Where is the mind without fear?

Print edition : October 27, 2017

Members of Citizens for Peace, Justice and Democracy hold a demonstration to protest against rising mob violence and cow vigilantism in Chennai in July. Photo: S.R. Raghunathan

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high

Where knowledge is free

Where the world has not been broken up into fragments

By narrow domestic walls

Where words come out from the depth of truth

Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection

Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way

Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit

Where the mind is led forward by thee

Into ever-widening thought and action

Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.

These eleven inspiring lines of Tagore, conjuring a freshly minted idea of a free India, are of course utopian and aspirational, as the best of poetry is wont to be. They could never really come together, except on the page they were written on, as future-perfect imagination. But the words nurture within them, and the lines between them, an ideal and a hope of our destiny as a sovereign people making up a new nation.

Well over a century after those lines were written and 70 years after Independence, we are now at that conjunction of history and politics where those ideas, ideals and hopes are being systematically ripped away from the text, where what is left are the dead letters, and what remains for us to do is to silently, resignedly, follow that body of verse laid out on its hearse to its unknown resting place.

Because the freewheeling, fearless, vibrant, disputatious essence of being Indian is being hammered on a daily basis, wholesale and retail, and flattened into a supine mental conditioning. The culture of difference, of diversity, of religious pluralism, of multiple traditions, of myriad lifestyles, is being steamrolled by a zealous cult of majoritarianism.

That majoritarianism goes by the callous, aggressive name tag of Hindutva, which has nothing to do with, and is, if anything, antithetical to, the profoundly spiritual, philosophically liberating, aesthetically compelling, syncretic, inclusive, polysemic nature of Hinduism, as religion and way of life. Hindutva is obnoxiously offensive not only for what it is doing to what it sees as rival, minority faiths, but equally for what it is doing to the best traditions and best practices of Hinduism itself. Hindutva is, from what one can make of it in its coarse practice, a narrow political construct of a broad-based religion.

When Hindutva is done with it, if it is allowed to complete the project, Hinduism will hardly be a creed to be revered or loved or lived in its multifariousness, but a draconian law to be feared, much like the fundamentalist sectarian versions of Islam or Christianity are to the average Muslim or Christian. The Hindutva project is to straitjacket Hinduism into a mindless fundamentalist faith, by inventing a text and sanctioning only that one version of it, a rule book which must be adhered to, word for word; by turning away from inclusiveness and becoming exclusive; by self-contradictorily at once demonising and imitating other text-bound Semitic religions.

The Hindutva project resuscitates the execrable elements that lie dormant in the religion like the codes of Manu. It mongers rituals and sells myths by muscle power, intimidation and bullying. It breeds godmen who turn out to be, one after the other, crooks raping women, grabbing land (and vice versa), rapidly setting up humongous business empires by their dilettantist religious pontification aided by some readymade yoga; they are brand ambassadors of corporate Hindutva. It twists and narrowcasts sanatana dharma into a code of defiant behaviour, a kind of religious personal law that runs counter to the law of the land, making a mockery of that concept which perhaps antedates organised religion. The Hindutva project goes against the grain of Hinduism and seeks to make it an etiolated apology of its real self.

The project demands not minds without fear and heads held high, but minds and heads cowed down by fear and a forced regime of compliance. The spectre of Hindutva can flourish only in a state of constant turbulence and flux; hence it becomes imperative to polarise, to keep communal tension on the boil. It needs to keep crying wolf, it needs a bogey standing by to provoke alarm, so that it can take on the role of, or pretend to act for, the victim, and proceed to victimise. It is the tried and tested fascist method. Things must be unsettled before they are reconfigured, stacked and settled in its favour. Break it to fix it, and fix everyone and everything you need to with it. (Arguably it is not even necessary to have method to the madness, as the unsolved puzzle of demonetisation and the yet unfolding mess of the GST regime suggest.) One of the most apt, most epigrammatic, descriptions of Hitler was, and this would apply to any modern Tughlaq, “in normalcy a nothing, in chaos a titan”.

The majoritarian Hindutva project identifies with and promotes a resurgent “nationalism” which goes beyond love of and devotion to motherland to an aggressively assertive one-upmanship with strong implications of superiority of race and religion and homogenisation of culture and language (as in Hindi). Such nationalism (more akin to cultural nationalism) is in opposition and contrast to the more democratic-critical concept of “patriotism” which owes loyalty to the defining principles that constitute the nation and will in a pinch oppose a national course that runs counter to those principles. It is the patriot’s bounden cause and duty to save the nation from the errant nationalist.

