Life Amidst ‘Political Schizophrenia’

October 17, 2015
Neera Chandhoke


The state of India today is that of political schizophrenia. Schizophrenia is a condition in which the mind relates to a single object as if it was two unrelated objects. This is exactly our condition. We have a Prime Minister who speaks at a feverish pitch of ‘digital India’,’ skills’ India, ‘Wi Fi India’ and of expanding the domain of the internet. Never mind that the villagers he wants to acquaint with Wi Fi suffer from malnutrition, infant mortality, disease, illiteracy, and debt bondage. The last has compelled farmers to commit suicide. If farmers commit suicide when the PM has proclaimed ‘acche din aaye hai’ or ‘good times are here’, this should be cause for worry, for anxiety, for backtracking, for anxiously revisiting plans and programmes, and for agonising about premature deaths in a country that has witnessed impressive figures of economic growth in the last few years. But no, because this government has no sense of what the priorities of the country are.

However, for the moment, let us forget this extremely ugly side of development, and ask what a society that connects digitally with the world looks like. The internet and social media has introduced us at a rapid pace to developments in science and technology, to other life styles, to other ways of thinking and being, to music, to art, to cinema, to theatre, and to other histories and to other geographies. We become familiar with the tragedies of migrants in Europe, and with the horrors perpetrated by the ISIS. Our hearts go out to people who have been torn from their homes, we feel sympathy for thousands who live precarious lives, and who are fated to uncertain futures.

Sympathy is a powerful emotion, it allows us to connect to others and to broaden our hearts and our minds, deepen emotions and expand horizons. We become aware that humanity has much in common, the capacity to feel joy and the capacity to mourn, to wonder at the constellation of stars, and to weep at tragedies. Connectedness through the internet should lead to an interconnected world, a shared world of emotions, of solidarity, of internationalism, and of radical cosmopolitanism.

But this is not to be. So ordains one of the most fascist organisations the world has seen. This is the other side of political schizophrenia. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), euphoric at the electoral victory of its parliamentary wing, flexing its muscles at the prospect of putting its own people – mediocrities at best and ignorant at worst – in control of educational and cultural institutions, and sticking out its collective tongue at secularists who rightly regard Hindutva as a perversion of everything our freedom struggle stood for, and our constitution stands for, unfalteringly promotes the ideology of divisiveness and of insularity. The project of the RSS is simply that of ‘closing down the Indian mind’. So much for the hegemony of science, technology, and of the informational revolution, the PM so ardently speaks of.

The mandate of the PM and of the RSS seemingly contradicts; one focusses on connectivity, the other on narrowing down visions and political imaginaries. The PM weeps at the drop of the proverbial hat at public meetings, RSS cadres do not flinch when people are lynched and killed for something as innocuous as culinary tastes, or for attacking superstition. The contrast between the vision of digital India and that of a lumpenised India: between television channels that foster a taste for fine food and wine, and ardent advocates of the benefits of cow urine by pracharaks, would be laughable if it were not so tragic. What we see are attempts to stamp the politics of hate and the culture of divisiveness onto a society that has been encouraged to respect plurality.

There is cause for despair. There was a time when university professors taught young minds the paramount need to respect other human beings simply because they are human, the virtue of equality, the value of tolerance, and above all that the ‘quality of mercy is not strained’ as Shakespeare had philosophised. These values are not from nowhere; they are found in the preamble of our fine constitution. Today we find our universities, our colleges, our academic and cultural institutions packed with ‘academics’ armed with just one project: to dumb down the history of India. And because history tells us where we have come from, and where we are today, because history is important to understand how we reached ‘here’ from ‘there’, the project is simply that of closing down the Indian mind.

Witness the eagerness with which a historian who has taken over as Chairman of the Indian Council of Historical Research tries to marginalise the art of history writing. His meagre and completely unnoticed contribution to history rests in attempts to demarcate dates when our great epics were written. Considering that the epic as a literary form covers wide swathes of time and brings together scattered tales and episodes, the attempt to date an epic goes against every single grain of historical evidence. Who needs history; we need mythology we are told blithely. In the process the art of writing history is reduced, and we are diminished.

Equally note the zeal with which the minister of state for culture, Dr Mahesh Sharma a committed RSS man, has attempted to play down the contribution of the finest statesman the nation has known, Jawaharlal Nehru. The RSS leadership is determined to turn the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library into a Museum for Governance. As an aside I do not think these zealous Modi followers even know what the term governance means. Governance is a property of the government, or more precisely of administration. It indicates and aspires that governments should do whatever they are supposed to be doing, well. It is a completely apolitical term; there is nothing remotely democratic about it. The government of the former PM of Singapore Lee Kuan Yew was known for good governance, it was not corrupt and it was efficient. But the country is not a democracy; it can even be called a police state.

