Why we hunt witches: India’s illiberal impulses may not prove as durable as some fear

That angry Indian debates involve young people pitted against the values of their parents’ generation suggests an upheaval in values lies ahead

Praveen Swami February 25, 2021 16:48:30 IST
Why we hunt witches: India’s illiberal impulses may not prove as durable as some fear

File image of climate activist Disha Ravi. PTI

As she read through the story of the outlaw in green and his band of merry men, Ada White began to see red: the black-and-white evidence on the pages of the primary-school literature reader left no doubt whatsoever that American children were being taught insurrection.

“There is a Communist directive in education now to stress the story of Robin Hood," the Indiana Textbook Commission member raged in November 1953.

“They want to stress it because he robbed the rich and gave it to the poor. That’s the Communist line. It’s just a smearing of law and order”.

Through the prism of the present, White’s terror appears to be clinically-delusional. As the Cold War descended upon the world, anti-Communist paranoia shaped America’s political life. Filmmakers, academics and journalists were persecuted; even John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun were swept off the bookshelves.

As the world struggles to make sense of the discourse around the Disha Ravi case — which comes on the back of new laws around inter-religious marriage, and a growing tide of religious-offence prosecutions — scholars like Ashutosh Varshney have been raising concerns about the survival of Indian democracy.

The genesis and the eventual collapse of America’s anti-communist witch-hunt, though, gives reason to ask if Indian illiberalism will prove as durable as some fear.


White’s America was one of historically-unprecedented prosperity. Following the end of the Second World War, the United States’ gargantuan industrial base shifted from producing weapons and ordnance to consumer goods. Americans proved eager to spend their wartime savings on fridges, dishwashers, cars and clothing.

Large-scale government expenditure on ensuring American military supremacy, too, fuelled the boom. The US Gross National Product grew from $200 billion in 1940 to $300 billion in 1950 and would rise over $500 billion in 1960.

Americans had, quite simply, never had it so good.

Yet, this new America was also characterised by unprecedented anxiety. In 1950, just five years after the end of the Second World War, the United States found itself at war in Korea, and staring out at the Soviet Union’s menacing forces in Europe. The fear of a nuclear apocalypse hovered over the minds of an entire generation — fuelled by revelations of Soviet espionage at the highest levels of the United States’ strategic institutions.

“Low-Blow Joe” — the anti-communist populist political Joseph McCarthy — weaponised these fears, claiming the United States was being corroded from within by communists. In 1950, McCarthy gained national attention by claiming to have a list of 205 communist sympathisers — a non-existent list, it turned out, but one he adroitly used to bludgeon ideological opponents. More than 100 university professors lost their jobs in the ensuing witch-hunt, scholar Ellen Schrecker has recorded; countless others censored themselves. Actors and writers in Hollywood were ruined.

A kind of political theatre of the absurd emerged from the congealing anti-Communist paranoia. In Illinois, officials warned that subversives were being indoctrinated in the Girl Scouts; a town in New York demanded loyalty oaths from applicants seeking fishing licences; the Cincinnati Reds baseball team sought to change their name. Librarians evicted even National Geographic, Time, and Life from their shelves.

Legitimacy for the anti-communist witch-hunt of the 1950s didn’t, however, simply rest on nationalism. Following the end of the Second World War, African-American soldiers returned home and began demanding that the democratic principles they had died for in Europe also be applied inside the United States. The resentments were crystallised by the 1946 lynching of four African-Americans in Georgia’s Walton County, Georgia, one of them a war veteran. The urban Black working-class, which had dramatically expanded by the demand for industrial labour in 1939-1945, provided a robust social base for these mobilisations.

The murder of teenager Emmett Till, his eyes gouged out and shot for allegedly having wolf-whistled at a white woman; Rosa Parks’ incarceration for refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a white passenger; Ezell Blair Jr, David Richmond, Franklin McCain and Joseph McNeil refusing to leave a Whites-Only lunch counter until served: through the 1950s, savage racist violence met a new and stubborn defiance.

