The Beast Before Us

While a government might yearn for approval, it is a huge stretch for it to regard all criticism as ‘anti-national’ activity. It is a desperate cry for immortality in the face of existential threat. It is a sure signal of distress.

Triceratops. Credit: Larry Eiss/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Triceratops. Credit: Larry Eiss/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

“Ek bhasha, ek devta, ek sampraday banana hoga…”
(We need to make ourselves into a people with one language, one god, one community)
– RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat, quoted in The Hindu, February 9 2015

We all know the old story of the four blind men trying to make sense of an elephant in a room. What strikes them first are the details of the beast, and each man sets about building his own theory of the animal based on the tactile data immediately at hand. Still, in the back of their minds, there is a sense of the large presence in the room being a single entity, which they would be able to agree about if only they could get past its distracting outer form.

The events of the past few months on Indian university campuses – FTII, JNU, Hyderabad, and now NIT in Srinagar – have thrown up a basket of terms that similarly obscure the bigger picture of what is happening here. Majority. Uniformity. Development. Hindutva. Dissent. Intolerance. Nationalism. These have become issues to be addressed separately, dissipating the struggle and forcing us all onto the back foot to justify our bona fides in terms set by our opponent.

‘Majority’ is where it all starts. This term calls up memories of democracy, of a time when the will of the people was supposed to hold sway. The outer form of this word has been kept, but its innards have been scooped out and replaced: the new ‘majority’ is something carefully constructed so as to arrive at a pre-determined result. Each minority group has been peeled off, one at a time: religious minorities, ethnic groups from the periphery, ‘other’ castes, left-wing opposition, and, for good measure, women, children, the poor, and the LGBT community. That leaves just a handful of men from the dominant religious group, all upper caste and politically aligned to the right, as the ‘majority’ on centre-stage in this vast and diverse land.

This puts a completely different spin on the uniformity mooted in Mohan Bhagwat’s words above. This is not a homogeneity based on some sort of national average type, or even on the lowest common denominator of our population. It is an assumption that the men on centre-stage are ideals, and that we need to be like them, or else. Projected onto a national level, it is the same thinking we hear from office administrators: that everyone is probably fundamentally ‘like them’, obsessed with the nitty-gritty of management, as they are the basic human template, and that any other attributes that might make the rest of us unique and valuable are just cute add-ons, mostly unneeded if not actually disruptive to the smooth running of the system.

Exclusion as development model 

In another sense, though, this call for uniformity is bogus. Because the very last thing a right-wing regime would want is for everyone to fall in line and get included. No: the aim of the fragmentation is not just to isolate a tiny handful of men and turn them into a ‘majority’. It is also to create an ‘other’, or better yet, a series of ‘others’ suited to different occasions: groups that would never find their way into the world of rights and privileges shared by the ‘majority’. Groups large enough to be a credible threat to the majority, but not large enough to actually win should this ever come to blows.

Othering is a development model that aims to manage a decline. It is a process of disenfranchisement that goes hand in hand with a belief that growth is not going to happen because the national pie is actually shrinking. Othering is a form of triage that removes large sections of the population from government purview, the better to concentrate the resources and effort within a smaller circle of entitlement. But that is not the whole story: just as times of drought have a way of spawning locusts, which pitilessly gobble up all the greenery and make the shortages more acute, there is no intention of the shrunken pie being shared equitably within the ‘majority’. This is an age of locusts: the pie is only for the rich. And the development envisioned is not about growth: it is about extraction, about private profit and public risk. How is it, then, that so many of the poor have bought into this rigged model of development?

The magic trick is: Hindutva. What Hindutva does is not so much bind Hindus into a single constituency as split the ranks of the poor and forestall the possibility of them ever bonding across community lines to threaten the rich men on centre stage. At the end of the day, a ‘majority’ made up of just a handful of self-serving men is way too small to be anything but vulnerable. It needs weight. So, exactly in the manner of the missionaries and proselytisers it otherwise objects to, Hindutva springs into action to reach out to the less privileged caste Hindus, playing to their angst and sense of exclusion from the world of fun and success, while at the same time offering them nothing of any substance. Enlisting them as foot soldiers who would be ready to go against their own class interests in the service of the rich.

This, then, is Hindutva heaven: a shrunken space, so complete and sorted-out that it need only be concerned with running smoothly as it goes about the grisly business of extracting and appropriating the wealth of the planet. It is a world of such dogged, tunnel-visioned certainty that new ideas aimed at course correction hold no appeal. They could only disrupt, as they hint at an outside world full of potential chaos that this solved entity seeks to seal itself off from. Whiffs of ideas blowing in from beyond the periphery will automatically be sensed as an encroachment of entropy, setting off an allergic reaction. They would, at all costs, have to disappear.

