Umberto Eco’s Ur Fascism: Modi govt bringing to life every sign of darkness

Our Parliamentarians must have vocal chords of Salem steel. With auditory powers to match. The decibel levels emanating from the august House were not for mere mortals, not for long that is. I turned the volume to ‘mute’ and the images said it all. With her flushed cheeks, her fixed, unblinking gaze, her outstretched arms with the index finger pointing accusingly, the HRD minister made it crystal clear that neither she nor her leader, who showered her with praise for her “remarkable” speech, were in any mood to listen to anyone else.

No quarters will be given, there’ll be no attempt at accommodation – inside or outside Parliament. The government has no remorse, no doubts about its actions that have led to the suicide of one student and incarceration on charges of sedition of three others and set the entire nation on edge. All arguments, all demands, all pleas against it will be browbeaten.

Umberto Eco’s Ur Fascism: Modi govt bringing to life every sign of darkness

PM Narendra Modi (left) and Umberto Eco. Agencies

Nationalism is the war cry. So Kanhaiya Kumar and his friends will have to rot in jail until they can “prove their innocence” even though the law of the land says you are innocent until proven guilty, while the bail of loyalist lumpen lawyers and marauding MLAs will go unopposed. If you still haven’t cottoned on to this government’s definition of right and wrong, good conduct and bad, jail is going to be your next address.

Intolerance is the name of the game, to be played by all members of the BJP’s extended family. An emboldened ABVP has already extended its reach beyond students to teachers as well. A professor in Lucknow has faced its fury for posting a newspaper article on his Facebook page that “glorified” Umar Khalid. A craven administration has buckled under and demanded an explanation from the professor for his reading preferences. Big brother and his siblings are keeping a close watch on all, in schools, colleges, universities.

There is no ‘muting’ out Smriti Irani’s speech. We’d better wake up to it; this is how life is going to be from now on. This is fascism in action, my friends, and “Manu-Smriti” Irani’s speech, its words and its histrionics, its lies and half-truths, its emphasis on family values, its harping on blasphemy, all add up to a blueprint for what will pass for “good citizenship” under this government.

If you don’t care to take my word for it, I can refer you to a higher god, scholar extraordinaire, polyglot, philosopher and bestselling novelist Umberto Eco who died on 19 February. In an essay on fascism he wrote in 1995, Eco warned that fascism is not dead. It may not be the fascism he experienced as a young boy in Italy but fascism is a fuzzy shape-shifter and could emerge in another, equally ugly, form anywhere, everywhere.

Eco listed 14 features that are typical of what he called “Ur-Fascism, or Eternal Fascism” adding that “it is enough that one of these fourteen be present to allow fascism to coagulate around it.”

One, just one would do the trick. Smriti Irani’s speech ticks far too many boxes. I will limit myself to, maybe, five.

First in Eco’s list is the “cult of tradition”. Well, we didn’t really need the HRD minister to highlight this given that we have a Prime Minister who inaugurated the Indian Science Congress a couple of years ago with references to our glorious past in plastic surgery exemplified by the masterful “plastic surgery” conducted on Ganesh and his elephant’s head.

Irani is simply following in her boss’s footsteps. Steps that lead, to go by Eco, to a “new culture” that has to be “syncretistic” – sort of like combining the teachings of the Vedas with the preachings of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and Baba Ramdev.

Then there is “the cult of action for action’s sake. Action being beautiful in itself, it must be taken before, or without, any previous reflection. Thinking is a form of emasculation. Therefore culture is suspect insofar as it is identified with critical attitudes. Distrust of the intellectual world has always been a symptom of Ur-Fascism, from Goering’s alleged statement (‘When I hear talk of culture I reach for my gun’) to the frequent use of such expressions as “degenerate intellectuals’, ‘eggheads’, ‘effete snobs’, ‘universities are a nest of reds’. The official Fascist intellectuals were mainly engaged in attacking modern culture and the liberal intelligentsia for having betrayed traditional values.” Need we say more? JNU is a den of what, we were told?

Again, according to Eco, “No syncretistic faith can withstand analytical criticism. The critical spirit makes distinctions... In modern culture the scientific community praises disagreement as a way to improve knowledge. For Ur-Fascism, disagreement is treason.” Even a child can connect the dots in India today.

“Besides,” Eco goes on to add, “disagreement is a sign of diversity. Ur-Fascism grows up and seeks for consensus by exploiting and exacerbating the natural fear of difference. The first appeal of a fascist or prematurely fascist movement is an appeal against the intruders. Thus Ur-Fascism is racist by definition.” What if we replaced “racist” with “communal”? All the names the JNU students are accused of “exalting” belong to one community.

Again, “to people who feel deprived of a clear social identity, Ur-Fascism says that their only privilege is the most common one, to be born in the same country. This is the origin of nationalism. Besides, the only ones who can provide an identity to the nation are its enemies. Thus at the root of the Ur-Fascist psychology there is the obsession with a plot, possibly an international one. The followers must feel besieged. The easiest way to solve the plot is the appeal to xenophobia. But the plot must also come from the inside: Jews are usually the best target because they have the advantage of being at the same time inside and outside.” In India that advantage lies with, guess who?

The last on Eco’s list (for the others, there is always Google search) is Newspeak. “Ur-Fascism,” he says, “speaks Newspeak. Newspeak was invented by Orwell, in 1984, as the official language of Ingsoc, English Socialism. But elements of Ur-Fascism are common to different forms of dictatorship. All the Nazi or Fascist schoolbooks made use of an impoverished vocabulary, and an elementary syntax, in order to limit the instruments for complex and critical reasoning. But we must be ready to identify other kinds of Newspeak, even if they take the apparently innocent form of a popular talk show.” How close to home is that?

“In 1942,” wrote Eco, “at the age of 10, I received the First Provincial Award of Ludi Juveniles (a voluntary, compulsory competition for young Italian Fascists—that is, for every young Italian). I elaborated with rhetorical skill on the subject ‘Should we die for the glory of Mussolini and the immortal destiny of Italy?’ My answer was positive. I was a smart boy.”

At 20-something Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid, Anirban Bhattacharya are smarter. They are living out Eco’s prescription.

“We must keep alert,” warns Eco. “Ur-Fascism is still around us, sometimes in plainclothes. It would be so much easier, for us, if there appeared on the world scene somebody saying, ‘I want to reopen Auschwitz, I want the Black Shirts to parade again in the Italian squares.’ Life is not that simple. Ur-Fascism can come back under the most innocent of disguises. Our duty is to uncover it and to point our finger at any of its new instances—every day, in every part of the world... Freedom and liberation are an unending task.”

He ends his essay with a moving poem, the last two lines of which read, “But clenched tight in the fists of the dead / Lies the justice to be served.” The dead have begun piling up in India already. We must do our bit, we must take a stand.

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Updated Date: Feb 28, 2016 11:22:10 IST

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