India as an example

26 Aug 2019


The writer teaches politics and sociology at Lums.
The writer teaches politics and sociology at Lums.

THE Indian government’s authoritarian annexation of occupied Jammu & Kashmir is perhaps the clearest indication yet of the country’s democratic regression under Narendra Modi. With a blackout enforced by the state, arrest of local leaders, and implementation of a complete curfew, India (under the BJP) has shown that its colonial roots, vis-à-vis identity-based or regional dissent, remain intact.

More broadly, the popularity of Modi as evinced through the last general election results shows that unlike the inherited colonial legal and administrative apparatus, this particular brand of autocratic governance is built on a strong societal base, moored as it is in various Hintuva social movement currents.

The social foundations of Modi’s authoritarianism make for deeply unsettling prospects about the future of the region as a whole. When autocrats rely on mass, ideological popularity, channelled by well-functioning organisations like the RSS, the outcomes are usually more durable. It requires oppositional efforts of similar strength and popularity to unseat them, or exogenous crises (like global economic meltdowns or war) to weaken their foundations. While sudden changes in political fortunes cannot be ruled out, it is safe to say that the current dispensation does not face any serious challenges to its popularity.

The plight of those living under the suffocation of autocratic rule is something all South Asians should be concerned with. For those of us who reside in Pakistan, this plight is something we have witnessed through much of history, and something we continue to witness in the present. Our sense of empathy, therefore, should inform our positions in all such cases.

The social foundations of Modi’s authoritarianism make for deeply unsettling prospects about the region’s future.

Some justifiably suggest that the experiences of those in Kashmir should not be equated with those in other parts of the region. The argument is that the comparison is either unjust on international-legal grounds, or uncouth, given that it dilutes a sense of immediacy. On the other hand, some would argue that such comparisons serve to highlight how majoritarianism manifests itself in different parts of the world; how post-colonial states continue to act as colonial ones; and how the empirical application of progressivism needs to be as wide as possible, so as to formulate a truly just political position.

One can understand both ends of the argument, and, for me at least, it is not an easy debate to settle. But within this argument, within the Kashmir issue, and within the rise of Modi and the BJP lies another unsettling paradox that destabilises progressive politics in Pakistan.

For a considerable segment of Pakistan’s left-liberal intelligentsia, India’s relative success in instituting procedural democracy and civilian control over the military, served as a moral example worthy of replication. Further bolstering the exemplar aspect was the dynamisms of myriad social justice movements operating in India’s political sphere (lower-caste mobilisation, ecological movements, language-rights movements) and the historical robustness of more traditional pillars of progressivism (native academia and research, labour and peasant movements, and left-wing parties as a whole).

When compared to the consolidation of the political and ideological right wing (and its anti-intellectual strain) in Pakistan since 1977, this reading of Indian politics and society served as a worthy source of emulation. And in this reading much of what was consecrated, the social movements, the vibrancy of the left, the commitment to social democratic norms, was a product of India’s secular constitution, its foundational (Nehruvian) myths and its enduring ability to perpetuate procedural democracy.

This view within Pakistan has not gone unchallenged. Sections of the Pakistani left have always been quick to caution against any hagiographic reading of Indian politics, given the multiple, frequently-occurring axes of exclusion operating in that country: casteist oppression, authoritarian centralisation in Indian Punjab, Assam, and most notably, in held Kashmir; the treatment of tribes and peasants since liberalisation, and the frequency with which anti-Muslim sentiment spilled into full-blown communal assault.

This contested reading draws heavily from intellectual conflicts within India. On one side you have the liberal-nationalist Indian intellectuals who remain committed to the foundational myths of the Congress party but now concede its contamination by the presence of unsavoury elements in the polity. On the other side, you have an array of progressives and critical leftists, like Arundhati Roy, who point out how the foundational myths were flawed from inception, and never achieved any form of egalitarian emancipation.

While the debate will continue in India, for Pakistani progressives the robustness with which the Hindu right wing has consolidated its hold means there is little doubt that the value of the Indian political sphere has ceased to be an uncomplicated example worthy of emulation.

This is troubling at two levels. The first is that regional examples are important for activists and intellectuals engaged in the task of producing concrete portraits of what an alternative political reality could look like. The fact that India is a comparator country, with a shared administrative-historical tradition and similar developmental roots, makes its value as a potential example considerably greater. With this example faltering so spectacularly, that task of drawing up a portrait becomes considerably harder.

The second issue is that the Indian state’s and right wing’s autocratic behaviour provides sufficient fuel for its Pakistani counterparts, who use it to justify both majoritarian politics within Pakistan, and its own foundational myths. Consequently, and as is so often the case, the strength of autocrats in one country strengthens autocrats elsewhere.

These are troubling times for the region, and for progressive activists and intellectuals engaged in the task of building alternative politics. For those in Pakistan, this task now requires a considerable intellectual shift away from its initial (arguably misplaced) consecration of the Indian political sphere, to more diffused pockets of resistance, social justice, and progressivism emanating from within society both in India and Pakistan, and in other parts of the region.

The writer teaches politics and sociology at Lums.

Twitter: @umairjav

Published in Dawn, August 26th, 2019