Shiv Visvanathan is an academic best known for his contributions to developing the field of Science and Technology Studies (STS). He is currently Professor at OP Jindal Global University, Sonepat
A friend of mine, parodying what he thought was Tolstoy, said, “Political parties are all alike. Each makes the citizen unhappy in its own way.”
It takes years for the unhappiness to surface but when it does, the postmortems become glib evasions of the fact.
The CPM for years had run a reign of terror in Bengal, criminalising the state such that goons ran the party. This became most evident in the infamous Bantala rape-lynching case which took the life of one health official and a UINCEF lady officer. Even after the electorate voted it out, there was little sense of responsibility or acceptance of grave mistakes by the Reds.
The Congress, undergoing its second childhood, shows no sense of urgency of renewing the party or creating a new line of dynamic leadership. The irony is, intelligent people in the Congress play silent, waiting like all good secularists for a miracle to happen. Regional parties rarely capture the imagination because eventually they project a local hysteria onto a national domain.
At this stage, where the opposition looks both supine and idealess, the Right, as incarnated in the BJP and its constellations, seems to be riding high. One has to acknowledge that it did many things strategically right to come out of the political wilderness and become a majoritarian phenomenon, with a party that looks alert and a leader who virtually dominates every conversation.
The Right had three sensibilities which gave power to its strategy. First, it was more acurate in tapping into the unconscious of people, sensing both their fears and tiredness acutely. A colleague - an expert on law and myth - told me a story that captures this. He said his “grandfather was a staunch Congressman who voted for the party but would not tolerate a critique of the Shakha”, which he respected. As a critic commented half ironically, the Right might suffer from Congress but no party was more acurate in understanding India’s epidemic of Congress ennui. It astutely tapped into this dissatisfaction, creating a series of melodramas which launched it into majoritarian power. While the Congress recited policy textbook, the Right infiltrated folklore. It tapped into middle class dissatisfactions and aspirations in the way the Congress could not.
Secondly, the Right has a tremendous sense of the long run. It can wait, it can plan. Its cadres will burrow into every organisation of civil society - from schools to media - to install its men in places. No position is too small to be ignored tactically. To the stamina for the long run and an agility to tap into the culturally unconscious, one must add its sensitivity to locality and local disasters.
Whether one considers the Odisha cyclone of 1999 or the Gujarat earthquake of 2000, teams from the Anand Marg, RSS, along with the perennial Ramkrishna Mission, had moved in to help as quickly as the army.
The lifestyle of these cadres was simple. They survived on little, playing brilliantly on categories of relief. The Swami Narayan leader, Pramukh Swami, insisted that victims and survivors of the earthquake should be served hot food, because that was the spirit of hospitality. I must confess that the food was delicious and even government officers would drop in for a bite. Few NGOs would think of hospitality in such a manner.
The political sociologist, Chandrika Parmar, in her study of disasters, has shown clinically how the Right mastered and domesticated the imagination of disasters. There was a sense of binaries, of the ability to switch from providing relief to engaging in violence. The same Right which worked so humanely during the earthquake provided the forces which created the tragic burden of the Gujarat riots. The Right`s ambidextrousness allowed an easy switch between humanitarianism and genocide.
It is with this background of being a dissenting view that one has to examine why the Right is eventually going wrong. It is not a sour grapes story of a liberal-leftist, but a social scientist’s attempt to capture a paradox that the very strengths of the Right may eventually give a clue to its weaknesses, the fault lines below the glibly pompous celebration of majoritarian power today.
One has to examine the Right as a performance and the Right as a world view. The Right has had many incarnations; while we focus on the Hindu Right, one has to recognise that all religions have produced their own dialects of fundamentalism. History also brings to mind the Swatantra Party under the leadership of C Rajagopalachari and Minoo Masani challenging the Nehruvian ideology of planning. The attempt of the Right to take over Rajaji’s journal Swarajya and revive it is a tribute to this historical affiliation. The early Swarajya might have been a voice crying in the wilderness, but somehow its critique of Nehruvianism survived. Both Rajaji and Masani were acute analysts who created an intellectual and civilised presence for themselves which could not be ignored and which the current Right cannot match.
