Why I fret about an increasingly illiberal, irritable and sometimes petulant new India

first_imgChange, however you spell it, has been the theme of this rapidly transforming nation in recent years. Depending on where political preferences or geography place you, you can call it badlaav, achche din, or given where it all seems to have got its name first, where else but in Bengal,,Change, however you spell it, has been the theme of this rapidly transforming nation in recent years. Depending on where political preferences or geography place you, you can call it badlaav, achche din, or given where it all seems to have got its name first, where else but in Bengal, poriborton. Quite naturally, therefore, change is the theme of this special Independence Day issue. Through more than a hundred spectacular pages, India Today reporters bring you portraits of a nation in change, mostly for the better. But is this change such an unqualified dream run? Does it bring concerns in its wake?In the breathlessness of celebration, the ushering in of a new era and restoration of national esteem after five years of UPA 2 humiliation, it is also important to reflect on how we have lurched towards conservatism and illiberalism in recent years. Khap panchayats prohibiting inter-caste marriages invite immediate condemnation, but not even feeble protests meet the loaded dismissal of a Hindu falling in love with a Muslim as Love Jihad.Nobody wants to be left behind. Narendra Modi broke the beautiful New Delhi tradition of an iftar at 7 RCR, which Vajpayee never missed. At the same time, the Congress announced its intent of reservation for Muslims in Maharashtra. Socially, one survey after another points to rising conservatism, with the young even weighing in in favour of arranged marriage.This rising illiberalism has not spared any section of society or institution. Our outgoing army chief says his soldiers had taken revenge for the beheading of one of our own, and nobody wants to ask how, did our army too indulge in similar barbarism, even if in revenge? Then, his successor makes his opening statement by promising a stern and fitting (“intense and immediate”) reply in case of a Pakistani provocation, as if we are in a war-like situation.If you thought at least our courts, or the Supreme Court, usually such an oasis of large-hearted liberalism, would remain immune to this contagion, think again. Denial of bail has become the norm contrary to the principle in democracies. From Raja to Kanimozhi to Jaganmohan Reddy to Tarun Tejpal to the poor American CEO of Amway in India, denial of bail has been used as a substitute for trial and punishment, to wide cheering by the political class, media and even civil society. Any questioning of this is met with the usual: so are you sympathising with the corrupt, chor, criminals and other so-and-sos, as if this massive wave of post-reform change has also taken away our liberal instincts in its sweep. So low is our faith in the system and its processes now, so desperate our impatience, that nobody would even dare to ask how Subrata Roy Sahara can be incarcerated indefinitely without a conviction or even a chargesheet. He is supposedly a bad guy, so just put him in the cooler and throw away the keys.advertisementIt may sound like I am targeting the judicial system, but that is precisely because of all institutions that protect us from majoritarian excess, this is the most important. Today, it is also one of the angriest. The very basis of a century-old debate on individual liberty is being turned on its head. See the rise in the number of death sentences being handed out even if hardly any will be executed ultimately.One of the wisest and senior-most judges of the Supreme Court put it very well recently when he noted that the judiciary had seemed to shift from a (more civilised) reformative concept of justice to a retributive one, under pressure from, and responding to, popular demand, even from the media and civil society. The silence of the once principled civil liberties activists is scary. It is not as if they do not exist. They will all come out and sign a joint condemnation the next time a top-ranking Maoist is killed in Chhattisgarh or Jharkhand. Activists have reduced themselves to special interest groups.I know it will be tempting, but do not blame this on the rise of Modi. The reverse, that this hardening of the Indian mind may have strengthened the Modi wave, is more true.You also cannot blame Modi for it because this cuts across the entire political spectrum. All parties are complicit, for example, in the hurried passage of many draconian laws without adequate thought to their consequences, particularly for individual liberty. From the so-called Nirbhaya Act to the ongoing amendments to the Juvenile Justice Act and through much other law-making and court pronouncements, the mood is the same: lock them up, hang them, preferably at a lamp-post.advertisementOther absurdities have expectedly surfaced in this heady environment. All politicians are chors, and any of those under prosecution are guilty until proven innocent. So they find their own, bespoke solution: special fast-track courts to give themselves speedy justice. That’s one more example of the privileged conveniently seceding from the system that bedevils the rest.A little like a special, sparkling VIP ward in an overcrowded, filthy government hospital, or the politicians’ courtroom equivalent of the civil services’ own Sanskriti School in New Delhi. If you can have your own school for your children, I can have my own courts for speedy justice. The rest of India can go to hell and have their lives and careers ruined by ordinary courts which, as we have seen recently, can take 25 years pronouncing you not even prima facie guilty, and that even when the victim happens to be a former managing director of Tata Steel (J.J. Irani, in a 1989 Jamshedpur fire case).There are no easy explanations for what caused this change. Possibly it is just that we are a much younger people now, children of a fast-growing, post-reform economy and a society that got hyper-connected before it could get properly educated, even literate. I know the perils, as saying it exposes me at once to the charge of being patronising.But where does this generation of Indians, by and large, get its wisdom from? Partly from the political rhetoric, ideological or religious indoctrination from local preachers or tele-evangelists (I say that in a purely secular sense) or from the media, which obviously cannot be expected to remain unaffected when even the judiciary has succumbed. Kargil taught the media that patriotism sells, particularly in the course of a war that you won. But over the years now, patriotism has yielded to nationalism where my nation can never be wrong.This is worrying. You want the difference explained in more decent prose than mine? I can do no better than steal from a George Orwell essay of nearly 70 years ago. “Nationalism is not to be confused with patriotism,” he wrote, explaining that “two different and even opposing ideas are involved. By patriotism I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people.” In that stunningly prescient essay written when Europe was burning under the fire of nationalism, Orwell made the distinction even clearer:  “Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally. Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power.” Not surprisingly, he concluded that nationalism is the worst enemy of peace.Here is another way of explaining this distinction. I can disagree with my nation, its national policy on any issue, even something as sensitive as Kashmir, and yet be patriotic. But if I am a vanilla nationalist, everything my nation does or says must be right. This can go to absurd lengths. See how promptly we all pronounced Ravindra Jadeja’s innocence after his spat with Anderson. And when a full judge ruled on it, saying that both were about equally guilty, we cried prejudice and blue murder. This, when India pretty much controls world cricket. But this India is not willing to ever admit it could be wrong or, in a contentious situation, not wronged.advertisementNot for this changed new India the wisdom of Simon Barnes in his classic The Meaning of Sport: “Patriotism is not quite the same as nationalism… Cheering for your national team is not the same as thinking that your nation has the right to win the World Cup, that somebody must be punished if the team fails, that your nation must set the agenda for the world, and that anybody who disagrees with that notion is not just wrong but demented.” This is too subtle for this India on its 67th Independence Day. And this new, illiberal, impatient nationalist upsurge brings problems in its wake. If my nation is always right and you disagree, you are a traitor or, who knows, an alien. Because we have just been given a new definition for our nationalism by RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat: Hindutva. If you live in Hindustan, you have to be a Hindu, irrespective of the god you worship.You disagree with that? You dare to defy our nationalism? Now you know what I mean when I fret that behind all the virtuous change sweeping our nationthe upsurge of can-do aspiration, small-town empowerment, argumentative hyper-connectivity and gadget-linked lifestyle upgradesalso sits this uneasy reality of an increasingly illiberal, irritable and sometimes petulant India.Follow the writer on Twitter @ShekharGuptaTo read more, get your copy of India Today here.last_img

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