In their exploration of the two concepts, nationalism and patriotism, in the context of the unification of Germany (East and West), Thomas Blank and Peter Schmidt (“National Identity in a United Germany: Nationalism or Patriotism? An Empirical Test with Representative Data” in the June 2003 issue of Political Psychology) underscore the salient differences between them. Whereas “nationalism supports the nation in areas where there are authoritarian structures between the nation and its citizens…. Patriotism … supports those national aspects that contribute to the dispersion of such authoritarian relations”. Again, “nationalism strives to idealise the group’s history, whereas patriotism backs its constructive-critical analysis”. Also, “nationalism tends to support authoritarian-totalitarian structures, whereas patriotism is linked with support of democratic principles”. And significantly for the minorities and those outside the main group, “in its endeavour towards intrasocietal homogeneity, nationalism supports the degradation of outgroups, whereas patriotism supports tolerance toward outgroups and minorities in accepting intrasocietal variety”.

It is apparent from the performance of the relatively new right-wing AfD (Alternative for Deutschland) party in the recent elections to the federal parliament in Germany, garnering 13.3 per cent of the vote (as against 5 per cent the last time) and emerging as the third largest party, that the nationalistic strain is becoming stronger despite Nazism and Hitler being anathema in the post-World War II political narrative of the country. The “narrow domestic walls” the poet worried about do seem to be fragmenting the world.

Hindutva, as a political falsification of Hinduism, must resort to alternative facts and post-truths, lies in short, to weave a make-believe ecology of representation that has nothing to do with lived reality. It commandeers the media for this purpose. And thus we have a situation where, as the German thinker and journalist Karl Kraus, alluding to the period of the ascendance of Nazis in Germany when the media manipulated reality, put it, “shadows now throw bodies”. The iteration of untruth ad nauseam makes the lie the norm, and truth look strange and outrageous. This is a sub-real situation where the misrepresentation acquires, as Guy Debord observes in his Society of the Spectacle, an autonomous life of its own, where “the liar has lied to himself” and convinced himself to believe and live the lie.

Words, then, do not come out from the “depth of truth”, but sub-serve the project. There is “tireless striving” not towards perfection, but to perfect the lie. As for the “clear stream of reason”, it runs right into “the dreary desert sand of dead habit” and evaporates. Reason or rationalism which questions the project is a life-threatening exercise, as what happened to Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare and M.M. Kalburgi, and now Gauri Lankesh, starkly reminds us. You can, of course, as much as you distort the majority faith, with equal or more impunity insult and ridicule the minority faiths because that is par for the course for Hindutva as mass political mobilisation in the name of religion.

This blinkered unidirectional religious mediation of political and social life, which not only skews civilisational values of modernity and humanness and scientific temper, but also corrupts the core purpose of religion as a means of self-enlightenment, liberation and salvation, has a stultifying effect on the spiritual and intellectual life of entire generations which have to suffer it. The mind is led not forward, not within, but backward, to revive “dead habits”. A process of cultural renascence masquerades as cultural renaissance. Regression is confused with some kind of going back to the roots. Myths are rubber-stamped as historical. A strange blind and blighting nostalgia retrieves discredited notions and disused practices from the dustbins of history and restitutes them as so many anachronisms to be celebrated.

The here and the now are casualties in the process. In his evocative “Tryst with Destiny” speech delivered on the occasion of India’s Independence on August 14/15, 1947, Nehru promised that “at the stroke of the midnight hour India will awake to life and freedom”. “Life” and “freedom” are the crucial operative words there, both guaranteed to us as our fundamental rights by our Constitution, the one in Article 21 which assures us the right to life and personal liberty, and the other by virtue of Article 19(1) which stipulates and safeguards our freedoms of expression, movement, to practice any profession and so on. But today these rights, though constitutionally assured, cannot be, will not be, practically ensured. To put it sardonically, the exercise of one right, that of freedom of expression, can lead to abrogation of the other, the right to life. The difference between exercising and not exercising our fundamental right is that between life and death.

This is where the tidal wave of Hindutva leaves us, stranded and helpless, divorced from our true heritage and past and uncertain of our future. And thus it is that we find ourselves shuffling after the cortege of the poet’s words, in silence. It is like the poem of silence Karl Kraus lapsed into when he foresaw what National Socialism in the 1930s was going to do to Germany:

Let no one ask what I’ve been doing since I spoke

I have nothing to say

and won’t say why.

And there’s stillness since the earth broke.

No word was right;

a man speaks only from his sleep at night.

And dreams of a sun that joked.

It passes; and later

it didn’t matter.

The Word went under when that world awoke.

A letter from the Editor


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Editor, Frontline

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