As a world view, the Right is anchored on its basic hermeneutics of Keywords: science, the nation-state, civilisation, Hindutva, development.... It attempted to translate these concepts to create its vision of India. It is precisely here that it is structurally weak as an imagination and political construct.
For all its claims to being nationalist and indigenous, the Right as reflected by the BJP/RSS is a 19th century European creation pursuing a 20th century project called Development. It has inherited the idea of the nation-state in its European sense and with it, the categories of semitisation, scientism and inverse orientalism. Its attempt to semiticise Hinduism and its Shakha as an idea is almost Jesuitical.
Secondly, no regime pathetically transposes the idea of science fiction from a futuristic heuristic to an act of nostalgia for an ancient past, contending that what the West discovered or invented after the industrial revolution had already been achieved in India. This includes plastic surgery, genetic engineering and atomic warfare. It claims a science that is fictional, losing out on the genuine claims that Aryabhatt or Panini made to astronomy and linguistics. It fetishes Yoga almost as a commodity when it is the epistemology of Ayurveda that it should argue for.
This superficiality is evident in the way it argues for Ayurveda as wellness, rather than welfare or wellbeing. The BJP is proud of the Patanjali companies as a threat to the multinationals like Hindustan Unilever and Procter & Gamble, but it does not really challenge them at the level of thought. One wishes that instead of touting the firm Patanjali and Baba Ramdev, the BJP has archived Captain Srinivasa Murthy and his secretary’s minutes of the Committee on indigenous medicine (1923). Srinivasa Murthy showed what AL Basham, the historian and Indologist, once remarked that the dialogue of medicines in India was as acute as the dialogue of religions.
What is even more intriguing is that the BJP has among its sympathisers competent historians of science like Jitender Bajaj and MD Srinivas, both affiliated to Guru Murthy’s Centre for Policy Studies. As a part of the much more variegated PPST, a science movement, they produced remarkable studies of science in the tradition of the historian Dharampal.
None of this is visible in the BJP’s official understanding of science. The populism which makes the likes of Narendra Modi sound like the PT Barnum of science, echoing populist platitudes while ignoring the scholarship of competent historians of science. In fact, one rarely sees a proper understanding of Madan Mohan Malaviya and his dissenting role in the Industrial Commission Report (1916-1919). Here was a man who could challenge great scientists like Cyril Fox and Thomas Henry Holland at the height of imperial power and argue that industrial Britain may not be the model of the future, that Japan and Germany were more relevant. Yet, all one sees is a reference to Malaviya as a founder of the Hindu Mahasabha and the Benaras Hindu University. There is an illiteracy here which also extends to its notions of the nation-state and science.
First, its attempt to link science to an imagined past is forced. I remember a story circulating around Bangalore. The minister of science Harsh Vardhan was being presented with a detailed professional outline of a laboratory’s work on astronomy. The minister listened indifferently and all he asked was “Could the scientists link astronomy to astrology?” leaving the scientists a suitably perplexed.
The BJP’s attempt to misread science as a Big Science turns it more into a spectacular activity rather than a systematic scholarly one. Its celebration of Big Science has robbed it of any sense of the organicity of research as a process. A leading scientist and a member of the Science Academy told me that its priorities are destroying the roots of the research process by emptying out PhD programmes by literally mass-felling UGC fellowships.
Its fetishisation of technology has undermined research and over emphasised technology as a product. Technology becomes an instant panacea to development and nuclear science merely a source of energy. All the rethinking on science and technology over the last few decades from the Pugwash Conferences to the alternative technology movement leaves it stone deaf.
As a result, it becomes an uncritical devotee of corporate technology and captive to every Jingoistic interest, from Adani and Ambani to the Israelis. Part of it comes from desperation to sound advanced and developmental. This makes it a prey to corporate technology without any sense of technological assessment or critique.
