Writing about India these days is not a source of personal joy. For one, what is happening in an otherwise beautiful country, so brimming with potential, is not heartening. Then there is a deafening chorus of angry voices emanating from the country asking you to mind your own business, that it is India’s internal matter, that people should look at their own homes before they criticise others. I do not disagree with the concerns voiced here, except to quote Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend and a bright American presidential candidate, “The nature of grotesque things is that you can’t look away”. It is painful to see somebody else committing the same mistakes that brought unending misery to your own people. Also in this inextricably intertwined world, if the consequences of a development affect the outside world it is no more your internal matter. And finally, does it not work that way? We keep you honest and you return the favour? I think it does. This is in the nature of the beast, the global conscience, that no excesses can be ignored.
Let’s face it. If the world is worried today it is not just because of what is happening in Kashmir. Kashmir has been simmering for decades. It is also not because of the nuclear standoff between India and Pakistan either. This too has been going on for two decades. While new developments in both these realms have worked as a trigger, the real international concern is about India. From Modi’s demonetisation to Balakot and now Article 370, each fiasco paints the picture of an emboldened fanatic junta whose characteristic lack of imagination results in great self-harm and dismantling of all checks and balances within the system. The opposition, media, parliament, Supreme Court, constitution, all institutions and even the institutional and nuanced restraint of the armed forces have been swept aside.
Through collusion between the ruling party and India’s crony capitalists, a media monster has been created with social media bullying as an icing on this poisoned cake. This monster now decides the level of your patriotism, citizenship, fundamental rights and in some cases your right to live. There is no room for appeals in this lynch court. You are either guilty of the ultimate treason — being an anti-national — or expected to surrender all volition. If you do not do so, it will begin with the open name calling on television, followed by stalking, bullying and doxing on social media. When even that is not enough, stalking and bullying start in the real world and a series of unfortunate events may transform your life into a living hell. In some cases people are killed and the media men who do not find this new media culture palatable quickly lose jobs. If their criticism continues they find themselves branded as anti-national.
The opposition parties find they can do little to stop this massive erosion of democratic values. Here is how their cyclical routine goes: When a shockingly new and outrageous development transpires, these opposition leaders take a stand. Statements are issued, speeches are made, and media is rattled. Then comes the criticism. Media persons remind them of their duties as patriots. “What are you doing? Pakistan must be rolling on the floor laughing.” They are openly bullied on television screens while one or two of them decide to remind the punters that they are as patriotic as anyone else. They bash Pakistan and state that their party was responsible for the dismemberment of Pakistan’s two wings. And someone among their midst chastises them for opposing Modi for the sake of opposing. Then they all fall in line and India plunges a bit more into darkness. This is only what is discernible in the public sphere. I shudder to think what must be going on behind the scenes. And frankly it is as it is supposed to be. The incumbents might have perfected the demand of sheepish consent as the ultimate test of patriotism, but the parties now in opposition were the ones which began the weaponisation of the idea of national interest. In a democracy, no citizen should feel the need to prove their patriotism. But in India you need to. If during the Congress party’s rule Muslim citizens were required to prove their patriotism by exhibiting a pathological hate for Pakistan and the Kashmiri cause, today everybody has to prove loyalty to the state by agreeing with the ruling junta’s obscurantist pseudo-science and its hate for everything deemed foreign. Karma.
Things were not as bad at the start. Nehru and the framers of the Indian Constitution knew the full scope of challenges facing the nascent state. With so many culturally diverse states, federalism was the best solution. With so many castes and social divisions, a soft socialism was necessary until the society modernised enough and was ready for free market capital. With so many faiths and creeds, only secularism could save the day. You can question if these principles were enforced effectively but not the wisdom or the intention behind introducing them. If there is one place where Nehru really dropped the ball it was in Kashmir. He could not let go of his roots. And while his successors gradually compromised on all other principles, they allowed Kashmir to become the source of radicalism in the Indian national psyche. When Manmohan Singh opened up the economy, the division caused by castes and classes was just as dramatic as at time of independence. But now a partially pre-modern economy had to shoulder the burdens of a modern, at times post-modern, capitalism. With a shocking incident of poverty law of the jungle was to ensue. Only the Constitution safeguarded by Parliament and the Supreme Court stood in the way. Now it has also been undermined and this process will not stop here.
Those who insist that since Pakistanis endured authoritarian spells and obscurantist frenzies, they have no right to speak; don’t get it. Even though Pakistan lost its eastern wing during an autocratic rule, it has survived two military rules. While wrong in itself, authoritarianism does not pose an existential threat to Pakistan. India, however, has only had one tryst with autocracy during Indira’s emergency which did a number on the country. It will not survive the progression of the now all-pervasive totalitarianism. And while you might seek solace in the fact that your rather emaciated army will never take over, with the systemic demise of the Indian judiciary, it also means no option for a hard reset or reboot exists. When you are trapped between chances of becoming Hitler’s Germany and a prospect of total demise you should know something has gone incredibly wrong.