Modi’s vision for the country is one that stifles dissent and difference, in defiance of its people’s history.
Four months have passed since Narendra Modi and the BJP came back to power in India, and more seems to have happened there than in the last 40 years. The sense of severance that many experience today, of being divorced from the workings of the nation, exceeds even the helplessness felt during the suspension of civil liberties in the emergency of 1975 to 1977 and the political traumas that followed.
This is because – without the matter being explicitly articulated – citizen has been set against citizen: not just Muslim against Hindu or, say, Kashmiris against the rest of India, but those who subscribe to the BJP’s new conception of the nation against those who do not, leaving one without trust in the other.
Indian parties are only democrats when in opposition. But no government has been as punitive towards dissent as this
How to judge these past four months? A series of disruptions has dwarfed the now distant seeming upset of Modi’s economically disastrous demonetisation programme of 2016. In August there was the abrogation of article 370 of the Indian constitution, which granted “special status” to Kashmir in acknowledgment of its contested history. This was followed immediately by the “house arrest” of elected Kashmiri leaders and the imprisonment of thousands of others.
What we saw was the attempt to take a difficult and divisive issue and simply place it to one side by an act of will, so that it requires no further discussion. There is the impression that not just the Kashmiris’ but all our fates are now being decided for us.
The home minister, Amit Shah, would have us believe that the “restrictions’” in Kashmir are all in the mind. I asked a Kashmiri how she interpreted this. She speculated that what was being implied was that the lack of protest in Kashmir was equal to normalcy. But a lack of protest in a democratic country is strange, and a sustained lack of protest alarming. Is this the normalcy that Indians wish to be bestowed on them by their government?
Then there is spectacle of a different sort: of the government borrowing an unprecedented sum of money from the Reserve Bank of India; of it failing to pay the Central Reserve Police Force; of the economy tanking, of Modi pronouncing that India is in the ascendant. We live simultaneously in disparate realities: a “normal” Kashmir, an abnormal country; a bankrupt economy; a rising India – competing scripts, none of which acknowledge the existence of the other, as distant as countryman has grown to countryman.
If asked what this government’s one great recent achievement is, some people might draw attention to the number of toilets built in a country with poor sanitation. Others, whose experience of the new India is different, would say that its greatest success has been in creating a climate of fear. As a consequence, dissent has a purer form now. It’s no longer, as it was once, preaching to the converted. It’s not even the pointing out of unpleasant facts. It’s simply a demonstration that dissent continues to be possible.
India has not, outside of Indira Gandhi’s declaration of emergency, been in this place before, and certainly not with the degree of popular support we see now, which can only be characterised as a form of inebriation. The judiciary, the police and other law enforcement agencies are all seen, rightly or wrongly, to “belong” to the government, and many high-profile lawbreakers seem to be those who, coincidentally, disagree with the BJP. The number of cases of “sedition”, a charge left over from colonial India, has risen dramatically.
‘The National Register of Citizens is a BJP-backed project aimed at uncovering foreigners’.’ Villagers wait to check their names in the register in Assam. Photograph: Anupam Nath/AP
Of course, the erosion of institutional independence didn’t happen overnight. Over the last 30 years all governments in India, state and central, have had limited respect for civil liberties and democracy: Indian parties are only fervent democrats when they’re in opposition. But no government has been as openly and robustly punitive towards dissent as this one.
Could this ferocious and successful discouragement of dissent herald the achhe din (“good times”) Modi has advertised to Indian voters at his rallies? A dissent-free country is a “normal” country; a dissent-free political environment constitutes a “good time” for its rulers.
I myself have first-hand experience of this. I recently signed a letter of protest addressed to the prime minister, drawing attention to increased religious violence. My co-signatories were 48 of India’s most eminent film-makers, academics, activists, artists and writers. In response to a petition in Muzzafurpur, Bihar, a court has now asked the police to open a case against us.
Then there’s the National Register of Citizens (NRC), a central government-backed project in the state of Assam aimed at uncovering and expelling “foreigners” (that is, Muslim refugees from Bangladesh who don’t have the relevant documents, though the reality has turned out to be far messier, and the majority of those now deemed “foreigners” have turned out to be Hindus). Many are threatened with being uprooted, and others in the region are being asked to help uproot their neighbours. These extraordinary developments got me thinking about ethnicity and citizenship. About the trajectory of Indians in the 20th century: of Gandhi’s relocation to England and then to South Africa, where, made conscious of his race and colour, he first moved towards politics; of Sikhs settling en masse in Canada after murderous violence against them in 1984; of Bengalis departing a declining Kolkata in the 70s.
Indians are a many-sided people: they are entrepreneurial, curious, cultured, open-minded, adventurous. They have great writers, scientists, businessmen; they have Gandhi. They’re also great migrants: they’ve gone to and worked and settled in every part of the world. They know the pain of discrimination and upheaval intimately. In this context, the fraught rhetoric surrounding the NRC, where “illegal migrant” is time and again conflated with “Muslim”, and “Muslim” with “foreigner”, shows a disconnect between what Indians have historically known, felt and achieved as migrants, despite hostility and opposition, and how, at home, they perceive those they suddenly decide are the “other”.
It’s odd that our past hasn’t given us a more immediate sense of the value and inevitability of plurality, of accommodating difference. Instead, many of us have refashioned ourselves as north Indian Brahmin manqués, wanting Hindi as the official national language, wanting to be what we’re not, wanting our nation to be what it can’t be. Only a determined abstention from self-inquiry could have got us here. Rather than accepting an India where lack of dissent is expected, it is time to look inward: to recollect the journeys we’ve made, and assess whether we’ve ended up where we wanted to be.
• Amit Chaudhuri is professor of contemporary literature at the University of East Anglia and an author
– The Guardian