An old Persian fable – The Devil’s Syrup – highlights the purpose of the Devil: to disrupt, create chaos and gain power through anarchy. An honest man enters a confectioner’s shop. The Devil quietly drips a drop of sugar syrup on the confectioner’s balding head. A fly sits on his head and begins to suck the syrup. The honest man sees the fly, takes off his shoe and whacks the fly on the confectioner’s head. The confectioner is angry. He doesn’t believe that the honest man was merely hitting the fly. The honest man says that was the only reason, but the confectioner does not believe him. A fight ensues. Others arrive. The shop is destroyed.
The Devil’s Syrup is a story about the universality of deception. The syrup of propaganda produces disaffection, which erupts in an alternative narrative, points to enemies, disorients people and delivers power to the deceivers. Truth is suppressed, incomplete information is provided and lies are dressed up to look like ‘facts’. An emotional not a rational response is evoked by the deceiver.
Deception is one part of the grammar of Modi’s politics. Another is the production of division and of fear. These are the pieces of Modi’s strategy, what has enabled Modi to come to power.
There is a classic tale of the Umayad Caliph Muawiya who wanted to discredit the house of Abdul Muttalib, Muhammad’s patriarch. He asked his counsel Amr bin al-Aas to find a man from the house of Abdul Muttalib who had a character flaw. Amr recommended Aqeel bin Abi Talib, Muhammad’s cousin. When Aqeel visits Muawiya’s court, the Caliph had the Surah al-Masad (from the Quran) recited in the court,
May the hands of Abu Lahab be ruined, and ruined is he. His wealth will not avail him or that which he gained. He will [enter to] burn in a Fire of [blazing] flame and his wife [as well] – the carrier of firewood. Around her neck is a rope of [twisted] fibre.
Then Muawiya mocks Aqeel by saying, ‘Don’t you know Aqeel that the Abu Lahab mentioned in these verses is your paternal Uncle?’ Aqeel immediately quips, ‘Why don’t you disclose that the carrier of firewood, the woman mentioned in these verses is your paternal aunt?’
This whole display of dialogue between Muawiya and Aqeel is farcical. The idea is not to invoke an ethical debate but to suppress information, present it as banter, create an emotional upheaval through humiliation, and win legitimacy by creating a false sense of victory.
William Gibson, the science fiction writer says perceptively, ‘Fascism first causes, then thrives on the chaos for which it presents itself as the sole cure.’
Modi arrives in the cow belt in Bihar during the election campaign of 2014. He invokes the ‘pink revolution’ that will overtake the country. India, Modi says, is the largest meat exporter and he accuses meat exporters of colluding the butchers – who are mainly Muslims. Modi didn’t say that one of the largest meat exporters is an active member of the BJP and that the other largest meat exporter is a very loud public supporter of the BJP. All the classic tropes are at play. A farcical premise is set up, a debate ensues to distract the public, information is suppressed, an element of fear is introduced, and the only saviour is the perpetrator of this fear. And then there is the chilling dynamic that gets set up – six months after this speech, a man was falsely accused of storing beef in his house, then he was lynched and murdered in broad daylight.
To gaslight is a devious project – to make someone doubt what they know, play with their memory, make them feel like what they are being accused of is what they have done. The forces of Hindutva have made gaslighting part of their arsenal over the past several decades.
In the first year of independence, Rajendra Prasad – India’s first President – who sympathized with the right wing and even with Hindutva, wrote (on March 14, 1948) to India’s Home Minister Sardar Patel, who also sympathized with these forces,
I am told that RSS people have a plan of creating trouble. They have got a number of men dressed as Muslims and looking like Muslims who are to create trouble with the Hindus by attacking them and thus inciting the Hindus. Similarly there will be some Hindus among them who will attack Muslims and thus incite Muslims. The result of this kind of trouble amongst the Hindus and Muslims will be to create a conflagration.
Suspicion and doubt are the result. Images are manufactured by whatever unethical or illegitimate means. Stereotypes are established. Refusal of them, rebuttal of their contours: none of this work matters once the prejudice is shaped. In our time, the landscape of gaslighting is produced through WhatsApp messages, fake news websites, screams by armies of paid trolls, fake debates run by biased news anchors, visual depictions of a particular narrative in advertisements and billboards – all this manufactures perception, shapes the narrative, drives home the point about dangerous ‘outsiders’ and beleaguered ‘insiders’. Homicide and genocide begin to seem legitimate inside this echo chamber.
The idea is to create suspicion, doubt, and a particular perception that establishes a stereotypical image of the other. Manufacture the image if need be even through unethical and illegitimate means because the end justifies the process. Once the stereotype is established, once people’s beliefs are firmed up then no amount of refusal, rebuttal, corroboration by facts will matter. The narrative necessarily would transform into one of pride and feelings, glory and humiliation, and all one would care is to restore the same. The WhatsApp messages, fake news websites, tilted debates by biased news anchors, visual depictions of a particular narrative in advertisements and billboards, serve the same purpose of stoking the manufactured perception. Once the divisiveness cleaves through the society then even genocide and homicide becomes legitimate. Ultimately, the ethnic cleansing will ensure a pure race, an unsullied culture, a golden age, and an Elysium where everything will be in harmony. The enemy with its filth – culture, language, stories, cuisine, symbols and architecture – would have been flushed away.