harbinger of fascism, and Ambedkar’s vision of a casteless India. (It’s worth recalling that in December 1947 Nehru wrote: ‘We have a great deal of evidence to show that the R.S.S. is an organisation which is in the nature of a private army and which is definitely proceeding on the strictest Nazi lines’; and again in December 1948, ‘The R.S.S. is typical…of the type of organisation that grew up in various parts of Eurpe in support of fascism’) In this brief statement I’d like to draw your attention to three strands of this wide-ranging assault on democracy that merit particular concern.
The most troubling aspect of the state of Indian democracy remains, as always, the appalling culture of impunity that has evolved since the anti-Sikh pogroms for mass crimes that target minorities with the explicit backing of leading political figures. It is appalling that politicians known to be complicit in large-scale communal violence have escaped legal retribution and are not even seen to be seriously threatened by legal sanctions. The fatal omission here in India’s criminal justice system is a clear and robust concept of command responsibility. Even hate speech cannot be combated legally without having to seek the consent of the executive, a preposterous Catch 22.
Majoritarian notions of democracy. These sustain the new cultures of intolerance by giving them a seeming legitimacy. ‘You have hurt my sentiments’ is the fiction used to justify both violence and intolerance. The so-called sentiments that are said to be hurt are manipulated, serial devices akin to the Nazi ‘stab in the back’ theory that was used to justify the attacks on German democracy in the 1920s. Majority and minority are not organic realities, they are serial identities, false manipulated constructions that have no existential reality beyond the manipulations themselves. Any minority constructed by majoritarianism will by the nature of its situation be and feel marginal and insecure. What is affirmed here is a fundamental lack ofequality, a huge black hole at the heart of our democracy.
Organised mysticism and cultures of gullibility Dabholkar, Kalburgi and Pansare were active in combating the organised mysticism and cultures of gullibility widespread at the ‘popular’ level. How can any modern democracy flourish if the supposedly ‘popular’ cultural base is one steeped in various forms of promoted mysticism and credulousness? These enterprises have both an ideological and an economic dimension. They are run by religious entrepreneurs who have every stake in keeping the mass of the population in a state of abject subjugation. They exploit the poor and they reinforce a pervasive cultural domination over them. Witness the latest example of this cynicism, Ramdev’s exhortation to the poor and the middle class to stop eating pulses since the prices have gone through the roof.
If we have a Prime Minister who, as one distinguished writer says in a recent interview, ‘is not doing anything to stem the rising tide of hatred’, it’s worth asking why. The liberal media hankers for a liberal Prime Minister, one who will intervene decisively to crush the extremist fringe and refocus the country’s attention where it matters. But the fringe/Centre binary is seriously misleading in one sense at least. The Hindu Right is not a fragmented movement but one deeply unified at the ideological level, even if it speaks in different voices, through different organisations, and works at a multiplicity of levels. What the media are therefore asking for is for the Prime Minister to repudiate the ideology that spawned him. When Gandhi described the RSS as a ‘communal body with a totalitarian outlook’, he nailed a description that remains as valid today as it was in the forties. Of course, Modi is not Bhagwat, he incarnates that wing of Hindu nationalism that seeks to position itself as modernising India without secularism and without constitutional democracy. The vast mass of citizens in this country have to ask themselves whether that is the vision of India they seriously subscribe to.[Statement read out at the public lecture titled “Indian Society and the Secular” by Romila Thapar delivered on 26 October 2015 in Bombay]