From Shakespearean demagogues to mob-sanctioned savagery, 2023 was a year that tested the soul of the nation.
Stephen Greenblatt in his book Tyrant: Shakespeare on Power writes that the bard grappled repeatedly with the question: “How is it possible for a whole country to fall into the hands of a tyrant?” In play after play, Greenblatt says, what Shakespeare is asking is this: “Under what circumstances do cherished institutions, seemingly deep-rooted and impregnable, suddenly prove fragile? Why do large numbers of people knowingly accept being lied to?”
If we knew the answer to this, we might perhaps be better able to confront the deeply unsettling challenges that 2023 relentlessly pushed at us. Why, for instance, did India’s women wrestlers have to come to the street before the government acted against Brij Bhushan, the president of the Wrestling Federation of India, on a sexual harassment complaint? How did the same Brij Bhushan’s business partner become WFI president, in effect ensuring that the structure of power continues unbroken? Is the Jat pride that’s so injured by a silly piece of mockery immune to its women being manhandled? How do the same people who demanded justice for Jessica Lal or Nirbhaya calmly watch the gross miscarriage of justice in this case?
Not so long ago, the great Indian middle class was baying for blood because a famous film star’s young son was reportedly found carrying recreational drugs. When another film star took his life, they went on a rampage to find a “killer” they could hang. The rage, it was claimed, was all about ensuring justice. But there were no cries for justice when a Railway Protection Force officer killed three innocent men on a train. Nor when an 85-year-old suffering from Parkinson’s was deemed a grave security threat. Nor when the Kashmiri journalist Fahad Shah was jailed for two years on trumped-up UAPA charges. The High Court that finally granted Shah bail in 2023 observed: “If this [the prosecution’s] argument is accepted, it would literally turn criminal law on its head. It would mean that any criticism of the Central government can be described as a terrorist act because the honour of India is its incorporeal property.”
The key lies in the phrase “turn on its head”. Because that is what is unfolding in front of our eyes. Words like law, justice, ethics, oppression, communalism, and terror have been twisted and manipulated and turned on their head so that they mean the opposite or mean nothing at all. They have become plastic, elastic, devoid of form and purpose, meaningless sounds that are mouthed to convey anything one wants the masses to believe. And, willingly, eagerly, the masses do believe.
“Words like law, justice, ethics, oppression, communalism, and terror have been twisted and manipulated and turned on their head so that they mean the opposite or mean nothing at all. ”
In Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Jack Cade, hired by the Duke of York to capture the throne, is the quintessential demagogue. A crude, lying rogue, his great talent is in knowing how to manipulate the disenchanted masses. He makes them rage against scholars, lawyers, and clerks simply because they know how “to read and write”, and soon they scream for them all to be put to death.
A demagogue’s power is in knowing how to change a gathering from a crowd to a mob. Then, to give the mob an enemy. We ask why a people would willingly give an autocrat untrammelled power over their lives. Because when the people become a mob, they do not want good government, all they want, to quote Greenblatt, is “permission to break the rules”, to destroy, to slake their thirst for blood.
In 2023, that permission was given.
An MP from the BJP could stand up in the Lok Sabha and use the vilest slurs against a Muslim fellow MP and walk away without even reproach from the Speaker. A politician notorious for hate speech and threatening bulldozers against those who did not vote for the BJP could be voted MLA from a Hyderabad constituency. Students could make videos of lecturers teaching history and claim that the lessons were anti-national. A mentally ill Muslim man who wandered into a temple and ate some prashad could be beaten to death. With each incident, the bar for brutality was set lower. With each incident, the sense of impunity became stronger.
This exhilarating licence to indulge in the basest instincts of loathing and savagery free from the fear of punishment is what Hobbes predicted when he said that life would rapidly become “nasty, brutish, and short” outside the social contract, a condition that William Golding brought chillingly alive in Lord of the Flies. The difference between what they prophesied and what we see unwinding in front of our eyes is that the government is not missing. No, the government is present. And it is willing the mob on.
“When the people become a mob, they do not want good government, all they want, to quote Greenblatt, is ‘permission to break the rules’, to destroy, to slake their thirst for blood. In 2023, that permission was given.”
When the equally willing Supreme Court on December 11 upheld the Centre’s roughshod abrogation of Article 370 that gave Jammu and Kashmir special status, it broke a fragile and gossamer thread of promise that holds a multitudinous India together, the belief that each individual identity will be cherished and protected even as it comes together to form the whole.
But that is what demagogues do. They make it acceptable to destroy the “vast social apparatus that compels the honouring of contracts, the fulfilment of obligations”, to use Greenblatt’s phrase. It is what we see playing out in Manipur today. India is so busy ticking progress in terms of roads, buildings, space shuttles, and unicorns that it has failed to notice its profound regression in the incalculable indices of compassion and ethicality.
As the year drew to a close and we discussed the idea of a year-end special issue, we decided to pick 10 areas to focus on and 10 brilliant writers to encapsulate the challenges and, in some instances, the emerging challengers in each of these areas.
We in Frontline faced our own challenges this year, of resources and manpower, but my brilliant and hardworking team, both print and digital, came through as always. This issue is dedicated to them and to good journalism, the mantra that binds us close in these challenging times.
Frontline wishes you a new year filled with hope and happiness.