A tryst with darkness
ON the midnight of August 14-15, 1947, Jawaharlal Nehru uttered that famous sentence – ‘Years ago we made a tryst with destiny’ – that has become a part of the rhetoric of independent India. Though attention has always been focused on the phrase ‘tryst with destiny’ – what kind of tryst and what kind of destiny, the real problematic term in the sentence was the pronoun ‘we’. Who did India’s first prime minister include in that pronoun, who was he speaking for? The immediate and easy answer is that he was speaking for India and Indians and the ‘we’ included all of them. If one remembers the overall context of independence and its immediate aftermath, the answer that Nehru was speaking for the whole of India and all Indians does not sound convincing.
Nehru’s famous speech had been preceded by another equally famous speech by Mohammad Ali Jinnah, which announced the formation of another nation state – Pakistan. This division of India entailed suffering and violence that affected millions of people who lost their property, livelihood and the lives of relatives and friends. Were these people included in the pronoun ‘we’ that Nehru used so evocatively? Had these people made a tryst with death and devastation? Not just the thousands of people who moved across artificial borders to seek new lives but others too, including Gandhi, felt that this was not the independence for which India had struggled and aspired.
Gandhi did not join the independence day celebrations but remained among the poor in a slum in East Calcutta. He declared 15 August 1947 to be a day of fasting and prayer. The poet Faiz captured, as only a poet can, the emotions of all those who felt that they were not part of Nehru’s ‘we’:
‘This stained light, this night-bitten dawn
This is not that long-awaited day break
This is not the dawn in whose longing,
We set out believing we would find, somewhere,
In heaven’s wide void,
The stars’ final resting place.’
But this divergence between promise and deliverance, between the aspirations of a political party or an individual leader and the country as a whole, haunted Nehru right through his prime ministership. This is perhaps the reason why as a reminder and as an inspiration he copied out and kept on his desk those lines of Robert Frost:
‘The woods are lovely dark and deep
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep.’
He was conscious of promises he had failed to keep. While this awareness gave to his tenure and his personality a certain sensitivity, it should not detract attention from his considerable achievements. The years of Nehru’s prime ministership built and strengthened some of the most important pillars of the Indian polity and society – parliamentary democracy, the cabinet form of government, the importance of the Constitution, the emphasis on secularism and religious toleration and the importance of a scientific temper and rationality in the building of a modern nation state striving to find a place in world affairs.
Both, Nehru’s achievements and his consciousness of his own shortcomings and inadequacies, have come to acquire some urgency today as India is being hurtled by Narendra Modi towards a different kind of tryst. In the process of keeping that new tryst, many of the features of Indian democracy that Nehru put in place are being undone and eroded. It should be made clear that this undoing of Nehru’s work in certain key areas was begun by his own daughter, Indira Gandhi and her principal advisor, P.N. Haksar through the concentration of powers in the prime minister’s office, the subversion of the cabinet form of government, a deification of the prime minister, attempts to tinker with aspects of the Constitution, a destruction of the autonomy of the judiciary and the bureaucracy and, finally of course, the complete denial of democracy during the Emergency. (Ironically, Haksar became a victim of the Emergency, the culmination of the authoritarian tendencies in the polity that he had masterminded.)
India today, seventy years after independence, is facing a situation where some of the fundamental features of democracy are under serious threat. The threat emanates from the ideological orientation of the present prime minister and of the ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party. There are two aspects of this ideology – both crucial in the fashioning of the ideology – that deserve to be noted in this context. One is the assertion that India is a country of the Hindus and the true future of India lies in making the nation a Hindu Rashtra. Other religious groups – Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, Jains, tribals and so on – will have to live in India on terms determined and dictated by the Hindus, the majority community. In the list of religious minorities, the Muslims are singled out not only because they form the largest group numerically but also because the Muslims, it is argued by Hindutva ideologues, held Hindus in servitude for over five hundred years beginning from 1206. The second aspect follows from the first – Indian civilization equals Hindu civilization and that is the true colour of India’s ideology. From this follows a particular reading of India’s past and this allows for no difference or dissent. To dissent is to be anti-Hindu and transitively anti-India.
The assertion of Hindutva has come to acquire a hyper nationalist dimension. The BJP and organizations – the sangh parivar in the jargon – like the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh decide on what is national and what is anti-national. Thus, any criticism of the present government and its actions are labelled as being anti-national. This attitude also dictates that Pakistan cannot be supported when it plays cricket and certainly not if it is playing against India. The prime minister and his government are held up as the only people who can project what is truly Indian.
