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Impunity isn’t exactly popularity

Impunity isn’t exactly popularity

IT’S a common error of perception to confuse political impunity with popularity. The distinction makes a big difference in understanding the core features of fascism, which have mostly eluded South Asia. Ziaul Haq’s recourse to public flogging in Pakistan did strike terror in many hearts but he crucially failed to win over the people. Pakistan acquired all the accoutrements of a fascist state, except the missing popular support. Other Pakistani dictators have been shown the door by unarmed people.

In Modi’s India, TV channels bombard the gullible with a similar power projection. In this they work in cahoots with web-based platforms like Facebook and WhatsApp. The process is all in all a shabby attempt to pass the state’s impunity as the government’s popularity.




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Friends condole with friends with great concern that India has gone fascist. They undermine a different way of seeing it. Popular support for wilful dictators was a necessary ingredient in Italy and Germany in the 1930s. There’s no compelling evidence — other than perennially fudged opinion polls — that Prime Minister Modi has won himself invincibility any more than what everybody manages to get in India’s first-past-the-post electoral system.

Nehru with his winning streak offered to resign on at least two occasions. Indira Gandhi swept the elections in 1971 and had to hide behind the emergency in 1975. How else can we explain the dichotomy between Modi’s two innings and the fact that half the Indian states run opposition governments, including Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Odisha, West Bengal, Punjab, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Delhi? Why do cow vigilantes not succeed there? In several other states, namely Manipur, Goa or Madhya Pradesh, Modi’s BJP gained power by backdoor methods. And where have the cow vigilantes disappeared in the beef-eating but BJP-ruled northeast?

Friends condole with friends with great concern that India has gone fascist.

What we are witnessing in India today is impunity, state-backed impunity. Some years ago, the late Dr Mubashir Hasan was visiting India. His close association with Z.A. Bhutto had given him handy insights into how democracies work and how they fail or fall short. In his view, Bhutto’s gradually revealed lust for unbridled power and his attendant insecurities laid low many hopes for robust democracy taking durable roots in Pakistan. If anything, the lust for power contributed to the parting of East Pakistan.

Mubashir Sahib visited the erstwhile communist-ruled West Bengal and some other Indian states, possibly Hyderabad, before it de-linked from Andhra Pradesh to become the capital of Telangana. His observation was noteworthy. Any cadre-based (or caste-based) party can ally with state police to wreak havoc on the opposition. The left thus terrified Mamata Banerjee as she does the left today. Dalit leader Mayawati was feared by the powerful landed Thakur castes when she was in power. Now the Thakurs have the goods on her. There’s no guarantee of course that Thakurs or any caste works in unison, though they usually do.

The ruler of Uttar Pradesh walks with a spring today though he was bawling like a baby in the Lok Sabha not too long ago. It was a sight to watch communist speaker of the Lok Sabha Somnath Chatterjee consoling Yogi Adityanath who cried bitterly over police harassment unleashed on him in Uttar Pradesh by a backward caste government. Saffron-clad Yogi is of the Thakur/Rajput caste and has been putting some very loveable people in prison. Erstwhile chief minister Rajnath Singh is also a Thakur, and was in fact a major power within the BJP to contend with. He was party president, in fact. No more. Yogi the Thakur has outsmarted Rajnath the Thakur. Inserting the Muslim trauma into the narrative at every pause is to play into the hands of motivated TV anchors whose lifeline is the Hindu-Muslim binary.

There is a Muslim issue, a serious one, of course. However, its genesis precedes the arrival of Hindutva, and the travails of the community are duly recorded in the Sachar Committee report among others, of how shabbily Muslims have been treated since independence, including by the left in West Bengal in terms of their gainful employment. Were the Dalits treated better? Or the tribespeople?

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What Mubashir Sahib had gleaned from his visit is evident elsewhere. Rival groups in Tamil Nadu use the police to their advantage and suffer at their hands in turn, depending on who is in the saddle on a given day. In the Modi era, the lumpen proletariat, which was traditionally on the wrong side of the law, and suffered for it, suddenly finds itself as local vigilantes with total support from the police thanas, the thanas where they once used to be strung upside down from trees or wooden frames and tortured mercilessly for alleged petty crimes.

By calling lumpens lumpens one often walks away from the problem, however. How does one bring the shunned elements into the mainstream of everyday struggle and human fellowship? The left and liberals largely used the term as a pejorative synonym for a veritably untouchable class; the BJP converted the perceived social waste into gold. This lumpen proletariat is the purported brown shirts or the black shirts of Hindu fascism. Are they that, or will they shift with the power base, as would the police, if Mubashir Sahib is right?

There’s a fear that haunts the BJP. It comes from a nationwide resistance of which Muslims are only a small part. It is an invisible coalition of Dalits, Kashmiris, Sikhs, Christians, backward caste Hindus, tribals and left activists (distinct from Maoists) and of course several mainstream parties.

The other day, Delhi Police named CPI-M chief Sitaram Yechury in the riots staged in Delhi by state actors in February. Countless innocents have been arrested. Impunity is growing, Hindutva’s appeal is waning. Sudha Bharadwaj and Umar Khalid, Anand Teltumbde and Devangana Kalita, Gautam Navlakha and Natasha Narwal and many others would agree from their respective prison cells.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.

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Published in Dawn, September 15th, 2020

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