Worse, it seeks to monopolise the understanding of science and technology and environmental issues, declaring civil society groups anti-national. Its harassment of dissenting imaginations, whether minoritarian, marginal or dreaming of alternatives, has robbed it of a critical source of the current Indian imagination. It can hypothecate the coast line to the Adani without a second thought with alacrity.
Sadly, the media plays into its hands. No magazine, with the exception of Fountain Ink, has paid attention to the Boat Satyagraha that seeks to salvage the coast and the sea as ways of life.
Even more sad is that its own sense of nature is hardly civilisation but more an internalisation of modern economic categories which have no place for the obsolescent or the defeated. The Uttarakhand judgement, which tried to replicate its sense of Ganga, is half-hearted. When one compares it with the maturity of the New Zealand judgment, on Te Awa Tupua River, one senses that the Right’s sense of nature is neither ecological, civilisation nor scientific. It is a mechanical transposition of arid economic categories where nature is a resource, an object. For all its talk of civilisation and nature, when it comes to Big Science or development, the Right is the most intolerant of dissent by fetishing Big Science, Development and the Nation-state.
In fact, many of the flaws of the Right stem from confusing nationalism as a plural movement for intellectual and political liberation with the nation-state. The first was an efflorescence of ideas, a political struggle that the Right had little to do with. In fact, its marginal role in the national movement leaves BJP with a touch of Congress envy.
The Right’s sense of this is caught both in its attempted appropriation of Sardar Patel as the icon and even more pathetically, in Modi’s attempt to enter the Khadi and Village Industries Corporation calendar, seeking an equivalence or even a displacement of Gandhi, an ethical and political presence that both Right and Left have been ambivalent about. Nationalism in that sense was a costume ball of plural ideas. In fact, India between the Swadeshi movement and Independence produced one of the greatest archives of debates on science, of which the Right is completely oblivious. Ironically, it prefers the orientalist imagination to nationalist scholarship.
The BJP’s absence or marginal representation in the national movement made it a devotee of the nation-state. Its nationalism was in fact racist in its roots. Guru Golwalkar, one of its great ideologues, argues that Muslims must be treated in the same way as Hitler treated the Jews. This fact added a pathos to the recent meeting of Modi with the Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu. When Netanyahu claimed that the rapprochement between India and Israel was seventy years too late, one was wondering how he would look at the camaraderie and comradeship if he had read Gowalkar.
One sees traces of the Right’s racism even in the BJP’s attempt to win over the South. The BJP spokesman, Tarun Vijay, sounded like a Goering as he spoke of its ‘tolerance of Dravidian groups’. The electoral cry sounded more like a colonisation of the South than a democratic triumph. It is this parochialism that also triggered the later responses of MK Stalin on Dravida Nadu, and Chandrababu Naidu’s plea for southern solidarity against northern discrimination.
The Right has transformed the city of Delhi from a Lutyens icon to a divisive force enforcing patriotism as a political correctness, while distancing the South, tampering with its sense of folklore which it was once so acute at. A party committed to the nation-state seemed ready to damage the syncretism and plurality that the nationalism of Gandhi, Azad and Tagore dreamt of. One of the ironic achievements of the Right has been to destroy the plurality of nationalism, including its antipathy for violence.
If nationalism was a rainbow of dreams, the nation-state under the Right had makings of a nightmare of a country seeking to march in uniformity. As a result, its notion of citizenship is arid, its hostility to refugees like Rohingyas is empty, and its destruction of civil society highly corrosive.
To replace the richness of civil society with mimic groups like RSS, the VHP and the Bajrang Dal acting like a parallel police force emasculates the dissenting power of the democratic imagination. Its attitude to minorities has this same root asking them to become citizens sans their ethnic identity.
Sadly, some of the recent liberal views echo this, when Muslims are asked to abandon the veil and the burkha to join the mainstream, the very effort to establish equivalence of the Trishul and the Burkha as cultural equivalent smacks of historical and semiotic illiteracy. But I guess politics, like history, produces such odd ironics which democracy needs to unravel.
The Right`s adherence to the nation-state, to Big Science, its contempt for civil society, its misreading of history has all led to an urge for uniformity which justifies violence and even seeks to legitimise it. At the risk of sounding repetitive, one must emphasise that the Gujarat riots, as Rajdeep Sardesai said, became a laboratory of violence.