These views do not remain confined to the world of ideas. They have become a part of the grim reality of the daily lives of ordinary people who have become perpetrators of intimidation and violence as well as its victims. Ordinary individuals pursuing their trade and professions have begun to group themselves in localities to preserve and protect what they think, following the sangh parivar, as Hindu and truly Indian. Perceived threats to this Hindu India are then made targets of violence. The targets are usually ordinary Muslims who are attacked and lynched. In the name of Hindutva and Hindu rashtra, the rule of law is made to disappear and mob violence prevails. And because perpetrators of this kind of violence are always supporters of the ruling political dispensation, the police become bystanders and no action is taken against the inciters and the executors of violence.
Lynching and mob violence, on the rise in many parts of India, began almost as soon as Narendra Modi came to power. In 2016, a student was arrested from the Jawaharlal Nehru University and when produced in court, was badly beaten up by lawyers while the police remained passive bystanders. None of the offenders – those who took the law into their own hands – were charged or arrested. Since then the list of such incidents has grown at an alarming rate. And increasingly, almost always the victims of the violence are Muslims who are suspected of eating beef, selling beef and so on. The actual reason is that they are Muslims and, therefore, seen as enemies.
Bigotry nurtured by a political ideology, as it always does, has made people blind and intolerant. There is, however, one associated feature of this violence to which attention needs to be drawn. In every case, the prime minister and his close associates and leaders of the sangh parivar have failed to, or refused to, condemn the violence. Murder in the name of Hindu rashtra is fast becoming a way of life in democratic India.
These events where supporters of the sangh parivar in parts of India have used violence, boasted about using violence and incited violence reveal an ominous political trend. For a start, it is significant that there are groups of people, supported by political leaders who are unashamed – on the contrary proud – of their use and advocacy of violence against individuals and groups who do not share their views.
The counterpart of this kind of exhibition of intolerance of dissent is authoritarianism. A political party, and its various wings, because it enjoys a popular mandate, have come to assume that they have the right to impose their views on people who disagree with them. The first step is to label the dissenters with epithets that incite passion – ‘anti-national’, ‘Maoists’, ‘terrorists’, ‘perpetrators of sedition’, ‘beef eater’ are some of the more common labels being used for anyone who dares to criticize. These epithets are then used as justification for state action – arrests, humiliation, denial of bail. The state action is being bolstered by actions of party cadre and party loyalists who are rushing in to harangue, abuse and beat up so-called ‘offenders’. The abuse continues in social media. An ambience of terror and intimidation is thus generated.
The targets of this terror are two predictable groups: one is the secular, anti-Hindutva, pro-democratic sections of the population, India’s most endangered species – the secular intelligentsia. Particularly alarming is that attacks against this group are tapping into a pool of public opinion that believes that India should be a strong state, that tolerance is not a virtue, that nationalism is an unalloyed virtue, that universities should have no autonomy. The second is Muslims who, it is averred, ‘ should be taught a lesson’ for no other reason save the fact that from 1206 to the coming of British rule, Muslim dynasties ruled India. Muslims are equated to being anti-Indian/Hindu.
It would be simplistic and erroneous to believe that only the ignorant and the obscurantists hold such outlandish views. These views are equally held by educated people, seen and heard in clubs and cocktail parties, people who one might expect to be upholders of the rule of law and the Indian Constitution. This pool of support and the popular mandate provide the sanction for the slide towards authoritarianism.
It could be argued – and will be – that one cannot talk of a slide towards authoritarianism when Parliament still exists and also functions such that the opposition can voice its concerns on the floors of the two Houses of Parliament. The authoritarianism is actually far more manifest in a different, but not an irrelevant, theatre. This is at the street level – the way supporters and party loyalists are mobilizing themselves to suppress dissent and the articulation of criticism. They are also choosing their own ways of punishing those who differ with them – smearing them with ink, humiliating them, beating them up, lynching them and so on. In other words, through mob violence. These acts are akin to those the storm troopers and the Hitler Youth carried out in Nazi Germany. What is decisive here is not the rule of law, not democracy, and certainly not the Constitution, but the brutal use of muscle power to impose one particular ideological view, Hindutva.
Such actions have the consent of the ideological and the political leaders. It has become clear over many incidents that the prime minister, even though he was elected as the prime minister of India, will not utter a single word on these instances of mob violence in the cause of Hindutva, let alone condemn them. This has raised eyebrows among certain circles, especially among those who, without being champions of Hindutva, had hoped that Narendra Modi would provide good governance.
