Is India becoming more authoritarian? The answer isn't as simple as social media would have us believe

The truly significant dissents of our time are emerging in pop culture on social media; in comedy performances; amidst small-town musical performers

Praveen Swami March 10, 2021 11:19:44 IST
Is India becoming more authoritarian? The answer isn't as simple as social media would have us believe

Representational image. AP

Five minutes walk up the road, there was strange silence which tyranny enforces: And an excellent thing it was, the proprietors of Bright College believed. The previous Summer , Delhi University students and their teachers had been hauled into Tihar Jail and charged with crimes against the State. “After years of turmoil, discipline returns at last to the Temples of Learning”, Bright College proclaimed in an advertisement issued in The Indian Express on 1 August, 1976, “thanks to our worthy Prime Minister who has put the student community on the right track again”.

The last 10 years had seen university students appear around Bright College, in Kamala Nagar market, terrorising the stray cows and the locals with their Rajdoot GTX175 ‘Bobby’ motorcycles and loud music. “Lotharios”, “Fast Girls” and “Loafers”: the world of the conservative shopkeeping community Kamala Nagar had suddenly been populated by strange, shaggy-haired, jeans-clad beasts.

Now, the streets had been swept clean. “Indira Gandhi is leading the nation to a bright future”, the advertisement went on, “and, under her dynamic leadership, Bright College is leading the students to a bright career”. “You too can hope of gaining such glory”!

The generation to whom that exhortation was addressed, though, discarded Prime Minister Gandhi’s socialism. Instead, they threw weight behind economic liberalisation, and a new cosmopolitan aesthetic.


For some five years now, as the government has unleashed what some claim is an unprecedented assault on democratic rights and civil liberties, the idea that we are living through an “Undeclared Emergency” has gathered growing intellectual momentum. As so-called “hurt sentiment” and sedition prosecutions have grown, along with efforts at internet censorship and media control, there is growing global concern over the future of India’s democratic institutions..

The idea is a seductive one — if it wasn’t for the fact that Indian democracy has been in a more-or-less perpetual state of crisis, from the 1950s on. Authoritarianism has, in important senses, been as much part of the story of India as its democratic values.

In 1950, the Supreme Court shot down the Government of Madras's ban on the left-wing weekly, Crossroads. Then, the Court stopped the Delhi government from pre-censoring the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh's magazine, Organiser. In Bihar, the high court allowed Shaila Bala Devi to publish a leaflet  proclaiming: "I am the blood-thirsty goddess Kali who lives and moves about in the cremation ground. I am thirsty. I want blood. I want revolution”.

Egged on by then home minister Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, former prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru amended the Constitution and systematically strengthened colonial-era restrictions on speech — a story superbly told by the legal scholar Abhinav Chandrachud.

The brutal use of force and forcible resettlement of Adivasis to fight the Telengana uprising of 1946-1951, recounted by Jonathan Kennedy and Sushil Purushotham; former Indian Administrative Service officer VS Jafa’s account of the savageries which accompanied the counter-insurgency campaign in Mizoram; the large-scale extra-judicial executions of Bengal Maoists by former chief minister Siddharth Shankar Ray: Together, these accounted for tens of thousands of shattered lives.

Little Emergencies — witness Assam, Punjab, Kashmir, Chhattisgarh — have since claimed tens of thousands more, and, though at levels far diminished from their peak intensity in the 1990s, remain part of the everyday lives of millions of Indian citizens.

Anand Teltumbde — now controversially held on charges of aiding a Maoist plot against Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s life — perceptively noted in a 2012 scholarly essay that the Indian State no longer needed Emergencies. It had realised that repression could coexist with the institutions of a democracy.

This is, of course, exactly what an analyst of conflict would expect. Like so many other post-colonial orders, the India birthed in 1947 was anaemic in both its resources and reach—compelled, as it were, to use force because other instruments of social control and transformation were simply unavailable to it. Even today, the Indian state shares authority with a variety of actors, ranging from caste Panchayats to criminal organisations of various kinds.

In spite of its considerable coercive resources, the legitimacy of the Indian State itself remains tenuous, a fact which accounts for the paranoiac conduct of successive governments. The targets have changed from time to time — communists, “foreign hands”, Muslims — but the use of large-scale repression has been remarkably consistent. It is not that one period was significantly more or less authoritarian; the question was on what particular heresy the witch-hunt focussed its efforts.

For anyone not blighted by extraordinary historical amnesia, it ought be clear the authoritarian tendencies are not a a departure from the Indian Republic’s course: in very real senses, this is the norm.


In some important senses, the first decades of the Indian republic’s life were an evasion. Though the toxic impact of caste was acknowledged, there was no thoroughgoing programme to annihilate it, something thinkers like BR Ambedkar understood to be key to India’s future. The dangers of communalism were also clearly understood, yet there was no coherent programme to rebuild a polity around a secular idea of equal citizenship; tyrannies of ethnic and religious identity flourished, unchecked. The question of egalitarian access to justice and opportunity was never adequately addressed.

The more-successful polities to India’s east — think Japan, South Korea, China, even Vietnam — all entered the 1950s in conditions similar to, if not worse than, India. Their societies, though, were transfigured by violent ideological upheavals and wars, and more able to engage with these fundamental challenges. India marked, as it were, a loveless marriage between the past and the future.

Failure to craft a political vision that addresses these challenges lies at the heart of the marginalisation of the political opposition in India. Instead, dissent in India has become ever-more centred around what might be called a Heroic Mode; an aesthetic that valourises pyrotechnic — but ultimately pointless — rebellion against an ultimately-invincible tyranny. There is little genuine introspection; even less concern with the building of the new cultures and solidarities which must underpin successful opposition .

“One of the ways in which societies avoid the realities of dissidence and revolt”, the philosopher Alisdair MacIntyre wrote in 1959, “is by encouraging imitations of rebellion. The licensed rebel is encouraged to huff and puff a great deal, both satisfying himself and annoying the less discerning defenders of the status-quo. But the more intelligent conservatives know very well that the provision of straw men to be attacked is a useful device to divert attention from the more important social targets”.

To imagine that social movements, like the unfolding farmers’ protests, will reorder Indian politics is likely delusion. Led by caste bodies of the land-holding peasantry — the pillars of an agrarian order whose economic power and social authority has been in decline since the 1980s—these movements represent the dying gasp of the old. New social movements tell us important things about the strains in our society; in themselves, they do not contain the prospect of meaningful change.

Each generation, however, remakes history — rarely in languages and forms that are understood as they unfold, but none the less surely. The truly successful dissenters of the 1970s,  in some key senses, were not the heroes — and heroes they were — who fought the Emergency. Instead, the epoch-makers proved to be those who, having lusted after second-hand jeans left behind by western tourists, opened up India to global capitalism two decades later.

In turn, this cosmopolitan élite were displaced by a new cohort who leveraged caste and religious identity — through the twin Mandir and Mandal mobilisations — to seize power. The new élites emerging from small towns and mofussils sought to displace, as it were, the Lutyens Delhi. The scale and significance of this challenge, too, was not clearly grasped in its time.

A new cohort is, again, upon us: Indians who grew up in the age of digital transformation, their world-view nursed and shaped by the internet, more intimately familiar with the aesthetics and languages of global capitalism than any before it. The truly significant dissents of our time are emerging in pop culture on social media; in comedy performances; amidst small-town musical performers. They will forge a new world, the shape of which we cannot yet discern.

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