Among the many homilies in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech to the nation on Tuesday – which many astute observers summed up as telling the citizens, ‘you are basically on your own’ – was a mention about youth groups – Yuva Mitras – in every neighbourhood who would ensure that people followed COVID-19 and lockdown protocols.
As always, no further details were provided, and this allows us to speculate. What exactly will such groups do and how will they do their tasks? Will they have powers to enforce the rules? Will they urge, request, implore or threaten with word and deed? Will they patrol the streets or go from house to house? Will they work as an arm of the police or even the various Residents Welfare Associations etc., which are often more deadly than the cops?
Now think about how it would have been had the prime minister said, “There should be youth groups who help people get groceries, medicines, hospital admission and oxygen”? Such groups can be at the service of vulnerable people, especially the elderly, and be of great assistance to their respective neighbourhoods and the nation (because ultimately we are all at the service of the nation).
What could have been a call for benign participation by citizens is now looking menacing. History buffs will instantly see comparisons with the youth brigades of Germany, which initially were set up for a whole range of religious and social issues, but which eventually gave way to a massive, well-organised body of young men imbued with the Nazi ideology. They spied on people and institutions, and were trained to become future political and military leaders.
The idea of vigilante groups is very appealing to political leaders who want a support base outside the existing structures. The BJP has the RSS, but it was the latter that spawned the former. Besides, party leaders have always found that total freedom from the RSS is almost impossible. Modi has managed it the best, since it is clear that the RSS needs him to fulfil its agenda, but even he has constraints. If such youth groups are set up systematically, they could be loyal to him. And it will give him not just political but also social control.
Ultimately it is about control. Not just about social behaviour or political thought, though those are critical, but also on freedoms. Freedom – to organise, to think, to speak and even to eat – is a cornerstone of democracy. That troubles political leaders, especially those with autocratic tendencies.
Nor are only politicians concerned; even businessmen and technocrats find that unbridled freedom is an impediment to progress; their progress, mainly. I once happened to be at a gathering where a famous legal-eagle, representing corporate interests, was chafing at the activism that was holding up a project, and said, “The problem with India is that it has too much democracy.” The same person had passionately argued for freedoms in the aftermath of the Emergency. During the constitutional debates, many leaders were against the idea of universal adult franchise, but Babasaheb Ambedkar, fully supported by Jawaharlal Nehru, pushed it through.
Only recently, the government’s favourite bureaucrat Amitabh Kant was reported as saying that India had ‘too much democracy’ because it then made it difficult to institute ‘tough’ reforms.
The impulse to control extends much beyond that. The Brahmins who were custodians of knowledge, ensured that it was imparted in Sanskrit which kept it out of reach for other groups. India’s bureaucracy may have been set up by the British, but is in consonance with the Indian genius in its ability to hold back goods, services and information from the aam janta. The unspoken thought behind it is that the people do not know what is good for them, they need to be told.
We have seen recent attempts to impose restrictions on romances and marriage – love jihad laws, diets, the beef ban – and now, Piyush Goyal, with his Darwinian ideas, wants even life-saving decisions to be taken by the government. He wagged his finger at state governments because they kept on asking for more oxygen cylinders instead of controlling demand. There was just too much wastage, he felt.
The implications are troubling because it could be taken to mean that those who have minimal chance of living should be deprived of precious oxygen and the cylinders should be limited to those with a long, productive life ahead of them. Perhaps a team of bureaucrats will be the judge of that, advising doctors to pull out the connections.
Pillars of democracy – the judiciary and the media among them – have already been controlled and the troublesome civil society, from NGOs to activists, are being targeted. The high-profile cases are well known, but behind the scenes, scores if not hundreds of small NGOs working have found their accounts frozen without recourse. They are, for all purposes, finished. Others are being careful to not come under the government’s eye. And laws are specifically designed to impose executive oversight on digital news platforms, which are mostly independent minded. The international platforms who rank India low on internet or press freedom don’t really matter to this establishment.
We have been here before, when Indira Gandhi imposed the Emergency in 1975 and threw opponents in jail and censored the media. She was initially applauded by the middle-class but when the elections were held in 1977 she was thrown out of power.
This time it is different. The new Indian middle-class – aspirational Indians – has cheered all these initiatives and is in complete sync with the political class. This middle-class doesn’t believe in abstract notions like free expression. All its fantasies are coming true – greater control over malcontents, be they of the wrong religion or work for human rights of the poor and the marginalised. Indeed, they see the poor as a drag on the economy and on India’s future trajectory as a super power – nothing would give them more satisfaction than the poor, the vulnerable and the unhealthy simply disappearing.
The pandemic is hitting people irrespective of religion, caste and privilege – will the death and destruction change their minds, perhaps demand more governance and accountability? Will Goyal’s seeming insensitivity upset and anger them? Will they finally see that incompetence is costing lives, including of their near and dear ones? We shall see, though I wouldn’t place a large bet on it.
As far as the Indian establishment, is concerned, it definitely knows the best course ahead – put curbs and control on both democracy and oxygen. And it is the youth vigilante groups that will ensure that.