The stench of bigotry: Why is Ramachandra Guha turning into Chetan Bhagat?

This is a lighthearted attempt at a rebuttal to Ramachandra Guha’s piece. Like most of you, my news feed was also flooded with links to Ramachandra Guha's essay contesting the notion of today's situation being Emergency or Nazi Germany-like. Intervening as ‘the historian’ in this debate (in opposition to Sitaram Yechury and Supreme Court advocate Kamini Jaiswal), he argued that a comparison to other authoritarian moments distracts us from the 'real problems'. Some of us also noticed the unnatural turn of condemning the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty for perhaps the first time.

His main argument rests on the fact that during the Emergency, the Congress was in power in most states, while the Modi government right now, isn't. The narrative, we see, at times borders on soft-legitimisation. Even more importantly, the essay came out on the same day that the government booked Rahul Gandhi, Yechury and Arvind Kejriwal among others for sedition, if irony itself were not seditious.

Chetan Bhagat and Ramachandra Guha. Image courtesy: @chetan_bhagat and @Ram_Guha/Twitter

Chetan Bhagat and Ramachandra Guha. Image courtesy: @chetan_bhagat and @Ram_Guha/Twitter

For the case of Nazi Germany, he asserts that the Nazis sought extermination of minorities including homosexuals and gypsies, while the Sangh “to the best of my knowledge”, does not. In addition, he argues that the Nazis were territorially expansionist while the Sangh has no such plans.

By highlighting the differences between the two, there is a covert dismissal of the actual use of state power in recent times in ways that many argue border on overreach. The point is whether there is a use of authoritarian power and how much — not whether two moments in history were identical twins. What is at stake is more than mere academic exercise.

There are a few things that many of us history students at JNU found or learned,  through our research or our teachers, that he very conveniently ignores, to consequentially acquit the Modi government of the charge of authoritarianism:

1. The Congress mainly used goons and the police during the Emergency. The current administration uses both, in addition to the largest private army in the country — the Sangh itself — and in addition to manufacturing the angry mob rule and public hostility towards targets of the state, with nearly the entire mainstream media on its side. This is far more than just the arms of the state. It took the media three entire days to look at the constitution and see whether accusations of sedition in JNU were valid or not and to telecast those doubts.

2. The Congress government during the Emergency was controlled by the Parliamentary head of a parliamentary party. The current government is controlled by a fascist organisation that is not only conservative but also militantly anti-democracy, beyond the pale of public accountability. Like in Germany, where the Sturmabteilung (SA) was larger than the army, you know there is a problem.

3. Nationalism was not used as a fascistic stick to beat liberalism out of the country as it is now. In fact, Jayaprakash Narayan before and during the Emergency quite successfully appropriated patriotism and used it against the state, a model that the Anna Hazare movement also attempted by heavily featuring the Indian flag. If tomorrow the kanwarias choose to take up the Indian flag, would it make them more patriotic than devout?

4. The ultimate goal of exertion of authoritarian power during the Emergency was, fortunately, not the creation of a Hindu Rashtra, as has been the goal of saffron forces for decades now.

5. The utilisation of the troop-traitor binary, where the so-called ‘anti-national’ forces don’t care for the armed forces protecting our nation, was used in 1962 against the Left (during the China war). It has been put to play to scapegoat Muslims all over the country, as well as tribals. The tendency to talk from the officer's armchair to justify the pathetic conditions of jawans and blame it on "anti-nationals" is rapidly devouring all other discourses, in a way it did not during the Emergency.

6. To deal with the comparison with Nazi Germany, students would like to inform Mr Guha that a cursory look at Organiser or Panchajanya issues of 1947-50 would yield evidence contrary to his claims. There were claims to a ‘greater Hindusthan’ involving Indonesia, Malaysia and Indo-China or to ‘reconquerPakisthan”, not to mention Sardar Patel’s own dreams of India acquiring more territory than it inherited, in South Asia (Ceylon, Bhutan, etc). Fascist nations usually turn imperialistic after their ‘homogenisation drive’ is complete, not before – unless colonies are involved (WWI). Debates over imperialism distract from the discussion over the use of domestic authority. And to say that minorities, including Christians, LGBT, Muslims, tribals (perhaps India’s equivalent of Guha’s German gypsies) have not been repeatedly scapegoated, often with violent consequences, by the BJP is to dismiss the potential of exclusionary nationalism.

7. The regimes in Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy had intellectual classes backing it, often covertly within the bureaucratic state machinery even before the fascist advent. With the BJP lacking even a substantial support among intellectuals, we are witnessing the cooptation and the replacement of institutional authority in universities and social science groups all over the country – and the import of individuals from the Sangh’s parallel schooling system of the shakhas and the shishumandirs.

8. The very fact that Ramachandra Guha is trying to intervene in the debate, also implies that this time there is a full-scale attack on secularism, liberal values and diversity by a socio-political moral police. Fortunately, the mantle of liberalism has already passed onto the hands of those defending the battleground of civil liberties and political dissent – JNU. For it is no longer those such as Amartya Sen, Aamir Khan, Raghuram Rajan and Guha, centrists who make the occasional statements about intolerance, who are the mainstream faces of (often Nehruvian) liberalism – it is the politicised, educated youth of this country in some of the finest universities and colleges – FTII, TISS, Ambedkar University, HCU, Jamia Millia Islamia, JNU, Jadavpur University and Presidency – real, tangible individuals who have the most urgent stake in the future of this country: namely the large remainder of their lives and aspirations.

Today’s situation is a threat to liberalism and democracy because ideological and electoral support for the BJP/RSS is based on the social conservatism of millions of family members. As long as social conservatism and authoritarianism exist in the Indian family (where in caste, gender or economic matters), and as long as undemocratic structures are sustained in the Indian workplace in the form of exploitation and informalisation, there will always be a base for conservative and often communal regimes that exercise authority under the garb of Hindu nationalism. This social base will hang like an albatross around our neck – a stagnant mass movement, ready to be awakened at a crisis’ notice. Social liberalism must penetrate to the bottom of the pyramid of society – the family, for there to be an end to the threat of obscurantist rule. Nationalism emboldens those in power to reach for the sky, being an enabler towards authority far worse. The years between the two World Wars in Europe most clearly demonstrate that.

How in the world can an academic dismiss a comparison of the two in such a way? More importantly, why is RamachandraGuha turning into ChetanBhagat?!

Mr Guha says worry about the environment and public education instead. In addition, some of us wonder why JNU was attacked in the first place if not for objective and quite democratic critiques of the Modi government. We must not wait for the endgame, to first declare it.

Someone, anyone, help!

Saib Bilaval is a research scholar in Modern and Contemporary History at Centre For Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India.

Updated Date: Mar 01, 2016 12:57 PM

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