Corpses have stacked up regularly during Narendra Modi’s two decades in public office, the difference this time is that his popularity hasn’t grown with the heap. An organising principle that divided Indian corpses into two lots seems to have broken down. Earlier, the dead had separated neatly between our bodies and theirs. Ours had a precise count, one that worked electoral magic, our dead of Godhra and Pulwama, for instance. Their bodies were coolly shrugged off, which yielded its own electoral dividends. A good part of Modi’s appeal flowed from a special handshake with his admirers, over violent deaths dismissed with impunity.
The second category of the dead, their dead, is better known as the “at least”. It spans the at least 1,000 dead of the Gujarat pogrom and the at least 300 farmers who have died, unacknowledged by Modi, at Delhi’s borders this year. Among the at-least are the dead of demonetisation and of the first covid lockdown, people killed by state persecution during Assam’s NRC process, and the dead of the Delhi pogrom. Buried under the at-least is another category, of the very least, the unremarked, whose deaths were a medium to long-term effect of the Modi government’s policies. People who perished quietly, of chronic hunger and untreated disease. Families, whose lives crashed when a precarious employment and support structure was removed from under them. Those who, singly or in groups, found themselves isolated before great injustice and did not survive their ordeal. Their deaths carry no electoral charge at all.
Modi’s problem today is that the categories have come to overlap. It is our dead whose numbers he is keen to suppress. A tricky challenge, but he has brazened his way out of these jams before. As when twenty Indian soldiers were bludgeoned or pushed to their deaths in the Galwan Valley last year, with the prime minister claiming shortly after that no Chinese intrusion had occurred. Or in February this year, when the Indian Medical Association was compelled to lodge a protest at the government’s drastic undercount of deaths among doctors in the first wave of the pandemic. But those were hiccups compared to now, when we enter – in the “at least” column – a quarter of a million dead.
Finding the true comparator, the historical analogue of this devastation depends on how we consider the last seven years. For long the question was whether this was a new Emergency. A little later, the scale of the chaos – displacement in tandem with lawlessness – put commentators in mind of Partition. The Bengal Famine, as an administration-induced calamity, may be the next stop. But an equally compelling case can be made for the similarities between our present and the early to mid nineteenth century, the peak of Company raj. We see the loss of employment on a catastrophic scale. Immense private fortunes made on the back of an economy and administration in financial distress. An imperious and self-satisfied government that grows increasingly wayward and unreliable. History flattened into simple-minded postulates. The sowing of division between religious communities. Widespread repression. Most of all, an India falling off the global map even as state propaganda claims the country is on an upswing, that the thrashing in the water is not a drowning but the end of stagnation.
What kind of ideas will revive the colonial milieu in an independent country? The Sangh’s quarrel was never with colonialism – this is a well-attested fact of the historical record. Post independence, the Hindu Right retained the colonial view of India’s history, and a pointless obsession with reversing the outcome of medieval battles. That the RSS is a by-product or effluent of the colonial experience remains obvious today, in its idolisation of the motherland (aping Britannia, Germania, etc.) and of a Western-style map revered as Akhand Bharat. Also its choice of uniform, penchant for marching, avoidance of internal democracy, suspicion of individual liberty and, a dead giveaway, its tortured quest for masculinity. The RSS holds a very public grudge against free India’s constitution, most of all against secularism and equal citizenship. The Sangh government’s reflexive affinity for raj-era laws shows in a frequent resort to sedition charges, more recently fixing on the epidemic diseases act as well. Whether with the tweaked UAPA or new rules for digital platforms, its legal innovations broaden the ambit of state surveillance and coercion. If anything, Modi’s Central Vista project outmatches the colonial government in wastefulness, opacity and hubris. He takes no questions, bypasses procedural clearances and is the only expert he recognises. The model of authority being referenced is clear.
Provoked by the government’s attempts to turn the clock back on independence, movement after people’s movement has raised the call of azaadi. The way the Sangh turned free India’s constitution against itself, letter against the spirit, has its starkest illustration in the profile of our political prisoners today. From Natasha Narwal to Anand Teltumbde, Akhil Gogoi to Hany Babu, Jyoti Jagtap and Umar Khalid, they embody the promise of the independence movement: secular, diverse, egalitarian thinking, a commitment to social inclusion and reasoned discourse. Their unending pretrial imprisonment tells against not just the Sangh government but the wider circuits of institutional collusion around it, the ideological compact around preserving inequality.
