“SHAITAN ek raat mein insaan ban gae/ Jitney namak haraam thay kaptaan ban gae.” Josh Malihabadi in his plain-speaking verse was describing what he saw as a satanic subversion of India’s democracy by a system that short-changed the promise of a truer freedom. That was decades ago but the lines are relevant today.
It was a long hard-hitting poem on the grand betrayal of the Indian people, an acerbic version of Faiz’s plaint about the mottled dawn in Pakistan. To affirm their suspicion, Zia did bare his fangs in Pakistan. And then, decades later in India, it seems to be Narendra Modi’s turn to ambush the struggling democracy. Pakistan was never able to recover from Zia’s institutional subversion led by his pack of religious bigots. It could be a longer haul to weed out the toxins in a culturally more complex India. Or perhaps its greater diversity will stall the march of Hindutva. For now, street-fighting women across the country, a priceless asset for the struggle, have formed a protective ring around a threatened democracy. For now, there is sudden optimism in the air with people looking determined to thwart Modi’s divisive agenda.
For now, there is sudden optimism in the air with people looking determined to thwart Modi’s divisive agenda.
But India was already getting to this point on a slow simmer, paving the way for a more openly communal ruler. In a departure from his predecessors, who kept up the pretence of diplomacy that was tethered to India’s secular ideals, Modi is blending his foreign policy with his right-wing agenda at home. In doing so, he has stitched up an astonishing range of alliances with foul-mouthed dictators and demagogues, unthinkable at any point in the past. Today, there is a discernible club of kindred spirits, who are expanding steadily elsewhere too. Its platinum members are the US president, the Israeli prime minister, the Brazilian president and the Indian prime minister. The common thread between them is the language they use to target vulnerable minorities. (Friends are desperately hoping that Bernie Sanders is elected — a tall order by recent accounts — to shut down the runaway racist club.)
The invitation to far-right EU MPs to visit the besieged Kashmiris, an option denied to India’s own MPs, was an unmistakable example of the new resolve. The presence of the notoriously racist and misogynistic Brazilian president as chief guest at India’s Republic Day celebrations on Sunday offered a clearer picture of Modi’s larger diplomatic intent.
Jair Bolsonaro’s visit became a mockery of the day in September 1983 when Fidel Castro handed the gavel to Indira Gandhi at the summit of the non-aligned countries in Delhi. The fanfare is etched deep in memory as African, Asian and Latin American leaders resolved to fight American bullying speaker after speaker at Delhi’s Vigyan Bhavan. The resolve included a declaration for the Indian Ocean to be made a nuclear weapons-free zone, coupled with a call to the US to vacate its military base in Diego Garcia. Zia was in attendance though largely ignored by the hostess, while she concerned herself with ending the Iran-Iraq war. She appointed senior aide Romesh Bhandari to visit both capitals relentlessly and got slow success in helping end the fratricide foisted by Western powers.
Right when the non-aligned leaders were assembling, India Today published a stark cover picture with the chilling story of a massacre of Muslim women and children in Nellie in central Assam. The killings had followed an Enoch Powell-like “rivers of blood” speech by the fiery Hindutva leader Atal Behari Vajpayee. He used an old fault line between a culturally swamped Assamese people and the state’s mostly poor Bengali immigrants to turn it into a Hindu-Muslim flare-up. Vajpayee targeted Muslims pretty much the way Narendra Modi has done. An embarrassed Mrs Gandhi removed all copies of India Today from the press enclosure, but the ghost of the Nellie massacre, captured for posterity by intrepid photojournalist Raghu Rai, continues to haunt India. When it was recently concluded by a supreme court-monitored survey — the national register of citizens in Assam — that a majority of alleged Bengali immigrants were Hindus, the Citizenship Amendment Act was passed by parliament as a corrective measure, at the behest of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, to bring back Hindus caught in the Assam citizenship net, while pointedly keeping out the Muslims.
There’s always a foreign trigger in the sharp bends and about-turns in India’s domestic policies, and Modi is no exception. Nehru led the newly independent India into the Commonwealth, an undercover anti-Moscow club of former colonies. Leftist poet Majrooh Sultanpuri was jailed for protesting this in a poem: “Commonwealth ka daas hai Nehru, maar le saathi jaane na pai.” (Nehru is a bootlicker of the Commonwealth, pin him down right there.) Subsequently, it was the East-West rivalry hovering over South Asia that led Mrs Gandhi to the defence treaty with Moscow in 1971, without which it would be difficult to imagine India wading into East Pakistan within four short months.
The foreign trigger that spurred the rise of Modi came with the vanishing of the Soviet Union, and the first US assault on Iraq. The loss of a captive market and an unwieldy oil bill became the ruse to bring in Manmohan Singh with his neo-liberal prescriptions. Mercantile buccaneers feathered their nests with IMF-advised policies, acquiring enormous wealth and unwieldy clout that breached democratic checks and balances. Finished with exploiting Manmohan Singh’s free markets policies with corruption and influence peddling, (which was wire-tapped on one occasion, revealing the depth of the sleaze), the buccaneers turned to Modi to widen the field for plunder. Obliging them faithfully, he ran the economy aground, thus needing to invent a trick a day to keep everyone distracted. Ordinary Indians, discovering a new fighting spirit, can see through the game now, nearly as clearly as Josh would have liked them to see it.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.
Published in Dawn, January 28th, 2020