The media-vilified student of JNU, Umar Khalid, who recently submitted his doctoral thesis after the Delhi high court ordered a reluctant administration to accept it, after having tea with friends at a tea stall at Constitutional Club, moved towards the entrance of the Club, when an unidentified gunman in a white shirt and with long hair, first attacked him, and after a scuffle, shot at him from a distance. By the grace of fate, Khalid escaped unhurt. As Khalid’s friends tried to catch the assailant, he fired aerial shots. The gun jammed, and the man dropped it, and escaped.
Khalid was at the venue to participate in an event titled, ‘Towards a Freedom without Fear’. Little did he know that fear was lurking so close by. It is incredible that a gunman could freely slip through right under the nose of the high-security zone, two days before Independence Day. It escapes no one in India right now that assailants fueled by toxic nationalism are gun toting without fear, while people who are being targeted as “anti-nationals” by the Hindu right and their cohorts in the media, are pursued by fear. When Tagore imagined a nation where “the mind is without fear and the head is held high”, did he have murderers in mind?
It is time for people driven by media-sickness, their senses paralysed by patriotic drumbeats, to ask themselves who the real “anti-national” is: the man sipping tea at a tea-stall in a place that bears the name of the Constitution or the man who enters its premises with a premeditated intention to murder? It is time for people to ask who is on which side of the Constitution? It is time to ask, who is upholding and who is denigrating the founding principles of the Constitution, as well as of this nation? It is time to ask, how long shall the state be complicit in allowing such events to pass by, without showing enough intent to curb this lawless menace? If we allow fascist goons to roam around freely and fearlessly, instilling the fear of life in people who aren’t afraid to speak against fear, this nation will quickly relapse into insanity. It is time to turn the fear of law towards those who think their law of retributive sentiments is above the secular law of the nation. Once the law of fear overtakes the fear of law, we will have a perfectly fascist society in place, where everyone will be afraid to speak her mind, and keep her head held high.
Those who want to spread the fear of life in people unafraid to speak their mind, are encouraged by the atmosphere of righteous, nationalist anger prevailing in the country. This righteous anger claims a righteous cause, where the sole concern repeatedly drummed into everyone’s head is that of national unity. Sober forms and expressions of righteousness are vandalised by the righteous anger of right-wing nationalism. The question of national unity is deliberately posed in a manner that identifies and targets minorities. When any form of nationalism unleashes fear against its people, that fear is always meant for a minority – religious, linguistic or ideological. This is the crux of the politics of nationalism. It thrives by inventing a language of fear where the minority trembles for life, and keeps shortening its circumference of freedom. Political fear is always fear aimed at a minority. The minority is painted a monster, depicted in monstrous language, so that the majority can find its territorial cause. The synonym for majority is territory. The minority is an unwelcome guest in that territory, and under fascist gaze, the minority metamorphoses into an insect. It sets the stage for the majoritarian animal to sharpen its claws.
We are witnessing today a daily redrawing of lines, where social spaces of free thought are shrinking. If an assailant can enter the Constitution Club in Delhi, amidst heavy security, and attack a student, what is the state protecting? This state of fear does not issue from any fear of the state, but rather the opposite: The fear of terror we are witnessing today, overshadowing the lives of journalists, writers and activists, is a fear in the heart of the jungle. We are not witnessing any fear for the rule of law, but rather the opposite: There is terror in the name of (religious/majoritarian) sentiments that overrides the (secular) considerations of law.
As citizens of a democracy, we have a right to ask the state, which law are we living under today? Is it the law enshrined in our Constitution or the law peddled by lackeys of the government in the media? Is it the law that enables citizens to gather together to protest the state of fear in the country, or is it the law that encourages lynchers and murderers? The law has to decide which side it is on. But more importantly, we the people of this country have to compel the law to favour what is enshrined in the Constitution. If the government in power, which seeks nothing else but power, does not listen to us, we have to address what is higher than the government: the state of law and justice.
The attempt at Khalid in the Constitution Club, apart from being a serious cause of worry for him and his friends, is a matter of deep and wider concern regarding how a culture of vengeful violence is becoming a national norm. Those who are speaking up against the growing culture of fear are being chased by gunmen. We are living under a government of fear, for when a government does not speak up against the fear faced by its citizens, it allows the fear to multiply and sink deeper into people’s minds. The nationalism we are witnessing today has absolutely nothing to do with the nationalism of our freedom movement. This is a brand of nationalism that brandishes a logical tool of fear, and wants people not to think of all that are good for the nation. Thinking is not on the nationalist agenda. Thinking against fear, thinking of freedom from fear, is an antithesis to majoritarian nationalism. If you dare to think against majoritarian violence and speak for all minorities of fear, you will have a faceless assailant carrying a gun, waiting for you in the shadows. Such a fate befell Gandhi, whose murder was a bad omen for the nation’s battle against majoritarian violence. Khalid remembered Gauri Lankesh when he saw the gun pointed at him. But he was lucky. The gun missed him. It missed our hopes.
Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee is a poet, writer and political science scholar. He is the author of Looking for the Nation: Towards Another Idea of India (Speaking Tiger Books, 2018).