Wednesday, 1 February, 2023
HomeOpinionMahabharata to Modi — How India lost the space for moral dilemmas

Mahabharata to Modi — How India lost the space for moral dilemmas

‘Anti-national’ or ‘fascist’ — the death of dilemma is at the root of Indian polarisation today.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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  1. When a dictionary is emptied in an article the content gets lost for common man. To give it an intellectual colour we need to quote German philosopher’s views on the Gita, as if nobody has understood the Gita in India.
    In a country where we have two people with three opinions the how can the narrative of ” if not with me, you are with them ” work ?
    Philosophically “Sarva dharma sambhav” was never a political narration. Me and me alone is a Philosophy emerged much after.
    Non-Modi BJP would have been acceptable to the entire opposition, any change will be resisted and more so if the change takes away goodies from the ones in power.

  2. indeed well written article but i dont agree completely that “fallouts of Narendra modi era ….” . its true that his rise contributed to polarisation in the society. but i would say the rise and adoption of social media and easier communication by one and all — contributed to larger extent to polarisation.
    I would also say modern greeks dont worship ancient greek gods ,, so is the case with Romans. but that s not true for Indians (hindus). Even in 3020 also some Hindus will follow some rudimentary form of “Bhakthi Marga” . So long as LELIs and communists acknowledge this fact, the polarisation will further increase.
    Simlarly if “Bhakts” even if forced should not support every action of current regime BLINDLY. Their lack of patience to hear the other side also promotes polarisation.
    enjoyed your previous article ” gaay hamari mata hai….” pls write more often

  3. The author is a pure demagogue to include RSS and naxals in the same sentence. RSS is a lawful organization that speaks about its idea of India through legally approved methods. Naxals kill and brutalize the dead bodies. That should be enough to tell the readers that the author is a danger to the society. Consider the following sentence from the article: “Naxals live under perpetual fear of death in the forests.” So, the author is trying to portray the naxals as some kind of benign endangered species who are minding their own business in the forest, living off the land like saints. Tell that to the families of those murdered by the naxals – if you dare. Urban naxals like this author who are giving cover for the murderous naxals are a grave danger to India and must be exposed. I hope the NIA investigates his background to trace his naxal activities.

  4. Though there is definitely some truth by the observation made in the article, however if you try to correlate the pattern of voting in state vs center.this will not be justfiable.. ideological slant may be there but commitment is limited to very few people.

  5. Both sides are bad but right is worse? The whole article is pointlessly redundant and complete Waste of space. Space that could’ve went to actual sulla rider than a closeted one like you, no? retard

  6. Politics is one space where I sincerely believe India does not copy the West. There needs to exist different hues and ideologies. And they need to co exist for a healthy thriving democracy in india.

  7. Left is dead for good in india…Jholachaps can only bark…nothing positive will come from them…Group of losers

  8. No need to comment; you were happy with Haj subsidy, dossier being sent to Pakistan post terrorist attack, KP being driven out from Kashmir. Hindu marriage act in 1954 but no Uniform civil code by now, 500 years of struggle for Shri Ram Mandir, Roads in Delhi honouring Attackers and Invaders etc. you are young, but Unfortunately, your ideology has no basis, this vICTIM CARD IS OVER. CONVERT ATLEAST

  9. These left liberal, sickular have lost their weight in the politics of the country after Congress Raj withered. They are overdoing their chest beating it by blaming it on Modi. The more they blame Modi, the more popular he becomes, as he is seen to be working hard tireless and decisive without any stigma of corruption. Instead this gang should prop up a good mass leader in Congress and help rebuild Congress to its past glorious days, if that is possible. If not, write as many stories of hare and tortoise and just watch rise of so-called Hindutva!

  10. Very well written article. But, I beg to differ. Middle ground is not lost yet. This is not Indira Gandhi’s India where opponents where jailed without trial, nor is it Erdogan’s Turkey. If thoughtful people who want to air their views are afraid of opposition or criticism, it is hardly the problem of the Left or the Right. Nobody has been jailed in India for differing with BJP or RSS. The point is that Hindus in India feel that they are fighting a batter for the survival of their Ethos in their only country. They fear that there is collusion between Islamic Extremism and Leftist exteemism, as evidenced by a person like Umar Khalid, who poses as a leftist but is a Jihadi. So called right has only words as their arrows and shield, whereas the other side is ready to use violence at a short notice, against their opponents.

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