As per the lexicon, I am a secular liberal. I am amongst those who believe the Constitution of India should be followed in letter and in spirit, and that no ideology or religion should get special backing from the government, least of all one that is bent on whipping up communal passions. I am also amongst those who believe that dialogue, debate and dissent are good for a democracy. I am not amongst those who believe that Narendra Modi and the BJP have been good for India.
And yet, looking back over the last four-and-a-half turbulent years, there are at least five reasons why I am, in a manner of speaking, grateful for the reign of Modi. I am acutely aware of the damage the last few years have done to the social fabric of the country and to its economic well-being. But the ability to see the positives in a negative situation is often exactly what makes us feel less helpless in the face of grave difficulties, and do something about them.
Modi’s reign has turned detached bystanders into active students of Indian politics.
I never followed Indian politics closely. Sure, I’ve kept up with major political events over the decades but they never gave me much to pause for (except for maybe the demolition of the Babri Masjid and the assassinations of two prime ministers). That changed when Modi became prime minister of India in 2014.
Wasn’t this the man who had been banned from entering the US because of his alleged complicity in the Gujarat pogrom of 2002? Wasn’t this the chief minister who had made inflammatory speeches against Muslims calling relief camps ‘baby-producing factories’? Was public memory so amnesiac that a self-declared adherent of Hindutva – who had been condemned by the national and international media – had just become India’s prime minister?
My reading preferences changed overnight. I found myself buying books I would never pick up before. Manoj Mitta’s Fiction of Fact-Finding pointed out huge loopholes in the SIT investigation that Modi had faced. It took a second read to understand not just the whole sequence of events that led to the Gujarat genocide of 2002, but also how the state machinery was suspended just long enough to let the dance of death claim over 1,000 lives.
Gas Wars by Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, former editor of the Economic and Political Weekly, and a Feast of Vultures by journalist Josy Joseph highlighted in chilling detail – the inordinate influence major business houses exert on Indian governments. Suffice to say, I got a crash course on the unholy nexus between business, politics and the media.
Former bureaucrat and activist Harsh Mander educated me on the history of communalism and the stark inequalities of India in his precise and evocative book, Looking Away. I even started reading Noam Chomsky and understanding how Manufacturing Consent is the method of choice for most governments to keep their citizens toeing line.
Modi’s reign has given rise to a new generation of youth leaders.
When Kanhaiya Kumar was arrested and Jawaharlal Nehru University was declared a hotbed of ‘anti-national activities’ in early 2016, the students and faculty immediately organised a series of open lectures on nationalism every evening for a week. I attended the very first one fully expecting to see a bunch of wild-eyed radicals raising anti-establishment slogans. What I saw instead was a thousand-strong crowd of students listening quietly and keenly to a professor speak on theories of nationalism.
I was taken aback by the contrast between how JNU students were actually like and the way they were portrayed by many news channels. I decided to spend the rest of the evening chatting with as many scholars as I could. Far from finding a ‘tukde-tukde gang’, I discovered intelligent and nuanced young people studying the intricacies of Indian society, culture and politics in an attempt to better understand and hopefully find solutions to India’s many complex problems.
Over the next few months I met several student leaders like Kanhaiya Kumar, Shehla Rashid and Umar Khalid and found myself inspired by their levels of intelligence, courage and ability to effectively challenge the government’s narrative.
Modi’s reign has galvanised us into facing our fears and finding our voice.
The best way to overcome fear is to do the thing we are afraid of. Courage is contagious, and seeing students – twenty years or so younger than me speaking out against tyranny has helped me face my fear of ‘getting in trouble’, and instead, speak out – in person, on social media and in articles for news websites.
There has been a conspiracy of silence for the longest time, especially in middle class India. An unspoken understanding of sorts that one must keep one’s head low and not criticise the powers that be, lest one suddenly find oneself afoul of them.
Ravish Kumar’s book, The Free Voice, is a marvellous treatise on finding courage in these fear-inducing times. I have also discovered the connection between truth and courage. The more you focus on facts, the more courage you have to go against the tide and voice an unpopular opinion.
Modi’s reign has brought the misuse of national media by the state into sharp focus.
The last few years have helped me discern the difference between news and propaganda. I, who used to read the news without thinking pre-2014 now find myself shunning most national dailies and news channels (the Cobrapost revelations ensured that). I now choose my sources of news carefully. I am also learning to see the difference between real issues and contrived ones. The Ayodhya crisis, for example, is a contrived issue. The farmer crisis is a real one. Sites like altnews.in, indiaspend.com, modireportcard.com, and wadanatodo.net have done yeoman service in calling out the untruths peddled almost daily by many mainstream media channels.
I have learned, most of all, that eternal vigilance really is the price of freedom.
This has been a tough lesson. Democracy is a fragile thing and can be hijacked easily. The only thing that will keep it safe is the alertness of its citizens. It is easy to get swayed by an inflammatory WhatsApp message. It is difficult to pause and question it. It is easy to get swept along with stirring speeches and simplistic slogans. It is, however, difficult to step back and take a critical look at the messages being fed to us daily. It is imperative to stay alert and informed at all times, because otherwise it is very easy to mistake a demagogue for a messiah.
The reign of Modi has been a difficult one for India. It has cost us dearly in terms of our national well-being. It has laid bare the ruptures in Indian society and unleashed from within them – violence and hatred. But we can be thankful that it has also given us the opportunity to learn certain invaluable lessons as individuals and as a nation.
The question remains – will we?
Rohit Kumar is an educator with a background in positive psychology and psychometrics. He works with high school students on emotional intelligence and adolescence issues to help make schools bullying-free zones.