The loss of innocence

India over the years has learnt the lessons of stoking animosities. Is it unlearning those lessons now?

Updated - May 27, 2017 12:36 am IST

Published - May 27, 2017 12:02 am IST

The unprofessional behaviour of the young — perhaps even well-meaning — Army Major in the Kashmir Valley is proof of how an aggressive political establishment, and the ‘popular’ support it enjoys, can transform the unlawful act into a nationalist issue. Otherwise, how is it that pinning a civilian to the bonnet of a jeep as a grim warning to the stone-pelting local population, reminiscent of what conquering militaries often do in vanquished lands, becomes an act worthy of praise?

Such a brazen display of aggression is also an unmistakable indication of the ongoing transformation of India’s self-image. The conventional self-image of civilisational India as an inclusive, liberal and relatively non-violent polity with a strong urge to be a global success story may be fast changing, quicker than we realise — and for the worse.

No doubt, political and social change is inevitable in a country with a multitude of sociopolitical realities, more so when the erstwhile Congress system is being replaced with an equally overbearing, but far more ideologically zealous, Hindutva system of things. But to what end?

“Secularism is derided. Liberalism is challenged. Dissent is sedition. Questioning the government is anti-national” — not a cliché from some ‘naïve armchair human rights activist’, these are words of former Home Minister P. Chidambaram. The Gandhian-Nehruvian India is losing its innocence, abandoning a self-definition of romantic idealism to embrace brash realism, and in the process confronting a few ugly truths about itself. We always had that dark side to our socio-political self: the current political environment has merely enabled those dark forces to unveil our pretensions of civilisational sanctimoniousness.

Aggression as strength

There is a great deal more unabashed aggression and hostility in the collective life of our nation today than ever before: the language of aggression is unmissable, be it in our political discourse, TV studios, passenger buses or marketplaces. At a certain level, the aggression of the post-colonial underdog is understandable. Having been victimised — imagined, real or due to sheer incompetence — and undervalued, the ‘subaltern’ has finally decided to speak out. The problem, however, is that it is speaking the wrong language, of violence and otherisation, not of justice, strength and a rightful place in the comity of nations. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s evocative assertion, “earlier you felt ashamed of being born Indian,” is symbolic of this new-found sense of strength. But then, the Hindutva faithful erroneously and often deliberately translates strength as aggression against fellow subalterns.

As a result, our great tradition of argument, public debate, intellectual pluralism and generosity (Amartya Sen, The Argumentative Indian ) is transforming into a culture of violence, bullying and pettiness. Our ‘fiercely independent’ media used to go after corrupt politicians and inept governments. Today, many of them prefer to preach down to us the virtues of nationalism and uses of brute force: prove your nationalism before you speak, they say!

Human rights and rule of law

There was a time we were ‘reasonably’ confident about the human rights record of our country, despite the aberrations in Kashmir and elsewhere, and would put up a genuine defence of it. We would reason that we were a new democracy, a state in the making, there had been imperfections, but these were no systematic human rights violations, and, in any case, many of those inadequacies would get self-corrected in due course. Is that the case any more? We seem to have assumed a new cloak of nationalist indifference today. We have given up paying lipservice to the ideals of human rights, we do not even bother pretending that their violations don’t exist: the new tendency is to justify human rights violations for the greater glory of the nation. “What’s so wrong about tying a civilian to the bonnet of an army vehicle in a last act of self-defence?” goes the argument.

Hence, rule of law can be made flexible in the service of what is represented as national interest: a mere mention of nationalism would do.

When our neighbours — Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Pakistan and others — were struggling with democracy, and getting individual liberty and religious freedom wrong, India, despite its many inadequacies, was widely seen as a regional hub of modern liberal values and social and religious inclusion. In the past, we provided refuge to the persecuted: today some of us are busy sending others to Pakistan, the country our founding fathers didn’t want us to become. Weren’t we all proud to belong to a multicultural India where we could eat, wear, speak and write what we wanted, with some reasonable restrictions? Everyone had his/ her own space there. We knew we belonged here, and that was a settled matter. I am not so confident about that any more. Today we hesitate before taking positions on issues ranging from national security to eating habits.

We had a reputation for being a peace-loving nation. Our foreign policy, defensive military posture, and grand strategic behaviour displayed a strong desire for peaceful coexistence, stability and order in the region and a multipolar world. When in 1971, India aided the creation of Bangladesh (by breaking up Pakistan), world opinion was willing to live by India’s declared peaceful intentions, and the international community did not go overboard when India conducted nuclear tests in 1998. The reason was simple: Notwithstanding India’s nuclear weapons and the third largest army in the world, the world didn’t think India harboured aggressive intentions. There was a time when India played with terror outfits, and a former Prime Minister was killed when the Frankenstein that we created came back to haunt us. We learned our lesson then: are we now unlearning those lessons? In today’s India, how my opinion is viewed depends on who I am and which god I worship — not on the merit of what I say.

A nation divided

For an avowedly peaceful country towards the outside world, we seem to make up by displaying a lot of aggression and fighting among ourselves, just as we were doing when the European colonisers arrived at our shores centuries ago. The process of cultural-nationalist purification underway in contemporary India will end up making a lot more ‘others’ within the confines of our nation. Who needs a Pakistan to bleed us through a thousand cuts if we end up hating each other with the Hindutva zealots fanning the fires?

Such aggression and consequent otherisation along caste, religious and political lines, masquerading as nationalism, in a country with rising unemployment, youth bulge, disturbingly skewed sex ratio and existing social anxieties could prove to be a recipe for disaster. Consider this, India ranks 141 on a Global Peace Index making it far less peaceful than several war-torn African nations.

Not that India has always been a peaceful country. However, we had our own indigenous ways of dealing with those conflicts, albeit not all of them noble. There was an underlying belief that domestic conflict resolution is a political project, not a terrorist menace. The Central government’s muscular policy in Kashmir today, for instance, reflects how far our polity has moved away from traditional conflict resolution models based on negotiations, concessions and assimilation: violence seems to be the preferred instrument of our statecraft today, as India gets ready to mark the seventieth anniversary of Independence.

Happymon Jacob is Senior Global Challenges Fellow, Global Public Policy Institute, Berlin and Associate Professor, Disarmament Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University

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