Narcissism, Victimhood and Revenge – the Three Sounds of Neo-Nationalism

National pride has now become interlinked with a deep, visceral hatred for people identified as anti-nationals – secularists, liberals, beef-eaters, Muslims, immigrants and critics of the government.

In an NDTV exposé this week, Rakesh Sisodia, an accused in the Hapur lynchings, is seen mimicking a dying Qasim pleading for water. With a gruesome, macabre smirk on his face, he said: “You did not provide a dying cow water; this army of mine will not spare you today.”

Also in the exposé, Vipin Yadav, main accused in the Pehlu Khan lynching in Rajasthan, said with a chilling calm: “I lost count of how long I beat him. Must have been an hour, hour and a half.”

In a speech to mark the victory of Kargil war on July 26, BJP MLA from Karnataka Basanagouda Patil Yatnal said, “[Intellectuals] enjoy the food, air and water of this country… They give statements against the army and the country… if I become the home minister, I will order them to be lined up and shot.”

Death by a thousand cuts

Language is always a mirror of its times. If we look closely at these speeches, it reflects a discernible pattern and an evolving narrative. This narrative fuses national identity with a religious one. It then marks the “others” – the anti-nationals, the libtards, the sickulars, the pressitutes, the worshippers of other gods, the eaters of other food, the lovers of other loves. National pride and a deep, visceral hatred for people identified as anti-nationals (secularists, liberals, beef-eaters, Muslims, immigrants, critics of the present government) become interlinked with each other. So despised are these “anti-nationals” that it is routinely proposed that this enemy be subjugated to the power of death. Use of violence, threats of violence, street violence, state violence become the many technologies of control, inseparably entangled with the assertion of neo-nationalism.

There are three core ideas that underlie the neo-nationalist era of normalised violence and terror.

The first is an idea of collective narcissism that feeds on the past for sustenance (because the present is not what some people want it to be). It thrives on an invocation of a glorious tradition, a nostalgia for a bygone era and a past that could have been our present but for its interruption by “outsiders”, “invaders” and “marauders”. Recall the myriad invocations of Lord Rama as the presiding deity of a righteous battle; of valiant warrior kings like Shivaji and Maharana Pratap and the celebration of their courage over the Mughals. Recall the eulogies recounting our scientific tradition where plastic surgery, aviation, genetic science etc. existed in the Vedic era. Recall how a Union minister even pressed Stephen Hawking into service to attest to the superiority of Vedic theories over that of Einstein.

The invitation here is to believe in a past and in people that were glorious and heroic, and in a future that could recreate what has been ‘interrupted’. In a world that is seen through a narcissistic tunnel vision, only oneself or one’s group has rights to the nation. Those marked “outsiders” – “illegal immigrants, flawed citizens, beef eaters, people with different gods, faiths, ideologies, sexualities – are to be disciplined, punished or even removed. Group narcissism has been often described by psychologists as one of the most important sources of human aggression. Violence becomes a corollary of this narcissism.

The second related idea is a sense of collective victimhood – the idea that this nation, its “first citizens”, their faith, their temples, their beliefs are under threat. Collective narcissism has a strange pathology. It is often accompanied by a deep sense of victimhood. Someone has to be made responsible for the collective failure of this nation to be more developed, more advanced and less impoverished. A group is identified as “outsiders”, as descendants of those who came into this country from outside, looted and plundered it, or as “traitors” complicit in threatening the unity and integrity of this nation. Narratives of growing population among the Muslims, love jihad, religious conversions, urban naxals, terror-sympathisers are circulated with regularity, lest we forget who made us victims. As minister Giriraj Singh said, “The growing population of Muslims, [becomes] a threat to the social fabric, social harmony, and development of the country.” The main purpose of this propaganda is to foster and help fester a sense of victimhood.

The third feature that is the life-blood (quite literally) of neo-nationalism is the idea of revenge: If we were glorious once and if this glory and prosperity has been forcefully taken away from us, then we have to rise, in unison, as one people, avenge our losses and take back what is rightfully ours.

But revenge has a different psychology (different from that of a national movement which was based on an idea of freedom). Its logic is implacable. Every era, every ‘theatre’ needs to have an identifiable enemy. It begins with identifying who our historical adversaries were, 100 years ago, 500, 1000 years ago. Once identified, this adversary needs to be combatted and diminished – ghar wapsi, ‘love jihad, anti-Romeo squads, mandir wahin banayenge – are some of the modern-day tropes that carry the burden of revenge. It then looks to the more immediate past and asks for a purge of yesterday’s adversaries, fellow oppositionists, the partisans of the old regime. The clarion call for “Congress Mukt Bharat”, “go to Pakistan”, shoot the intellectual, kill the beef eater, rape the Muslim girl are a few examples of this purge-call.

Demolition of the Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992. Credit: PTI

Revenge next looks at people who oppose the idea of revenge, who stand for a different idea of a nation or democracy and therefore are seen to threaten the rise of this resurgent nation. Wherever the neo-nationalist turns, he fights his most dangerous enemy. A self-perpetuating psychology of brutality, hatred and vengeance ensues. Hate crimes, hate speech, communal lynchings, rapes, rape threats, calls to shoot, kills, threats of female genital mutilation become the various dispersive acts of violence and new instruments of a sovereign or a directing group.

Neo-nationalism represents the evolution of a partnership between the masses and demagogues. A more sophisticated idea of persuasion is at work when the collective is extolled to be a partner in the making of new India, through Sab ka saath, sab ka vikas. Masses are enlisted as partners and persuaded to become collaborators in perpetuating the myth that liberals/intellectuals/secularists are Hindu-phobic whose hearts only bleeds when a Muslim dies and not when a Hindu dies; or that intellectuals are Hinduism/Hindu-haters and that they have misrepresented the glory of Hinduism; or that they pseudoseculars out to sanction appeasement of Muslims.

Joseph Goebbels, minister of propaganda in Nazi Germany, once said that the role of a propagandist was to displace reason and celebrate emotion. It was to express in words what his audience felt in their hearts. It is much easier to absorb individuals into a mass of like-minded people, once you dig into their deprivations, give it a name, find a scapegoat, make them believe and then articulate and repeat that which people already believe. It’s a cycle of a self-perpetuating myth that sanctions violence and gives it a moral purpose. Patil’s statement – shoot the intellectuals and secularists – is not an aberrant response. It creates an ecosystem of sovereign sanction in which an army of Rakeshs and the Vipins proliferate and deliver, to this body politic, a death by a thousand cuts.

Rajshree Chandra is associate professor, Department of Political Science, Janki Devi Memorial College, Delhi University, and senior visiting fellow, Centre for Policy Research.