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Monday, Sep 01, 2014
Commentary

Modi’s rise a defeat for freedom in India


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Here are three strange but instructive instances of pride, pique and prejudice in modern India at different levels of state and society. To some Indians, they could represent the might and glory of the newly assertive motherland; to others of a perhaps more paranoid bent, they might indicate a creeping new culture of illiberalism and intolerance:

Scene 1: The American scholar and veteran radio broadcaster David Barsamian is a well-known Indophile. He has frequently advertised India’s virtues and subtleties to the world, but he has also criticized the Indian nation, most crucially on its stance over Kashmir, the border state in the north whose restive population India has managed and, on occasion, repressed with the help of its army. On Sept. 23, 2011, Barsamian arrives in New Delhi, but he is promptly deported by immigration authorities, who tell him he is “banned” from the country. No official reason, however, is given for his dismissal, and Barsamian’s letters to the Indian government and Indian embassies in the United States and a signed petition by a roster of prominent Indian intellectuals go unanswered. It’s clear Barsamian is not welcome in India again, and the government wants to let him know he can’t expect to criticize it and yet be allowed into the country. “I hope the government of India, in its mysterious Byzantine ways, will reconsider its ban on me,” he says in an interview. “I am, you know, hardly a threat to the Indian Union.”

Scene 2: The American scholar (what, is there a pattern here?) Wendy Doniger has long been the subject of hostile attacks by Hindu nationalist groups, who view her copious work on the core texts and myths of Hinduism as “sexed up” and disrespectful to one of the world’s great religious traditions. The debate is an interesting and even necessary one. But earlier this month, it suddenly judders to a halt when Penguin Books India, Doniger’s publisher in India, abruptly withdraws her book “The Hindus: An Alternative History” from the market: Fearing a drawn-out legal battle, Penguin has reached an out-of-court settlement with the Hindu nationalist group that invoked, in its lawsuit against Doniger and her publishers, Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code, which proscribes “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class.”

Scene 3: In September 2011, Narendra Modi, the bellicose, polarizing chief minister of the western state of Gujarat (and currently the man most likely to be India’s next prime minister), is given something like a “clean chit” by a special investigative team appointed to look into the religious violence that raged across the state in 2002, shortly after Modi took office. Modi has always strenuously denied critics’ accusations that he had a direct hand in orchestrating the violence. It has now become clear that if he wants to run for prime minister in 2014, there is little to no chance the law will throw a spanner into the works. That’s good reason to celebrate, but Modi’s response is fantastically over the top: He sets up a massive, self-congratulatory three-day pageant, where politicians from the Bharatiya Janata Party and figures from public life arrive to sing his praises while he sits behind them like a medieval potentate. And in a curious act of fusion — one that reveals either a man who, like Walt Whitman, “contains multitudes” or, more distressingly, a state of 60 million people who are willingly indivisible from their elected leader — he says generously that he intends to forgive those “who defamed Gujarat or me by making false allegations.”

These three scenes each reveal the depressing and perverse (but sadly innate and persistent) streak of intolerance not just in India but in man, and the tendency of governments and states to expand their powers unjustifiably unless they face close scrutiny and criticism. The good thing, however, is that they’re unconnected. They reveal not some vast conspiracy of repression in India, but different forces and power centers at work in a vast, diverse, fast-changing society. It’s a place where a relatively free press still functions vigorously, and an increasing number of points of view on religion, politics, selfhood and sex now circulate. But the principle of a liberal order itself is not well established or widely seen as being germinal of freedom, creativity and wealth.

These incidents, one might say, represent the birth pangs of religious, intellectual and political freedom in a vast world that was for thousands of years inward-looking, rule-bound and hierarchical — one that, for the first few decades after independence from colonial rule was won and a new republican order established, was still very much a closed society, barred from genuine contact with the rest of the world by the ruling party’s suffocating socialism. Sometimes, before things can get better, they must first grow worse.

But could India’s intolerant streak actually grow even worse, and these scattered kinds of prejudice move into a unified formation where they take on a much more sinister aspect?

Yes, they could. And probably will, if in this summer’s general election India’s electorate delivers enough seats to the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party for Modi to become prime minister of a new coalition government. Here’s why.

The virtues that Modi would bring to office are many, and they should not be underemphasized. The religious riots aside, his administrative record in Gujarat is impressive, even if the lineaments of his growth model are not to the liking of some. He has a clear view of what India’s development problems are, and how red tape is a drag on India’s economy. He has something to say to the aspirations of millions of young Indians, with whom — unusually for a man of 63 — he has struck a real chord. If he becomes prime minister, he will have risen to the country’s most powerful office from humble beginnings and at a great distance from New Delhi’s English-speaking elite (unlike his rival candidate, the Congress party’s bumbling dynast Rahul Gandhi). That would be a sign of how far Indian democracy has taken the country since the feudal and colonial worlds that preceded it.

But in voting Modi to power, the bargain India’s citizenry and corporate world would probably be making — with what consequences in the long term no one can quite predict — is the privileging of economic growth and “good governance” over intellectual freedom and the long-standing secular consensus of a Hindu-majority but multifaith country (often denounced as “pseudosecular” by the BJP).

India’s most popular politician has scant respect for religious and intellectual diversity, as his record shows. And there is every reason to believe that although markets may go up when he takes office, an index of freedom would on the whole go downward.

Even if Modi now resolutely speaks the language of development and social cohesion, he has never explicitly repudiated his record of provocation with its basis in anti-Muslim prejudice. There’s no doubt that his victory would be a tremendous incentive to Hindu right-wing groups in their campaign to interpret a religious tradition monochromatically and to rewrite history textbooks in Indian schools (well- described in the writer William Dalrymple’s long essay “India: The War Over History”). This would bring about a tremendous constriction of India’s public sphere.

Modi has also positioned himself as a strongman who wants a robust Indian state that will regain its long-lost status as a world power. Many Indians find this reassuring. He speaks repeatedly of his “chhappan inch ki chhati,” or 56-inch chest. There may be an upside to his rhetoric of “pride” and “honor,” but it’s certainly not a line that will lead to a regime that will brook criticism of its policies from abroad. Mr. Barsamian, if you’re already unwelcome in India, you’ll be really unwelcome very soon. Stay put in America.

And, perhaps worst of all, Modi has shown repeatedly that when it comes to dealing with points of view that are critical of his own, he believes not in the power of argument but in the easy, crushing power of the ban. No Indian politician today has shown less faith in the idea of dialogue or difference. While he has been chief minister of Gujarat, films that depict or interpret the religious violence of 2002 cannot be shown in the state’s theaters. Much of the time, Modi has implemented a private agenda of thought control in Gujarat in an unofficial way; where he sees the chance, though, he is perfectly happy to attach his name publicly to the repression of intellectual freedom. In 2009, his government even banned a book written by a member of his own party, Jaswant Singh, because it contained references to the Gujarati leader Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel that, in Modi’s eyes, distorted “historical facts.” His government said it was acting in the “wider public interest.” Once such a line is taken, there’s no end to the things that could be banned, or people repressed, in the wider public interest, including (perhaps in an extreme case) Muslims.

Those are the depressing implications for India’s vibrant but intermittently censorious public sphere, then, of the rise of a shrewd, capable demagogue who has so far successfully fought off all attempts to “defame Gujarat or me.” Can we imagine such a perspective beginning to bear down on attempts to “defame India or me”? Yes, we can.

Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is the New Delhi correspondent for Bloomberg View’s World View blog.

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