February 17, 2016

India: Anti-nationals and rogue rulers (Nilanjana S Roy)

Business Standard

Anti-nationals and rogue rulers

February 15, 2016 Last Updated at 21:44 IST

Nilanjana S Roy

I miss the good old days, when the most anti-national element in the new Republic of India was a cooking fat.

Prakash Tandon tells the story of the demand for a ban on Dalda in his memoir, Punjabi Saga. Shortly after Independence, Dalda paranoia made for an unlikely alliance between cow protectionists, who held an Anti-Vanaspati Day under the auspices of the Go Seva Sangh, and Mashruwala, editor of The Harijan, whose fears of Dalda stemmed from his general suspicion of industrialisation.

Tandon found, as others have after him, that he could reason with the man who feared capitalism, but not with those who wanted to "ban vanaspati, ban sugar, ban longcloth, ban tea, ban alcohol and restore the pristine and viceless past". After some years of frenetic action, the issue died a natural death, and vanaspati segued smoothly from the ranks of suspicious capitalist foreign objects to a swadeshi cooking oil, ubiquitous in most Indian kitchens.

But under Narendra Modi's barely two-year-old government, the list of anti-national elements has expanded to the point where the only thing we know for sure is certified fully nationalist and swadeshi would be the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh's (RSS's) khaki shorts.

On Sunday, RSS Joint General Secretary Dattatreya Hosabale explained, after the crackdown on students at Jawaharlal Nehru University and the arrest of Jawaharlal Nehru University Students' Union President Kanhaiya Kumar on specious charges of sedition, that all universities "must be purged of all kinds of anti-national elements".

Some months previously, in August 2015, the Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP's) Nandanam Diwakar had referred to "anti-national activities in Hyderabad University", after a clash between the Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula, his friends, and Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad President Susheel Kumar.

After Vemula's tragic suicide in November, the BJP's Sanju Verma called the young scholar, whose legacy included protesting the hold of caste on institutions of learning, "a disgruntled terror apologist, known for his abusive anti-national rants".

In the same month, the r BJP's Kailash Vijayvargiya said Shah Rukh Khan was anti-national and seditious for daring to point out that the times were intolerant. There is a pattern to these denunciations of individuals, political parties or other groups as anti-national: the timing is important, as in Arundhati Roy's case. The writer was called anti-national by BJP spokesman Vivekanand Gupta just before a case against her for the act of sedition came up before the courts, in much the same way senior minister Arun Jaitley called the massive movement by writers returning awards last year "a case of ideological intolerance towards the BJP".

The terms "anti-national" and "seditious" are used as red flags not just to shut down any questioning of this government, but as a signal that the subject of these accusations is now a target for attack. Over the last year, though, these attacks have lost some of their power. If everything, from protesting writers and scientists to enviromentalists and NGOs, to students across several Indian universities, and even people who oppose compulsory yoga classes, is declared anti-national, the general public, not slow on the uptake, is likely to suspect that none of them are.

The tactics used against "anti-nationalists" are also growing stale. The cycle of denunciations followed by blatant false accusations, deflection when those lies are exposed, and the bludgeon of a thuggish, breast-beating nationalism, work well the first few times they're deployed. After the nth repetition, people start to see the planted rabble-rousers in the audience, to question the propaganda, to trace the lies back to the source.

Today, as ordinary citizens join in the peaceful protests at JNU, and as agitations over caste discrimination spread across India, the government only makes itself foolish when it treats students as enemies of the state.

The real danger goes beyond any one group that has been targeted in these past two years. This government's determination to make it a crime to criticise or question the Indian state, the BJP, the RSS and allied right-wing parties, ruling-party ministers, MPs and functionaries, godmen and religion, exposes its fundamental inability to protect either democracy or the Constitution.

Beyond the immediate threats posed by both the unrestrained licence given by politicians of all kinds to thugs, mobs and their own private armies and this government's steady misuse of sedition and other offence laws, there is the interesting issue of the failure of the right-wing's intellectual enterprise.

It was saddening, but unsurprising, to see the right-wing's thinking class, such as it was, adopt the worst of the Congress' pigs-at-troughs culture. The right now outdoes both the Congress and the Left in the awarding of cultural and institutional plum posts to people without sufficient academic credentials, and in the durbari battling over the prizes handed out for sycophancy, from Lutyens' bungalows to company directorships to Padma Shris.

But significantly, there are no stalwarts on the right who are ready to defend either the Constitution or basic free expression principles. This explains why the present slide has happened so rapidly.

The right has nothing to offer a young nation eager for modernisation anything resembling true growth and change, because that would mean, of necessity, an intellectual push towards caste, gender, intellectual and religious freedoms. The right's present insistence on compliance and obedience, its pseudo-nationalist aggression and the crackdown on all kinds of dissent, comes from a deep fear.

After all, if it is anti-nationalist to reject the narrow, musty, undemocratic dream of a Hindu majoritarian, RSS-ruled nation, then most Indians are anti-nationalists today.