That apart, the project of the RSS is obviously to wipe out from living memory contributions of the leaders of the freedom struggle such as Nehru. The contrast between Nehru, the quintessential cosmopolitan, and the votaries of Hindutva is glaring. The RSS practices the politics of hate. Its brand of unthinking nationalism holds aloft narrow notions of who belongs and who does not, who has a right to a state of one’s own and who does not. It seeks to harness political passions to the cause of a ‘state of one’s own’; or more precisely majoritarianism. The ideology is starkly exclusionary, and openly chauvinistic.

Unthinking and unreasonable nationalism can deflect reasoned consideration of issues, such as justice, which is crucial to the project of living together in a political community. When it comes to nationalism, we should take our cue from Rabindranath Tagore. “I am willing to serve my country;” states Tagore’s protagonist Nikhil, “but my worship I reserve for Right, which is far greater than any country. To worship my country as a god is to bring a curse upon it.” Organisations devoted to the politics of hateful nationalism should do some reading.

Irrespective of the fate of NMML, Nehru will be remembered as a well-read, gifted, statesman, a radical cosmopolitanism, who was committed to democracy and to minority rights within the country, and to liberation of the colonised world outside the country. A number of leaders of the freedom struggle privileged civic ties over ethnic ones; and secular, democratic and inclusive ideologies over claims of blood. If we forget cosmopolitans like Nehru the way the RSS leadership would like us to do, we will become lesser beings, inwards looking, preoccupied with ‘me’ and ‘mine’, and indifferent to other struggles and other aspirations.

This was precisely the attitude of the forerunner of the RSS, the Hindu Mahasabha. On 8 August 1942 the Congress launched the nation-wide Quit India movement. All Congress ministers elected according to the Government of India Act of 1935 resigned. The colonial power responded with an onslaught of tremendous violence. The Hindu Mahasabha quickly moving into places of power joined the Muslim League that had also stayed away from the Quit India movement, and formed governments in Bengal and Sindh. This opportunism and unscrupulousness was in complete consonance with the policy of the Mahasabha; that of ‘protecting’ Hindu interests even if it had to support the British government, and enter into an alliance with the Muslim League. For the colonial power, the Mahasabha was a pliable group, and extremely convenient because it countered increasingly radical agitations launched by the Congress, as well as the Communist Party of India.

Veer Savarkar who at one point of time was anti-British, and who later capitulated to the colonial power so that he could be released from jail in the Andamans, urged the Mahasabha to support Britain in the war effort. “Hindu Mahasabha must, therefore, rouse Hindus, especially in the provinces of Bengal and Assam, as effectively as possible to enter the military forces of all arms without losing a single minute” he stated at the 23rd session of the Mahasabha in 1941. This was said at the time the Congress was poised to launch the Quit India Movement, and Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose was urging Indians to revolt against colonial rule.

If we note the series of sordid compromises the Hindu Mahasabha negotiated with the colonial government in order to access office, we will find it ironic that it’s legatee the RSS, attacks the communists for betraying the war effort and not supporting the Indian National Army. The CPI did not profit from the resignation of Congress ministries the way the Hindu Mahasabha did. On the contrary the Communist leadership concentrated on mobilising Indians to demand justice from the colonial, and a future postcolonial government. Historians tell us that massive unrest in the country peaked in July, August and September 1946, after which communal riots took over and disrupted labour unity in the big cities. Most of these strikes were led and directed by the Communist Party of India. But Savarkar defended the eagerness of the Mahasabha to partner the Muslim League in the coalition government in the name of practical politics.

It is this history of betrayal and compromise, and of non-participation in the freedom struggle, that the RSS tries to gloss over by trying to obliterate the legacy of democracy and secularism that leaders of the freedom struggle bequeathed to us. They do so by taking over academia and cultural institutes and destroying them. But what do they have to show? Nothing but a history of bloodshed, of bullying and terrorising the minorities, and attempts to revert back to some pristine Hindu past, as if there is no institutionalised injustice in Hinduism, injustice to women, injustice to the so-called lower castes, and injustice to the tribal people.

The focus on the media is on the efforts of the PM to attract foreign capital to India’s shores. It is a neo-liberal agenda that speaks of the need to globalise the economy. RSS has the ambition to remake India into a country that is obscurantist and backward looking, which will concentrate on superstition, on mythology, and on the healing properties of cow urine. The RSS cadres seek to remake geography, remould and flatten out society, and rewrite history. The PM tries to take the economy in a forward direction. The RSS seeks to turn back India towards a hoary past. The rhetoric and the strategy of the latter are truly frightening. But Mr Modi, the futuristic prime minister makes no attempt to control the RSS. Indeed he gives a report card to the RSS leadership, but not to the citizens, a section of which voted for him. Mr Modi is after all a member of a bellicose RSS that seeks to terrorise minorities and establish who belongs and who does not. Perhaps economic liberalisation and political illiberalism are not symptoms of schizophrenia or of a split personality; they are two sides of the same coin. Perhaps we face an integrated agenda with two faces and two sides. That is the tragedy.