The politics of enmity

The strain of exclusionary nationalism has permeated South Asian cultures, an example being the expulsion of the Rohingya from Myanmar.” A Rohingya refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. Getty Images

The strain of exclusionary nationalism has permeated South Asian cultures, an example being the expulsion of the Rohingya from Myanmar.” A Rohingya refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. Getty Images

Indian elections have become less violent over the last three decades. The credit for this must go not only to institutions such as the Election Commission but also to the political class. Yet there is another disturbing tendency, potentially replete with violence, that has been growing during the same period: to view political opponents as enemies to be annihilated. One gets a flavour of this in slogans such as ‘Congress-mukt Bharat’, but more than in statements, it is present in the tone of some speakers, in their body language and in the ferocity in their eyes.

Friends and enemies

The pro-Nazi, but important legal and political theorist, Carl Schmitt, made the friend-enemy distinction as constitutive of politics itself. To be political was necessarily to work with a distinction between an extreme version of us and them, friends and enemies. Not only was this distinction the decisive criterion of the political but even within this relationship, enmity had priority over friendship: Those not on our side, or disloyal to us, are automatically, irredeemably, enemies. In doing so, Schmitt reduced all politics to war. At least war is an ever-present possibility in politics, he claimed, and therefore a political person must conduct himself as if surrounded by enemies. Schmitt was exploiting a distinction perfected by some strands within Abrahamic religions that invented the idea of an ‘extra-systemic other’, a radical other with whom no conversation is possible, one who is outside one’s semantic universe. Those who do not adhere to the doctrine defining the system are enemies to be fought. Internal dissent too is anathema, akin to betrayal, of joining the camp of the enemy, signifying treachery. Felt as existential threats, both outsiders and deviant insiders must be ‘converted’, brought in line or altogether expunged.

This horrendous resource within these traditions, when deployed under certain conditions, has played havoc in large parts of Europe leading to crusades, the inquisition, the expulsions of Jews, and to the final solution of the concentration camps; and outside Europe, in the liquidation, for example, of native Americans. Some detect the same ideological underpinning even in the neoconservative war on Iraq. Perhaps, its most recent expression is in the violence exhibited by Islamist organisations such as the Islamic State. However, this mindset is no longer confined to strands of Abrahamic theology; it has crept into other religions and even been secularised. It is found in the 20th century in both fascism and Stalinism and more pervasively in a host of ultra-nationalisms that have led to ethnic cleansing and genocide in several parts of the world, including Indonesia, Cambodia and Rwanda. This strain of exclusionary nationalism has permeated China where undercurrents of Han nationalism have virtually turned Tibetan Buddhists and Uighur Muslims into extra-systemic others or enemies. It has infected South Asian cultures too, causing the partition of the ‘subcontinent’, ethnic cleaning of Tamils in Sri Lanka and the expulsion of the Rohingya from Myanmar. In India, the frequent use of the term ‘anti-national’ for those critical of the current dispensation smells of the same fatal disease. How to deal ideologically with this seems to me one of the great challenges of our times.

Enemies and adversaries

Obviously, a mentality inebriated with the friend-enemy syndrome is fundamentally undemocratic. Knowing the difference between an enemy and an adversary is absolutely critical in a functioning democracy. An adversary is someone one wishes to defeat in a temporary contest such as a legal combat or a game of cricket. To wish to trounce an opponent in an election is entirely legitimate. On the other hand, an enemy is someone to be destroyed permanently. Adversaries can be won over, turned into allies, but enemies cannot. A compromise with an adversary is acceptable, even praiseworthy. On the other hand, with an enemy, a compromise spells defeat, an unacceptable concession, a betrayal. The world of adversaries in a democracy does not involve a zero-sum game; no one loses everything or forever. There are no permanent losers or victors; each competitor wins some and loses some in a fair contest. But all rules of fairness can be abandoned in a fight with an enemy. In this hostile scenario, all politics is nothing but war.

It is often heard that in politics there are no permanent friends or enemies. This may well appear to be opportunistic in some contexts but it is the very stuff of democratic politics where everyone hopes that today’s losers can be tomorrow’s victors and vice versa. Everyone, not only active political agents but also ordinary citizens, is assured that no matter which party wins, the fundamental interests and liberties of all, the majority as well as the minority, are secure, and despite deep differences on many matters, everyone also shares something in common. This ‘common’ can be our humanity, national ethos, Constitution, or shared civilisational values, nurtured through history. For example, in India, the value of pluralism, acceptance and accommodation, of refusing to view the world in terms of simple binaries has faced challenges from time to time by narrow-minded, rigid, hierarchy-ridden, upper caste practices (often termed Brahminism because it was legitimated by scholarly Brahmins), by close-minded religious orders which accompanied Afghan and Turk invaders and marauders, and by ruthlessly exploitative colonialists. More recently, heartless multinational corporations have also damaged this ethos by mindlessly turning everything into a commodity to be bought and sold in the capitalist market. But exclusionary ultra-nationalists (as distinct from inclusive, moderate nationalists) must not be left out of this nefarious list. They too are hell bent on throttling our civilisational values and democratic ethos.

Protecting our civilisation

As groups grow in size, they invent rules to regulate behaviour, formulate authoritative norms, install a structure of authority and, above all, evolve some criteria of who is in and who is out, of insiders and outsiders. Let us even agree that there is no ‘self’ without an ‘other’. But rules can be rigid or flexible, a challenge to norms can be tolerated or punished severely, and the ‘other’ can be viewed as a temporary adversary in a healthy contest, someone with who one can also have a fruitful dialogue, or one with who conversation is impossible, a permanent enemy. This idea that membership in a group comes with an enemy to be fought was a powerful resource in the doctrines of some religions has slowly taken root in Asian religions, including modern Hinduism. It has now entered our democratic politics. If it stays there, it will utterly destroy the atman of our civilisation and the astitva of democracy. Everyone across religious differences must strive to fight it. All democrats, if they wish to save their cherished system, must defang it before it is too late.

Rajeev Bhargava is Professor, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, New Delhi

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Printable version | Sep 23, 2022 6:17:20 am |