The steam is building

Let us imagine a closed system as a sort of pressure cooker. The usual way to make a pressure cooker is to install a vent that lets excess steam blow out of the system from time to time, keeping up just enough pressure in the chamber for the work to be done. Another way is to make the chamber of stronger metal, and confidently do away with the safety valve, so that the pressure can rise even higher. If the heat is not too much, the unsecured system might just work. It would certainly bring results faster than a system with checks and balances, one that factors in the possibility of failure.

But when a tightly sealed pressure cooker blows, the devastation is sudden and total. There is no climb-down back to the earlier state of balance, no Plan B to the rescue. To put it a bit differently, large closed systems operate on a different timetable. Absent are the little daily gains and losses one expects to see, or the sense of flux. Instead, the outward appearance is one of stability, as assaults to the system are absorbed invisibly until they cannot be absorbed any more. At this point a sudden flip occurs that takes us by surprise, because we had no idea at all that the system was in distress. In evolutionary biology, the term for this pattern of transition is punctuated equilibrium, and it is a model that seeks to explain the tempo of species extinction as well as the instant emergence of new species in response to a changed environment.

A government, too, depends crucially on its environment, and its oxygen supply, however robust and unassailable it might appear at the outset. Like a species, it is something large but inherently finite, a mere phase in the lifespan of the nation, the larger ecosystem it inhabits. Species that forego the possibility of adaptation in the interest of size and power tend to become evolutionary dead-ends. So while a government might yearn for approval, it is a huge stretch for it to regard all criticism as ‘anti-national’ activity. This is conceptual shrinkage at work, a trimming down of the scope and meaning of words like ‘nation’ to fit the dimensions of a manufactured majority with a temporary grip on power. It is a desperate cry for immortality in the face of existential threat. It is a sure signal of distress.

But the beast before us is not alone: it is linked to rightwing activity on a global scale, which played a big role in bringing it to power in the first place. It is armoured against our piddly attempts at frontal attack. Any creature of this size fears only the loss of its energy supply and its oxygen: its more reluctant supporters on the fringe and the bright-eyed futuristic youth inevitably drawn towards new ideas and dreams of the open road. That is why it reacts so viscerally to any sign of dissent on the campuses, and to movements that assert a claim to portions of what it sees as its territory.

We have reached a junction, and the road ahead is hard to gauge. We are up against all-or-nothing certainty, a force that has bided its time for over a century waiting for its day in the sun. Now that it is here at last it is not going to lean towards compromise. The only way out of this mess is reversal.

Are we headed for the big blowout, after which we restart our journey on scorched earth? Does the beast before us cannily back off and buy itself time? Is there a chance of compromise that spares us all the trauma and dislocation of thinking afresh and charting a new course? We don’t know. If we believe at all in reversal, and a climb down to a less controlled world closer to ground state, we need not so much to confront and assert as to look out for the new currents slightly beyond the range of our vision and give them strength. We need to keep depriving the beast of its oxygen, and work to win away its human shields. And we need to become better at reading its behaviour to be alert to signs that things are about to turn, so that we are ready with new ideas to pick ourselves up and start again.

Peggy Mohan is a linguist and author

  • onetwothree

    All the self claimed “the secular” media is blaming directly or undirectly the present government. They have been voted in a democratic way written in the constitution… So believe or not, along with the “majority” as per described above have voted for them but also large portion of big “minority” voted for them(remind me how many seats in the lok sabha?)… And since then these so called secular are blaming the government of doing all undemocratic crimes! Mostly citing some less intelligent of the government supporters like RSS leaders. Instead of creating constructive dialogue we all are busy in a very lame blame game and wasting of time. Please remind me Peggy Mohan, when did the prime minister himself said any thing bad related to lower castes or minorities? I understand in a democracy we need a strong opposition, but the opposition should bring some constructive arguments to make the country a better place. Whenever a foolish from RSS or some “sant” or some “Baba” say some stupidity to gain media attention, the secular start back the blame game! In Srinagar, student groups were fighting about a cricket match result, and media shows It’s modi’s fault! Are you even serious? These RSS people are not saying anything new! While Congress was in power they were saying exactly these stupid things, they are just getting media attention from you now, and media is only responsible for the bad faith atmosphere in the country!
    More over you also ruined the word “secular”, Those less intelligent have ruined the word ” Hindutva”. These word were never ment to have the connotation it has taken now. (Like Socialists in USA, even though there is nothing bad with the word it self)


    Talk about what should be done in Marathwad or in Kerala or in Kolkata… Blaming somebody because some of his supporters are stupid just remove all the credibility of your argument! The Wire, you used to be more credible then this!