The JNU siege continues. Even as on Feb 17, the Supreme Court heard an urgent petition regarding the vicious attack on students, teachers and journalists inside the court at Patiala House by the BJP lawyers on Feb 15, the violence inside the court premises repeated itself! Yet, the Delhi police was yet to arrest any one from the BJP for their role in the violence in the court premises. And, of course, not a single senior leader or minister of the BJP has yet unconditionally condemned the violence. It is like a civil war. Many in the opposition have been quick to equate this reign of terror with the Emergency in 1975. But is it a fair comparison, I wondered? My answer is: yes and no.
It is a qualified yes if you look at the series of attacks on dissent in different areas and on different people, including celebrities in the recent months though it is as yet far from the scope and scale it reached during Emergency throughout the country. People often forget that during Emergency, the terror of Sanjay gandhi was unimaginable and his youth congress goondas were everywhere intimidating and terrorising all. The police has not changed much but then thousands were jailed. The civil liberties were suspended and the Supreme Court upheld this suspension! The press was heavily censored and journalists were under attack all the time! Couple these attacks on democratic freedoms during Emergency, with large scale, inhuman demolitions near Turkman Gate in old Delhi then, banishing of the poor to the outskirts of Delhi and brutal ‘nasbandi’ operations among the poor by officials to implement Sanjay Gandhi’s obsession with population control, specially in North India, and one can get an idea of the horror that Emergency regime was.
Modi is as big a tyrant as Indira Gandhi was then and his supporters do not feel shy to suggest that now ‘Modi is India’ as then Indira was held to be but, mercifully, the slogan is yet to be coined. And let us admit, journalists are still free to write as they wish even though attacks on them continue as well. In other words, however loathsome the present Modi regime is, this government is yet to reach the level of designed tyranny that the country witnessed during Emergency. The only place, as yet, duplicating the real terror of Emergency is Chattisgarh where Raman Singh of the BJP is its third-time CM.
(The irony, of course, that even as present BJP leaders never tire of shaming Congress into silence whenever Rahul Gandhi and other Congress leaders talk about democracy and dissent these days by recalling Emergency, their own party – BJP- increasingly resembles their sworn enemy – the Congress!)
However, there are other, more ominous contours of the present regime that pose as big, if not a bigger, danger to the idea of India than Emergency briefly did.
Indira Gandhi, with all her faults and contempt for democracy, was a daughter of modern India. And though, even then, she wore the mask of economic development to defend the brutality and violence of her regime (people of my generation still remember the catchy slogan: work more, talk less. It was almost a rebuke to what Amartya Sen later called: the argumentative Indian!), her regime was strictly modern in its vision even if it was a pathological modernity of some kind and- lets we forget- a section of the left including the CPI were her staunch supporters ( how strange that the leader at the centre of the current JNU imbroglio Kanhaiya Kumar, is in fact, a student leader of the CPI). Besides, many upper class, West educated, sophisticated, progressive men and women were her political mentors. Her government was against the ‘vested reactionary interests holding India back’. Her regime was, without doubt, populist and her economic policies were a mixed bag for the poor. In any case, they were not a simplistic homage to the unleashing of market forces and entrepreneurial spirits. Further, there was no Ram temple; there was no Hindutva of RSS. And, of course – such were the times – the gender and caste wars so visible today were still far from the national consciousness.
Despairingly, on all these counts, Modi government is very, very different. It is, in fact, the opposite of the Indira regime. Far from attacking the vested interests, Modi government is an embodiment of these very vested interests. Even as Modi proudly wears the mask of development yet again, his idea of development embraces market forces and entrepreneurial spirits with gusto. He is a beloved of the corporate India, the money bags, not just domestically but internationally as well, as he launches his favourite ‘Make in India’ campaign with the slogan: from red tape to red carpet.
Then, there is the big, all too visible, vocal elephant in the room: the RSS. It is the fountainhead of the idea of somewhat traditional, patriarchal, essentially upper caste India. It is the repository of ancient rituals and norms in the garb of modern nationalism and its anti-minority politics and ideology, specifically anti-Muslim, is the centre piece of its idea of India. This RSS has been Modi’s mentor for almost all his life and more than once, not only has Modi been described as the first Hindu ruler of India in more than 800 hundreds years, he has proudly and publicly owned his long and close association with the RSS.
I do not have to describe the ideology of the RSS in detail. Many are familiar with it. Suffice it is to say that the present Modi regime is in many ways really the RSS regime and nowhere is the RSS influence more visible than in cultural and educational policies and politics of this government. I would suggest that in this cultural ‘vision’ of a hegemonic, Hindu India, the present regime goes far beyond Emergency. It is a subversion of the idea of a modern India on a much larger scale because Emergency did not really pose these threats. At least, then, these threats were not so visible.
Emergency, without doubt, was a subversion of democracy but it was not a battle cry against the very notion of modernity. It was, as it were, a war from within. The present danger, on the other hand, is altogether different. It is an attempt to derail the entire idea of modernity with the seductive idea of a myopic, regressive, ancient Hindu civilisation. Further, all these ideas are couched in the language of nationalism and everyone opposed to this nationalism is increasingly, swiftly branded as anti-national and, by implication, anti-India. In other words, in the present times, when one is battling against the Modi regime, one has to battle against a much darker vision of India.
Sadly, the social reach and legitimacy of this dark vision among the people in the country is much wider as well not only on account of the politics of commission and omission of many previous governments, both at the centre and states, but also deliberate policies of past regimes from time to time, the work of thousands of RSS Shakhas across the length and breadth of the country over decades and the strong hold of conservative, traditional hierarchies at many layers of daily Indian social and political life.
However, as often happens in history, there are often bright spots as well. Fortunately, in our fight against this much darker vision, there are also much wider forces of support around us. These are: the very idea of development that Modi now embraces is past its expiry date and is widely discredited. There are many, many challenges from many quarters to this very idea and however hard Modi and his acolytes may try, the present regime cannot fight against this oppositional tide for too long. Of course, Modi’s idea of lop-sided development is not about to die soon but it is no longer as hegemonic as it used to be once upon a time.
Further, we now have a much larger, much stronger Dalit and women’s movements in all their avatars; there is a permanent breach of traditional consciousness on the politics and notions of their roles and relevance in society and the nation and no Modi or the RSS is going to be able to ever put the genie back in the bottle again. Then, there is social media. No doubt, it cuts both ways but its reach and speed makes it impossible for anyone to maintain and monitor hegemonic control over any idea for long. Again, there is no going back.
Thus, even as battle lines are being redrawn, let us begin by acknowledging that in terms of attacks on democratic space and freedoms, Emergency was much darker, as yet, but in other ways, presently, we have to fight for the much broader idea of India that we hold dear. It is a much tougher battle to fight.