If those circuits are starting to spark and fuse it is because our bodies have become hopelessly entangled with theirs. Covid is less discriminating in its choice of victims than a pogrom or the sack of a university campus or the abrupt rescission of a state’s constitutional standing. India’s norms of social distancing were on a roll throughout the first lockdown. Ironically, they reached their breaking point with the “Indian strain” of the virus. The compact among state institutions has come under stress, after abetting seven years of assault on truth, rights, equality, decency, due process and limits on state authority. Mass murder and genocide, openly proposed as political solutions just a year ago, to no legal repercussions, are terms now thundered out in court and echoed by an awed media, this time as charges against the government. It is futile to try and draw a circle around covid alone, or to attempt a topical cure, because the crisis is really that of a polity steadily drained of moral purpose and intellectual substance, its belief in the entitlement of some over others, in power liberated from ethics and the espousal of blatant lies. It is where brahminism and modern authoritarianism reach their confluence: a spot marked by the statue of Manu outside the Rajasthan high court, of Manu Needhi Cholan outside the Madras high court.
Grading by status is the central concern of brahminism, as much as common dignity is of human rights. Unlike dignity, importance is a zero-sum game, a rise in the status of one group offset by another’s loss. The Sangh claims precedence for Hindu citizens in this spirit, as if the full enjoyment of their citizenship depended on restricting the claims of others. But a pecking order is no template for citizenship. All it does is impose a gap between the dominant and the subordinate party on any given axis. Just like caste. If last year’s plate-beating crowds could eclipse the migrant workers forced out on the roads, it follows that they, plate beaters and bells ringers, will stand diminished before a grandiose Central Vista project. It’s how the logic of importance always plays out.
Dominance has to be wrested from others. Conflict is its true element. For years, humdrum workaday jobs have been clad in armour, with safai warriors, digital yoddhas, exam warriors etc. Militarising every aspect of our civic existence has served the Sangh government well, by installing a subconscious reminder of hindutva’s perpetual call to arms. It also serves as the background score to a war in the shadows, where the enemy is foggily identified as urban naxals and jihadis – free-size terms to fit any opponent of hindutva. Covid first arrived among us as a corona jihad, its dreaded vector that old pollutant, the quranovirus. Many tablighi prisoners of war later, a new frontline was opened, of corona warriors – health workers this time, not hatemongers on TV. Even so, the discursive trap of warfare stayed in place. It did away with the need for consensus, transparency, sober planning, responsible decision-making, i.e., a civic response. In a warzone, talk of rights is redundant. Casualties, martyrs, collateral damage and logistical breakdown are the order of the day. A wartime public must acclaim their general and his leadership, come what may. This is no time to query his judgement, the structure of command or choice of tactics; that becomes treason.
There is consternation today at Adityanath’s brutality with protesters, with journalists, with questioners, and at the central government’s use of the police in Delhi, but the leeway of wartime authority has been at their disposal for years – against Kashmir, the anti-CAA demonstrations, university students, farmers. Our police, courts and mass media have identified “anti-nationals” largely by the lights of the Sangh. A secular vanguard of feminists, adivasis, dalits and Muslims ought to be considered an asset to the republic. Such people are instead held in jail without trial. The charge sheets against them don’t even need to make sense. Standing up to Manu’s social order is offence enough. The war on covid may not be going too well but, so far, the one on the constitution looks encouraging for the Sangh.
Activists, lawyers, journalists, professors and students are targeted for a more private and delicate reason, too. Secular knowledge has been an enduring torment to hindutva. The Sangh bruises easily, its self-image based on fever dreams of past and future glory, tall yarns and pretend expertise. Besides, the pursuit of inequality requires keeping at bay independent standards of verification and judgement, whether news, data or analysis. Lately, the State has turned into hindutva’s shelter against the storm of reality. Control over mass media, the spread of falsehoods, reliance on propaganda, sowing confusion, stoking hate, browbeating and trolling, police action and vengeful charge sheets, a government that talks out of both sides of its mouth: these are the Sangh’s epistemic tools. There is nothing new about the government’s response to covid. Let’s not pretend we don’t recognise these artful dodges and deliberate muddles. When clear-cut facts become inchoate there arises political opportunity. It is when a Sudha Bharadwaj can be sent to jail, a Pragya Thakur to parliament. In such a climate, the supreme court may choose to avert its gaze from violations of both human rights and the basic structure of the constitution. When professionalism declines so does trust in public institutions. The circle completes itself. Nothing stands between hindutva and the concentration of power.
