February 27, 2016

India: Fetishisation of the nation - expanded application of the term ‘anti-national’ serves to maintain an environment of perpetual threat

JNU crisis: Has the Centre bungled or was this always part of the plan?
The expanded application of the term ‘anti-national’ serves to maintain an environment of perpetual threat.

Photo Credit: Mayank Jain
There are many reasons why the Hindu Right abhors the Left. There are ideological differences which pit them on opposite sides of various issues, chiefly economics and secularism. There is the old grouse of the Hindu nationalist lobby about communists, like Muslims and Christians, having transnational loyalties. (How this complaint would stand up in a globalised world, and with the Hindutva support base fanning out across continents, is a moot question.) But arguably the factor most significant in contributing to the former’s hostility is the Left’s immense influence in the country.
This influence, less political than intellectual, the assumption that progressive thought leans necessarily to the Left, for example, poses a substantial hindrance to the rightwing nationalist lobby’s aspirations to dominate India.
Given this fact, and the swift moves by the current BJP government to make inroads into various cultural and educational institutions including the Indian Council for Historical Research, an attempt to exert some form of control over Jawaharlal Nehru University – a perceived bastion of leftist thought – was probably a longstanding intention.
Larger plan
Then why does it appear to have botched it up so badly? Why has it sent police to the campus to arrest a popular student leader provoking criticism of overreach from even some of its sympathetic opinion makers? Why has it allowed lawyers to publicly beat up journalists, provoking a media outcry? Why has it based the whole campaign on assertions, video footage and evidence which has so easily been demonstrated to be false? Why are its leaders making deliberately ludicrous claims about nude dancing and condoms on the campus?
Observers in the media would like to believe that the government has bungled or miscalculated, or that its extremist fringe is out of control. And they may well be right. But there is another possible interpretation – that the heavy-handedness and loutish violence marking the episode is deliberate, the crudity and outlandish claims are considered, and above all, that the aim is not as one would think so much to intimidate opponents, but primarily to shore up its own support base.
Fighting the ‘other’
To understand how this works, one has to remember that the entity in question is both a political party in the conventional sense, and also part of a larger enterprise to re-envisage India. The core follower then is partly in the realm of realpolitik and partly in the realm of a nation defined by a part-imagined history, religion and a relentless hostility of the other. This world – part reality, part myth – becomes the narrative within which he or she exists. Interestingly contemporary advertisers and political marketers rely heavily on storytelling as a marketing tool, and one saw that in the 2014 campaign where Narendra Modi’s visage alone became shorthand for a developmental success story that was equally thin on detail.
The narrative, however, needs to be sustained through constant repetition. Belonging requires a repeated opportunity for battling the “other”. The fetishisation of the nation focuses loyalty, and the expanded application of the term “anti-national” serves both to discredit the government’s potential opponents (note how the ambit has grown, over the years, to include minorities, secularists, NGOs, free-thinking students and journalists) but also to maintain the environment of perpetual threat. In the part mythologised world within which this takes place (also a world of social media and photoshop) notions of evidence and proof become less and less important in the face of narrative.
The unfolding saga at Jawaharlal Nehru University has provoked a show of strength in support of free speech with crowds marching on the streets and endorsements from a range of academic institutions. It has to be kept in mind, however, that there is a repetitious nature to these face-offs, each also serving to harden a conservatism that will keep the narrative alive.