In a chapter of S. Hareesh’s JCB award-winning recent novel, Moustache, the narrator, speaking at a book launch, is rebuked for suggesting that the best stories need not offer any political or philosophical insight because we go to them for the sheer joy of reading. “Writers were under attack, even being killed, and yet there were those who waxed eloquent about the literary merits of the hare and the tortoise story,” says a young man in the audience, asserting that such people “are responsible for the fascist mindset that had spread across India”.
The visibly unjust assault unsettles the narrator and leads him to self-flagellation. “Such was his oratory, that I found myself wanting to agree with him. I looked pathetically at myself.”
This episode, albeit fictional, echoes an overwhelming truth of our times — the division of India into two extreme ideological poles and the growing isolation, even demonisation, of the non-adherent citizen. The most innocuous act of this citizen can invite their wrath, one of whom carries the ‘anti-national’ sword and the other moves with the ‘fascist’ scimitar.
The unfortunate placard — if not with me, you are with them — that both sides wear on their chest has reduced the space for any meaningful political possibility along the centre. One cannot easily make an argument without inviting an accusation from the people one is trying to stand for. A remark on the failures of Rahul Gandhi, for instance, may be construed as one aimed at strengthening the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). But if political correctness demands that all questions are aimed at the opposite camp, and none at one’s own for the fear that it might adversely affect any political campaign, it gradually leads to an unexamined life.
The death of dilemma
A questioning citizen who is not the devoted voter of any party, who weighs her choices at every step, who doesn’t look at life in binaries and poses dilemmas before the entire spectrum of politics and society forms the foundation of a nation. Among the most devastating fallouts of the Narendra Modi era is that it has eroded the space for such a citizen, and consequently vanished a range of moral dilemmas from Indian life, dilemmas that have been so central to this civilisation that even G.W.F. Hegel was once left stunned.
The German philosopher couldn’t believe upon finding in the Gita that the chief of a mighty army could develop debilitating self-doubt in the middle of the battlefield. The war in the Mahabharata is about to begin for which the great archer has waited all his life but, facing sudden questions, he surrenders his quiver and wants to withdraw. “Such a situation is of course contrary to all conceptions we Europeans have of war and of the moment when two great armies are confronting each other,” wrote the philosopher.
Hegel correctly recognised a major characteristic of Indian civilisation as reflected in many of its seminal texts: a questioning individual, raising Yaksha Prashnas, the invincible questions. The archer was not alone. To Be or Not To Be is among the foundational questions of this civilisation. And, as a logical corollary, the ability to locate an inalienable truth in the adversary, and assimilate the seemingly contradictory positions, is a foundational trait. These traits, which enabled this land to embrace several cultures, languages and religions over the centuries, are now being replaced by a growing enchantment towards the opposite poles.
The enchantment of the extreme
The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) has lost two of its most respected men in the last two years, Devendra Swarup and M.G. Vaidya. Both were in their mid-90s and had seen the Sangh grow and evolve since its inception. A few years ago, I recorded long interviews with both at their homes.
What they told me can be kept aside for later, for instance, their thoughts on B.R. Ambedkar and the Babri Masjid; the point here is that some of the most committed political people I have met exist on opposite poles — Naxals and Pracharaks. Disagree with their idea of India, but an inordinately large number of cadres in both the organisations have staked their lives to build an India of their dreams, however flawed or devious that dream or the means to achieve that dream are. Political parties that exist along the centre barely match their ideological commitment. Vaidya continued to attend the Shakhas in his 90s; Naxals live under perpetual fear of death in the forests. The rebels used the coronavirus-induced lockdown to regroup themselves in parts of Bastar; the Sangh began holding the morning Shakhas in the residential apartments of Delhi’s Mayur Vihar soon after a little relaxation was announced in the lockdown.
The next, and quite close, in terms of commitment are Left parties like the Communist Party of India (Marxist–Leninist) or CPI-ML, who have stark differences with the Naxals over the issue of parliamentary democracy and both sides have also lost many lives in bloody clashes, but nevertheless share crucial sections in their economic and social manifesto. They also share their icons and worldview and, despite the aforementioned differences, can be placed under a broad ideological umbrella of the Left.
Does it mean that the ideological commitment in political parties mostly exists along the poles in our times? If the answer is in a threatening affirmative, as evidenced by a large number of senior members from several parties like the Congress and the Trinamool Congress joining the BJP (however, several members from various Left parties have also joined the BJP in recent years, especially in Bengal), then it seems that the middle space is fast losing its existential relevance, political power and moral authority. The middle space that is often marked by earnest dilemmas, a desire to understand and converse with the other, a space that often acts as a bridge between the poles, and prompts them to cede their rigid stances, a space that accommodates diverse thoughts and methods, a space in which the great Indian national movement operated for several decades, is becoming antediluvian.
The emerging contest, if not the electoral then certainly the ideological, may well be between the Right and the Left, with their various factions and segments, political and cultural. Indeed, some of the most credible opposition to the Narendra Modi government on the ground (please excuse Twitter) comes from the people and organisations associated with or leaning towards the Left ideology.
Cries of the Republic
The increasing enchantment with the two poles makes the independent citizen, equally committed to the Constitution, an object of constant accusations by both sides. They become an unwitting minority who are duly hated by the Right, and yet constantly mocked by the Left and asked to prove their loyalty. One can still fight the Right because they are certified intolerants, but how does one fight the Left, the self-professed champion of individual rights?
How many citizens, despite being unflinching opponents of the Modi government, have not had such obscene statements thrown at them in the last few years — ‘you are not Left enough’, ‘you are a collaborator’.
In these taunts, one can eavesdrop the muted cries of the Republic.
The author is an independent journalist. His recent book, The Death Script, traces the Naxal insurgency. Views are personal.