The road to ultra-populism

From The Hindu (03 November, 2014)

The making and the public screening of “Haidar” as a mainstream film was unexpected for observers of the contemporary Indian polity, at this time of a surge in Hindutva-spiked nationalism. Top-line cinematographers, stars, lyricists and promoters participated in a production that questioned New Delhi’s record in the Kashmir Valley, with onscreen characters even challenging the infamous Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA). The film was not alternative cinema and has had a full run in multiplexes all over despite denouncements from some quarters.

Yet, with all other indicators pointing to a political constriction of cultural space, it would be misplaced to read “Haider” as representing a trend towards openness. Long before Narendra Modi turned up on the national radar screen, jingoism was already on the rise and it seems set to escalate. By and large, littérateurs, academics and media commentators have gone silent on critical issues rather than trying to maintain elbow room.

India is the largest and most anchored democracy around, and its shift towards a closed society portends a perilous journey for South Asia as a whole. It also has global implications.


New countries tend to be more nationalistic than older ones, and South Asia is bubbling with the incipient patriotisms of its newborn nation-states, all less than seven decades old (other than Nepal, which goes back a couple of centuries). Rather than evolve through the historical push-and-pull of power and politics, the countries were defined amid the hurried manipulations of the departing colonial. They were then required to construct their separate nationalisms, and the capital elites of India, Pakistan and Ceylon were more than happy to fill the shoes of Mountbatten.

There was and is the contradiction of trying to force-fit a demographically layered and syncretistic subcontinent into the Westphalian nation-state, rather than devise workable formulae within that format. The new nationalisms of South Asia tended towards xenophobic and “ultra,” with a need to build external enemies and “foreign hands” in order to manage schisms. The more diverse the country, the more the need for centralised mono-nationalism.

India and Pakistan, as the two largest, are curious nation-states for the many large nations they subsume. Because of this, both Islamabad and New Delhi are riding the tiger, with no politician daring to tinker with the given superstructure. But the choice is stark, to turn autocratic or to devolve federally, the latter presenting a viable path for the people to achieve their genius within the nation-state.

Mr. Modi, arriving in New Delhi as the outsider from Gujarat, should understand the need to allow the play of sub-nationalism. However, the new Prime Minister’s instinct seems to tilt towards centralised command-and-control, which can hardly inspire the diverse, populous, extra-large India we know.

Without the gumption to redefine the nation-state to South Asian specifications, the path of least resistance all over South Asia includes the call to rallying around the flag and the outline (even if somewhat outdated) of frontiers on the map, seeking to foist a brittle definition of one religion as national faith, and brandishing a slogan that should have been abandoned long ago in liberal democracy — “my country right or wrong”.

No-go areas of discourse

We do not gain the right to critique other governments unless we are first able to challenge our own state establishments when they engage in excess. Surely, none of us can be entirely free of self-censorship, but one can at least recognise the contagion and seek to maintain hard-won fundamental freedoms. However, all over South Asia, we are intimidated by targeted vilification even for mildly challenging statist chauvinism (forget dissidence). From the neighbourhood bigot to the trolls on social media, they have largely succeeded in threatening us into submission.

We have all been taught to resist the authoritarian state, but majoritarian populism has the ability to seal our lips even more tightly. When ultranationalism is attached to populism and deployed by the state, we are confronted with the most dangerous brew of all: it can be called “ultra-populism.” It is deployed by the vanguards of the supremacist state, vigilantes with their verbal machetes ever-ready to ostracise and defenestrate. This is the point where society becomes psycho-socially subjugated and militarised even with the military confined to the barracks.

In each South Asian country, the no-go areas of discourse are proliferating rather than decreasing as the state establishments deploy ultra-populism. In response, the intelligentsia cowers, the “opinion-makers” are dehumanised as they take to weighing what to say and what to leave unsaid.

In Sri Lanka, few dare challenge the Rajapaksa family autocracy, which is backed by radical Buddhist clergy. In Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi has quite easily succumbed to Burman ultra-populism, failing to come to the rescue of the Rohingya of Rakhine state. In Pakistan, the Ahmadiyya community is prohibited even as the charge of blasphemy is used by the state authorities to target the weakest citizens — the tragedy of Asia Bibi awaiting the hangman in Multan should be everyone’s concern from Kathmandu to Kochi. In Bangladesh, you are liable to be labelled anti-national if you so much as challenge the officially sanctioned number, three million, for those killed during the 1971 Liberation War.

In Nepal, despite the longer history remains entrapped in schoolboy symbolisms, such as the insistence that “Buddha was born in Nepal” when no one is really challenging the fact. But for all the high-volume patriotism, no one wants to raise uncomfortable matters such as Nepali citizens formally serving in foreign armies. A man who suggested secession of the Tarai-Madhes plains has been charged with sedition, as if the national society is not strong enough to tackle oral dissidence.

Shouting heads

The subcontinent has arrived very far from where liberal democracy was supposed to lead us. The rock-bottom of exhibitionist ultranationalist behaviour can actually be found in the most “democratic” of us all, i.e. India. For this, one has to merely follow the shouting heads on New Delhi’s news channels. Egged on by the anchors, the appalling bombast of the participants reaches peak decibel when the talk turns to the South Asian neighbours, Pakistan in particular. (Significantly, an exceptional sobriety is reserved for all matters relating to the People’s Republic.)

The shouting heads refuse to exhibit any empathy whatsoever for the tortured soul of Pakistan, the country’s purpose merely to serve as a receptacle for chest-thumping. India is presented as the wronged partner since the time of Mohammad Ali Jinnah, and there is little sensitivity shown for the Pakistani citizen who suffers like no other in the subcontinent — drone attacks, sectarian killings, mafia murders, blasphemy laws, car bombs, human bombs, assassination of leaders, activists and health workers, disappearances, massive internal military offensives, and the reign of military intelligence.

One is left wishing that the loud among New Delhi’s commentariat would pause a moment to consider how they compare with counterparts in Pakistan, who risk life and limb when they challenge the political outfits, the army, military intelligence, radical clergy and militants of every kind. And they do it in ground-level in Urdu, inviting that much more danger than when protected by the distance of English.

The absence of self-reflection at the national level in India on the critical issues of due process, human rights and fundamental freedoms is striking and worrisome. The promise made to Kashmir inherent in Article 370 of the Constitution is pooh-poohed. Irom Sharmila’s hunger strike demanding the repeal of AFSPA in Manipur has been ignored now for nearly a decade-and-half (a fast started 14 years ago yesterday, November 2.) Whether Afzal Guru got a fair trial before his February 2013 execution for the attack on Parliament was a subject that never made it to national debate.

The anti-nuclear weaponisation agenda does not get traction anywhere in India, other than a little bit in West Bengal. Increasingly, environmentalists are being pilloried, the people’s movements ignored, trade unions laughed at, and human rights groups and civil liberties unions have never been more out of fashion. It is an abysmal state of affairs when a country that aspires to great power status requires its citizens who want to organise international conferences or seminars to first get clearance from the Ministry of Home Affairs.

All of South Asia needs to shake off ultranationalism and ultra-populism and restore the dignity of our governance structures. India needs to do it quick, because what happens to India affects significantly more people, within and without.

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