It is not that we haven`t had violence before. The Congress infected us with the Emergency; the CPM with the brutalisation of Bengal, but the BJP`s normalisation of violence is a major contribution to contemporary India.
I must confess as someone who studied the riots, it was not just the extremist violence of the riots that was appalling but the aftermath where a system of legitimisation was built around extremism.
Firstly, the Gujarat violence confirmed that the nature of riots as violence had changed. Riots were no longer sporadic but systematic phenomenon. What was a return to normalcy was blocked. Sree Kumar, IG of Police, in his statement before the Nanavati Commission said that out of 13 districts for which there was intelligence data, 79,000 people had not returned to their homes. But it is at a more mundane level that the riots are disturbing. It is not just BJP violence but an attitude that permeates the society and warps it.
A school teacher told me this story. She had two children, a girl aged 12 and a boy aged 10. Whenever the two fought the boy would tell the girl “If you won’t listen to me, I will do to you what the Hindus did to the Muslims.”
The communalisation of citizenship haunts us, as it is now ethnic groups that have to change to become citizens. The riots in fact were seen as a pedagogic lesson to minorities. In fact, Modi defined “development” as a panacea to minoritarian ills, provided they forget the past. In a way the Right has not only tampered with history but forced the erasure of memory especially on minoritarian groups. The Right destroys culture through history and development.
One can ramble on, but maybe it is better one systematically lists one’s charges against BJP and the Right as my indictment. In its few years of majoritarian rule it has tampered with civilisation, the constitution, the syllabus and the community, my list is as follows:
1) Transforming a plural Hinduism to an arrogantly intolerant Hindutva.
2) Tampering with history to create a fictional sense of the past.
3) In attempting to modify culture, it has destroyed the autonomy of the syllabus as a collective consciousness of the university. Its confusion of myth and history, logos and mythos has been disastrous for its understanding of society. It commits the typical modernist fallacy of blending or mistaking logos as rationally and history with the world view of mythos. Ram does not gain in polysemic power by becoming an empirical fact is scrutinising myth, we are emasculating faith.
4) It has mistaken majoritarianism for democracy, and the uniformity of the nation-state for nationalism.
5) It is an outdated 19th century construct in the pursuit of 21st century`s most violent ideology - development.
6) It suffers from historical envy, seeking to rewrite itself into the history books.
7) It is illiterate about science and technology, confusing spectacle for the everydayness of the process.
8) It has turned patriotism into a form of political correctness which becomes a policing instrument against critique and dissent.
9) It has made minorities uncomfortable in an India which was both hospitable and syncretic. It has demanded minorities’ claims to citizenship. Modi’s treatment of Archbishop Macwan illustrate this when Macwan appealed to the Constitution, who was treated as an alien intruder.
10) There is a normalisation of violence which corrodes society. Its moral policing through VHP/Bajrang Dal has created a climate of fear and intolerance which the regime pretends it has no hand in it. It has formalised violence in the name of majoritarianism.
11) Its fetishisation of the past has emptied its sense of the future making it deaf or intolerant to alternative imagination.
12) Its deification of state has emasculated civil society creating despair in the university and forcing the media into a mediocrity. The right has created a legitimisation of violence far beyond the needs of security or order.
13) It has created a techno-fundamentalist framework which weds nostalgia for an imagined past to technology as an uncritical vehicle for the future. In that sense, it is more colonial than any party so far, emptying Swadeshi and Swaraj of creative content by internalising managerial categories.
14) Fundamentally for all its jingoism, communalism, its claims to modernity, it is arid as an imagination, demonstrating an iteracy about a past it fetishes and a future it has little sense of.
In fact, it is its very sense of nation, science, history, democracy and development that has warped Indian democracy in the long run, adding sadness to the prospect politics as a dynamic imagination. One hopes there is a possibility of debate and dialogue around such questions. One does not intent to demonise the Right but one has to confront the demonic propensities in it.
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