For millions of middle-class White Americans, these events were a source of terror: a social order which guaranteed their privilege was being dismantled as they watched.


Little in this story, the work of the scholar Albert Bergesen teaches us, is exceptionally American. Great witch-hunts have erupted whenever nation-states or societies have found themselves confronted with challenges they could neither fully comprehend, nor resolve.

Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution and Joseph Stalin’s show-trials far exceeded, in their savagery and scale, the American witch-hunt of the 1950s. European witch-hunts in the medieval era, Nachman Ben-Yehuda has shown, were similarly driven by fundamental challenges to the feudal order.

Faced with “a feeling that society had lost its norms and boundaries and that uncontrollable forces of change were destroying all order and moral tradition”, Ben-Yehuda notes, contemporary thinkers were led “to overstep the boundaries of reality and enter the realm of magic, fancy, and make-believe”.

These witch-hunts rarely ended because of reason. There is a body of compelling evidence that President Dwight Eisenhower, despite his silence in the face of McCarthyism, adroitly plotted to undermine it. Yet, though McCarthy was politically discredited by 1954 — to die, inside three years, of alcohol abuse — the paranoiac impulses he represented lived on. The Federal Bureau of Investigation, declassified records show, surveilled and actively conspired against the civil rights movement’s leadership.

Even America’s spies, though, proved unable to turn back the social forces unleashed in the 1950s. In the 1960s, the magisterial work of Damon Rich shows, a new youth cohort emerged which found itself repulsed by the values and practices of their parents. The young of the 1960s, Rich notes, embraced “libertarianism over authoritarianism, liberation over repression, egalitarianism over inequality, cooperation over competition, the bizarre over the conventional”.

This new generation was not founded on a close reading of radicals like Allen Ginsburg; rather, it emerged from a generational search to find new values that helped negotiate their circumstances. Their parents’ obsessions on race and nationhood were, simply, no longer relevant. Racism did not, as the durable impact of former US president Donald Trump makes clear, disappear. Instead, powerful new cosmopolitan classes emerged in opposition to White Nationalism, struggling with it for control of America’s political destiny.

In some important ways, modern India’s identity movements — Hindu nationalist, Islamist, ethnic — are the products of a similar contestation. The late-1980s saw new social groups fighting for a share of the opportunities that began emerging with liberalisation. Even though these groups had education and capital, they found real power continued to be held by a thin élite. Nativist identity politics was a means to challenge liberal cosmopolitanism, the ideology through which this élite legitimised its power.

Like McCarthyism, these nativist currents drew on popular fears about the future of the social order. The unfolding debates over religious conversion, for example, began with the mass conversion of Dalits in Meenakshipuram in 1981. The discourse around nationhood and treason, similarly, is rooted in the threats posed by the religious insurgencies in Kashmir and Punjab during the 1980s and 1990s.

Yet, the India that emerged from these crises is, by objective measures, more secure than any time since independence. Insurgencies have degraded to levels trivial by the standards of the 1990s; though no less poisonous, communal violence is less lethal; nuclear weapons ensure the country will never again face an existential threat of the kind it did in 1962.

The lived experiences of young Indians, thus, give them few reasons to fear the future. This youth cohort has, moreover, grown up with global mass culture, as a consequence internalising many cosmopolitan values.

In 1953, when White sought to ban Robin Hood, a handful of students protested by wearing green feathers; they were powerless, though, to resist the McCarthyite tide. Inside a decade, the generation represented by the Green Feathers generation reshaped their country.

That so many of the angriest debates in Indian politics involve young people pitted against the values of their parents’ generation — marriage, sexual choices, religious observance, political activism — suggest an upheaval in values and attitudes lies ahead. Little but the hazy contours of this change might yet be visible, but its impact will be lasting and profound.

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