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Opinion: A ‘what next’ charter for India

  • India isn’t the only democracy facing a crucial identity crisis
  • The silver lining in the global rise of totalitarian regimes is that the world is full of people fighting autocrats and their hateful, exclusionary messages

It is time to redefine patriotism—one way to do it will be to explore grass-root approaches of reaching out to the vulnerable. (iStock)

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In his devastating new book Malevolent Republic: A Short History Of The New India, K.S. Komireddi starts by listing the historic betrayals of the Congress party that cleared the way for Indians to embrace Narendra Modi as their prime minister in 2014. The single-word titles of the six chapters in which the author then analyses Modi’s India—Cult, Chaos, Terror, Vanity, Seizure and Disunion—most effectively summarize this period in the history of our republic.

Modern-day India is teetering on the precipice of a new country, Komireddi concludes. “Indira Gandhi suspended the Constitution to brutalise Indians. Modi will seek to write his ideology into the Constitution to bisect them. If he succeeds…. There will be separate classes of citizens in law. Bigotry will not then be a deviation from the ideas of the republic: it will be an affirmation of them. India will become Pakistan by another name.”

Yet the author believes that while Modi has drawn out the “very worst” in many Indians, his reign has “smashed the complacency” and awakened us to what we might lose. He poses a question that will definitely be answered in Modi’s second term: “Can we give up on India? Seven decades after the holocaust of Partition, in the name of religious nationalism, can we throw away the improbable unity for which so many good people sacrificed their everything?”

India isn’t the only democracy facing this crucial identity crisis. The silver lining in the global rise of totalitarian regimes is that the world is full of people fighting these autocrats and their hateful, exclusionary messages. The ongoing work of people’s movements and researchers who battle racism, sexism, casteism, homophobia, Islamophobia and toxic levels of hatred against immigrants in so many countries offers the perfect starting point for those of us who are wondering what comes next.

The good news is that right from the time music composer O.P. Nayyar was “inspired” by My Darling Clementine to create Yeh Hai Bombay Meri Jaan, we’ve always been brilliant at taking someone else’s idea and making it work here.

Tracking and highlighting hate crimes and fact-checking the lies and divisive speeches and policies of our politicians will continue to be a crucial task in Modi’s second term. Teachers will play the role of the infantry in the battle to control education—the ability to think critically and ask questions are key survival tools for every student. “It is crucial for educators to remember that language is not simply an instrument of fear, violence and intimidation; language is also a vehicle for critique, civic courage, resistance and engaged and informed agency,” writes author Henry A. Giroux on Resilience.org, a website that describes itself as a community library. “We live at a time when the language of democracy has been pillaged, stripped of its promises and hopes.”

All the anti-establishment stand-up comics who used humour to hold up a mirror of Ugly India to millions of their followers and all the directors and songwriters who embedded truths about Acche Din in our mass-market films shouldn’t lose heart.

Dissent found its creative mojo these past few years and artists will continue to do what they do best—write, sing, joke, perform, paint, use social media to tell stories that no one else will—even though, as columnist Ash Sarkar pointed out in The Guardian last year, this isn’t just a culture war. Sarkar was discussing the UK, where anti-Semitism and hate crimes have risen dramatically in recent years. “We need more than just a reiteration of the values of diversity and cosmopolitanism. We need a truly radical anti-racist network that’s capable of mobilizing mass opposition when the far right march, as well as being able to embed itself in communities to frustrate the far right’s ability to present itself as the champion of a downtrodden working class.”

Marches and neighbourhood watches to protect vulnerable citizens worked in the 1970s and 1980s during her mother’s time, Sarkar says. Increasingly, analysts are arguing that it’s time to revisit these grass-root approaches.

“The smartest organizing I’ve ever seen is by black women in the US,” tweeted Ananya Chakravarti, associate professor of history at Georgetown University, on the day the results of the Indian general election were announced.

Even as attempts were made in Europe to set up food banks that exclude migrants and/or people of colour from using them, Sarkar says, the city of Liverpool found a way to combat this hate. Supporters of rivals Liverpool FC and Everton FC created an inclusive community organization, Fans Supporting Foodbanks, which started out collecting donations outside football stadiums and now counts several local mosques as its interfaith partners. Imagine the impact if every town in India executed even one such idea.

There are anti-fascist websites, campaigns that promote hope over hate and Switzerland’s crowd-funded, student-founded Operation Libero whose only weapons are great ideas, viral videos and brightly coloured merchandise.

In 2016, the group went head-to-head with the ruling right-wing populist Swiss People’s Party (SVP) on a referendum to deport immigrants who committed even minor offences. The young rebels steered clear of discussions about criminal foreigners. “Instead, we set the terms of the debate by portraying the SVP’s proposal as an attack against fundamental Swiss values. Against the constitution as a pillar of our liberal democracy; the rule of law; equal justice for all. We were the patriots here, because this was an attack on things that every Swiss citizen holds dear,” co-president Flavia Kleiner told The Guardian earlier this year.

Some Indians have already shown us the brand of practical compassion we will need to imbibe in coming years. After Kashmiri students became the target of mob anger and attacks in February, the UK-based humanitarian organization Khalsa Aid pitched in and did its bit to prevent the situation from spiralling out of control. It helped hundreds of students go back to Kashmir safely and provided free food and shelters at local gurdwaras. After the attack on a mosque in New Zealand in March, the community went out of its way to help victims by providing food, accommodation, transport and even funeral services.

I hope those labelled anti-national by the state are listening. It’s time to redefine patriotism.

Priya Ramani shares what’s making her feel angsty/agreeable.

She tweets at @priyaramani

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