A SMALL event is sometimes more revealing than a cataclysmic one that grabs headlines. Last month, the government-run Indian Institute of Mass Communication in Delhi became the venue for a distasteful display of the ruling BJP’s ideology. The chief speaker at the provocatively titled conclave, ‘Nationalist Journalism in Today’s Context’ was a police officer notorious for his human rights violations in Chhattisgarh state where a Maoist insurgency is under way.
As a pointer possibly to how media is expected to behave in these changed times, the event started with a yagna (ritual worship conducted before a fire). The point of this exercise was simply to cock a snook at the media in general and the liberals in particular. As the institute’s director general said dismissively to outraged students, “If you can listen to the Hurriyat, why can’t we listen to Kalluri [the discredited police from Chhattisgarh]?” To be deliberatively provocative is the leitmotif of the Narendra Modi regime which is constantly testing the limits of outrage.
The new normal is scary. Attacks on cow traders and dairy farmers have grown bolder by the day and become routine.
Demonetisation of last November, unprecedented in its scale, was another such operation. It was not with any idea of unearthing black money or weeding out corruption as Modi initially claimed while withdrawing 86 per cent of the currency in use but a ruthless exercise in social engineering wrapped in the flag of nationalism. The insane measure inflicted untold hardship on the poor and put the opposition politicians and economists on the back foot while the prime minister mocked them for their lack of patriotism for daring to criticise the policy.
As the nation muddled its way through the chaos of a policy that changed daily and sometimes several times in a day, Modi used his minister for information and broadcasting M. Venkaiah Naidu to tell Indians that demonetisation was actually aimed at “ushering in a behavioural change at all levels of society”. It was, he explained, part of a “grand cultural revolution that the PM is working on” because “the entrenched old order needs to make way for a new normal”.
The new normal is scary — an India running amok. Attacks on cow traders and dairy farmers — mostly Muslim and the Dalit (untouchables in the vile Hindu caste system) — have grown bolder by the day and become routine. So, too, the operations of the lynch mobs that string up or flog their victims in an outburst of violence and the moral righteousness that recalls the excesses of the Klu Klux Klan in the 1950s when it flogged people for suspected immorality, drinking and not attending church. Six decades later and in a different continent, the style of such hoodlums has barely changed. The Romeo squads that prey on young couples, the cow protectors and the moral food police that check people’s homes and food containers for beef, the goons that kill couples in inter-communal marriages, are cut from the same cloth.
In the three years since he has been in power, the changes in Indian society have been more insidious than making every citizen obey traffic rules and “discharge his duties honestly” as Modi claims is his goal in making the New India. It’s nothing as banal as that. What he is targeting are the most sacrosanct of India’s constitutional safeguards, the fundamental right to equality and other rights such as freedom from exploitation and the right to practise one’s religion. Society has been divided into different classes of citizens, a categorisation that is slowly being institutionalised. No longer do Muslims in various parts of UP enjoy freedom of worship, much less the right to eat what they want. In Amroha, Muslims have not been allowed to enter their mosque during this Ramazan because the local BJP leader and the storm troopers of a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) organisation do not approve. In other towns and villages, hate leaflets have warned the community to leave their ancestral homes. The same goes for the Dalits who no longer have the freedom to practise traditional livelihoods or marry partners of their choice.
Through all this turmoil Modi has worn his ideological agenda boldly on his sleeve. No attack by a lynch mob has ever been condemned by the prime minister and no party man who has been out of line punished. So lynching it would appear is not an act of lawlessness but a calculated part of Hindutva politics that accords it official protection.
Some of the prime minister’s decisions are as egregious as they can get. What calculations prompted Modi, in March this year, to once again thumb his nose at liberal and ethical values by appointing Adityanath, founder of the extremist outfit known as the Hindu Yuva Vahini, as chief minister of UP one can only guess. Adityanath, a long time BJP MP, is accused of inciting riots and other criminal charges including attempt to murder. His brazen espousal of violence is clearly an asset.
But the monster he has unleashed in the country’s most vulnerable and backward state is alarming even the RSS and old BJP hands who have been checkmated by Modi. Even the sycophantic media which was enthusiastically defending Modi’s choice of Adityanath is beginning to sound a little uncertain now. In the pervasive atmosphere of fear, few have had the courage to call Modi out. The only insider to be fiercely critical is Arun Shourie, an RSS ideologue and former BJP minister, who was ironically instrumental in making Modi prime minister. He accuses Modi as running “a pyramidal decentralised mafia state where local goons will belabour anyone whom they think is doing something wrong. The central people will look the other way.”
That would leave the battered citizen, the poor and marginalised who have borne the brunt of the economic mismanagement, in an even more vulnerable position. India is in huge ferment although you would not guess it going by mainstream media reports. Farmers in Madhya Pradesh, protesting the worst agrarian distress in recent memory, are being shot and killed. Dalits in Gujarat and elsewhere have become a target of upper caste mobs and at least one corner of UP has turned into a bloody battlefield. The unbridled savagery of the new India is an ominous sign of coming conflicts as the regime ignores the economic realities in single-minded pursuit of its core agenda.