While the Sangh is not the first to make a meal ticket out of India’s social divisions, it is unique in two respects. One, in having no other card to play. Two, it has exploited India’s divisions in a singular manner, by always referring back to the crimes of others in order to justify its own. Citing the worst examples set by previous governments creates a value system where poor conduct becomes a valid benchmark. From mob violence to the UAPA, every outrage is licensed via precedent. The word for this kind of authority is kakistocracy: the rule of the worst. A state guided by its worst traits. A more powerful disincentive to integrity and public morality cannot be imagined.
The imposture of being a brahminical vishwaguru has gone the way of every clever scheme from these seven years. The world won’t be applying to Modi for guidance after all. India, sadly, doesn’t have that option. If the pogrom of 2002 could be converted from a crime to a matter of Gujarati pride, it is possible Modi and the Sangh will ride out the present disgrace as well. Since 2014, the Gujarat Model has held sway over India. We have a government that promotes public crises. Consider a mere seven-day stretch. Last month, on April 7, Narendra Modi was serenely guiding students on how to approach their board exams. His credentials to do so being best known to him (and to Penguin Random House, which proudly issued an “updated” edition of Exam Warriors this year). Neither his scholastic record nor his own aversion to taking questions seems to matter here. The next day, April 8, he received his second shot of Covaxin and later that day held a meeting with chief ministers, where he expressed concern over the gathering second wave of the pandemic while placing the onus of containing it squarely on them. He would later place the financial burden of procuring vaccines on them, as well. Vaccine shortages were already being reported from Maharashtra, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh, but never mind. A “tika utsav” was scheduled from April 11 to 14. On April 12, Modi addressed a packed rally at Barasat (West Bengal), his third rally of the day, where he amused the crowd with catcalls to Mamata Banerjee. On April 13, he announced that from May 1 all Indians above 18 would be eligible for the vaccine. He knew better than anyone that no such stock of vaccines existed, but the message sounded upbeat and the Bengal elections would be safely over when the day of truth arrived. A gravity-free zone of loose promises and no responsibility has been his habitat all along.
Given this latitude, Modi may yet reinvent himself as the principal mourner of India’s dead: perhaps sporting a new look on a tearful boat-ride down the Ganga. The Sangh’s dominance of resources and the mass media will then reassert itself. Independent-minded professionals will continue to resign and be ousted. Sangh-ruled states will return to devising new laws to torment Muslims, composing new paeans to the cow and its excreta. The opposition will get back into a circular firing squad. Yet another supreme court judge will choose an official function to hymn Modi. State governments will be toppled, the constitution bled some more. A new Ram temple, a new Central Vista and new sheets of fudged data on the economy will raise cheers. There will be new political prisoners, of course. And many empty promises. The functional logic of Manu’s republic will be restored.
Unlike the Manusmriti, Plato’s Republic does not defend the prevailing power structure. Nor does it lay down the law in a one-sided communication. It records (or claims to remember) an extended conversation among seven main discussants, with a few others listening and weighing in, about what makes the ideal state, the beautiful city. The book opens, however, with a failed conversation. Thrasymachus, a professional argufier, sneers at Socrates and his drippy concern with virtue, justice, rightness, universal happiness. Government, to Thrasymachus, is an expression of power both as a means and an end. Order is what counts. It is ordained by the powerful to suit their interests. That’s the long and short of it. Socrates flails in attempting to answer him. He can gain no real purchase on Thrasymachus’s absolutist stand. Indeed, persuasion is impossible since Thrasymachus doesn’t really care what anyone else thinks. He insists on being paid to speak. Having spoken, he can’t be bothered to stay back and listen to others. He departs. Those left behind can either shrug their shoulders and change the subject, or try and see if they can’t overcome their various differences to reach common ground. This is what they set out to do. The proposals of classical Athenian speakers are of their time, but The Republic is a conversation that could not have occurred in Thrasymachus’s presence, or addressed itself directly to him. It is a conversation that can begin only after he has quit the scene. A conversation that everyone else needs to have, for the sake of common sanity, happiness, even for commonality to exist.