There is a fundamental misconception in the expression of such surprise. Narendra Modi does not condemn because he does not believe such acts deserve to be condemned. The violent suppression of dissent and the imposition of the ideology of Hindutva are essential parts of his core beliefs imbibed when he trained as a loyal cadre of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. The fact that as the chief minister of Gujarat, he successully cloaked his ideology in the veneer of development, does not mean that he has abandoned his core beliefs. He believes as strongly as ever in Hindutva, in making India a Hindu rashtra, and in reducing sections of the Indian population into second class citizens, doomed to surviving on sufferance. If all this requires doses of violence, so be it: it will make Hindu India a strong state.
Narendra Modi has failed to be the prime minister of the people of India. What is worse is that he is unaware that he is only the prime minister of a section of the majority community. He has miles to go before he can be the prime minister of all Indians, if he ever can be that. His aims and aspirations are fundamentally at odds with the pluralist spirit of the many civilizations that have made India.
This is not to suggest that Narendra Modi is ordering or directing the violence, the intolerance and the suppression of dissent. He does not need to. His supporters are second-guessing him and carrying out actions that they know will win his approval. He does not need to implement his own ideological agenda; there are people – many of them physically far away from him, ordinary cadre of the sangh parivar – who are doing that job of implementation and doing it mercilessly. They are working towards Hindutva and, therefore, towards Modi’s core beliefs.
The emergence of Narendra Modi as the undisputed and the unchallenged leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party has brought greater clarity to the ideological aims of the sangh parivar. The velvet glove of moderate Hindutva has been removed to reveal the mailed fist. This ideological direction has no particular respect for, and interest in, preserving the fabric of the Constitution, the principles of parliamentary democracy and the features of a cabinet form of government. Modi, much like Indira Gandhi in her prime in the early 1970s, has fashioned a personalized form of governance by eroding all forms of collective decision making. Everyone, at every level of political power knows where lies the real power – with the prime minister – and its implementation resides in the hands of a few handpicked bureaucrats in the prime minister’s office.
The politics of religious hatred at the street level created by a pernicious ideology that sees Muslims as enemies and anti-Indian, the pandering of this kind of hatred by political leaders, the growing spirit of the irrationality in the intellectual space, the diminishing of dissent in all forms, the creeping erosion of democratic and civil society institutions and the deification of the prime minister – all these features are not only threats to democracy but to all forms of civilized existence. They define a form of rule in which only hatred and brutality will likely prevail. These features came together in Europe in the 1930s to create a form of rule to which historians gave the name fascism.
In seventy years this is the journey that India has made – from a proud democracy to a republic poised to surrender its values to fascism. So who is a part and participant of this journey down a slippery slope? There are millions who will claim that they are not, who will decline to be part of the ‘India’ that Modi champions on his foreign trips to his clique of applauders from Donald Trump to ‘Indians’ who have no stake in India or in India’s cultures.
The emergence of authoritarian rule is always predicated upon a failure of the opposition. There are many instances of how the opposition, through its myopia and irresponsibility, has vacated the space for the BJP and enabled Narendra Modi to set the political and even the moral agenda. But none is more instructive than what the opposition parties did during the events leading up to the presidential elections. (It should be pointed out that Modi wasn’t doing anything new by selecting a completely unknown person to be the presidential candidate. The Congress led by Sonia Gandhi had done it earlier by selecting Pratibha Patil.)
Narendra Modi selected a candidate to be the president of the Indian republic whose sole claim to the highest post in the country is that he is a dalit. What did the Congress and the rest of the opposition do? Instead of taking a moral position, knowing very well that their candidate would lose in any case, that the best person, someone who irrespective of his or her caste will bring dignity to the high office should be the President of India, it walked straight and voluntarily into the agenda that Modi had created. It selected as the opposition candidate another dalit.
After this does the opposition or the Congress have the ground to argue against identity based and divisive and populist politics? This was a crass exhibition of the moral vacuum that the Congress and the other opposition parties inhabit. No wonder they have neither the will nor the idiom to oppose, let alone undermine, Modi and the path he has set for India.
Seventy years after independence, India’s tryst with destiny has altered dramatically and, for the worse. In August 1947, the tryst that Nehru had spoken of had lost some of its substance because of Partition. Today, a different kind of hatred driven by bullying majoritarianism is etching in blood a tryst with a Hindu rashtra.
It is not my tryst. Is it yours?
* The views expressed here are personal.