When will this nightmare end?

We are living through one of the darkest periods of independent India. The Emergency was bad. This is soul wrenching, not only because we feel it here and now, in flesh and blood, but because the nation is being broken so effortlessly from within, in a cold, calculating, macabre sort of way. This nightmare comes to us in the age of free flowing information, in a liberalised economy and long after we bid goodbye to the Hindu rate of growth, all ingredients of what we think of as progress. Yes, India is not quiet. Yes, the students show how spectacularly the fire of resistance burns.

What protects India from political chaos, malevolent governance, moral decay -- a collapse so severe and sudden that many can lament that this is not the India we call our homeland.  Is it two diabolic minds breaking the nation, as is the common refrain, or is there something more in the makeup of the nation that needs to be understood and fixed, when all this is over.

But our institutions have fallen silent. The voices of faculty are faint, if at all heard. The British era police have returned as the executive tries to browbeat dissent by threatening to seize private property of the protestors. The Chief of the Army staff wades into the conversation, making a blatantly political statement while donning the uniform and heading the one institution that was thought to be above it all – so that important pillar also stands compromised while the government looks on.  MPs are put in jail so that their voice is not heard, like in the case of J&K.

If it is so easy to take over all levers of power and change the course of the nation so wildly, what really is the anchor and the inherent strength of the nation that we call our own? What protects India from political chaos, malevolent governance, moral decay -- a collapse so severe and sudden that many can lament that this is not the India we call our homeland.  Is it two diabolic minds breaking the nation, as is the common refrain, or is there something more in the makeup of the nation that needs to be understood and fixed, when all this is over. We must ask if we have been plain lucky for the last seven decades of free India and have lived under the illusion of a democracy while the traditions and values of a democratic order were never really infused into the body politic? Or did it suit us to play the game of democracy, a showpiece medal on the shoulder, while we never really took to it? We have always trampled voices, crushed dissent, killed people in fake encounters – all under some garb rather than blatantly till a new lot came in and removed the fig leaf and exposed the nakedness of a nation that chants the voice of democracy but dances to the tune of dictators?

We have rejected the corrupt to embrace the corrupt and the virulently communal. Economic change and turning away from the socialist era have brought us huge non-performing assets in our banks, holes that are then filled up using public money. We have privatised the profits and socialised the losses.

This is a reflective moment for the nation and its people for it is impossible to chart the course ahead of independent, modern-day India without answering some of these existential questions on who we are and why we have landed in the sorry state that we have. We can reach for the moon, literally and figuratively, but what’s the point if our citizens can’t step out of their homes? The simplest of answers is that this is a phase, that the spirit and energy of secular India will prevail and bring back level-headedness to the nation. But could the forces that are breaking us apart, here and now, have gone so berserk, if our politics was genuinely secular, if our institutions were principled and strong, if our education was genuinely rooted in the idea of building leaders of tomorrow with a moral fibre that is the only defence against attacks from within?

Political change and the tide turning away from the Congress has come in the nature of tearing down of the very fabric that binds us. We have rejected the corrupt to embrace the corrupt and the virulently communal. Economic change and turning away from the socialist era have brought us huge non-performing assets in our banks, holes that are then filled up using public money. We have privatised the profits and socialised the losses. Social change is slow and painful -- the depressed classes continue to be oppressed, marginalised and powerless. The administration never really reformed. The bureaucracy makes loud noises, suitably echoed by the media, when its own interests are threatened. It keeps a stony silence on everything else, including trespasses and transgressions that its own members so often make.The police continue to work as if the British never left our shores. This is the sorry picture of independent India today. And the eternal voice of hope would say all this can be fixed if the direction is clear, and the purpose is understood. Our execution was weak but the purpose was clear. Today, execution is good; the purpose has disappeared. The national moral compass has gone haywire, unable to withstand the blows inflicted by Modi, Shah, CAA, the NRC, Yogi Adityanath and other forces that sit alongside and applaud in silence.

The madness we see today will end someday, hopefully, and when it does, India must make an example of the politicians, the bureaucrats, and all those folks who furthered the breaking apart of the nation. We may need special courts to bring all the guilty to justice. Some mechanism must be thought of to send an example that those perpetuating this collapse will not get away.

The mind is wont to despair at where we have landed. Is this what democracy has given us? In the ‘The Lessons of History’, the celebrated historians Will and Ariel Durant write, “Democracy is the most difficult of all forms of government, since it requires the widest spread of intelligence, and we forget to make ourselves intelligent when we make ourselves sovereign. A cynic remarked that ‘you mustn’t enthrone ignorance just because there is so much of it’. However, ignorance is not long enthroned, for it lends itself to manipulation by the forces that mould public opinion. It may be true, as Lincoln supposed that ‘you can’t fool all the people all the time,’ but you can fool enough of them to rule a large country.”

That disaster has befallen India. The answer must be to break out of this despair, to stand with the voices that speak up and to resolve to mark out, one by one, those that have tried to subvert the very idea of India. The madness we see today will end someday, hopefully, and when it does, India must make an example of the politicians, the bureaucrats, and all those folks who furthered the breaking apart of the nation. We may need special courts to bring all the guilty to justice. Some mechanism must be thought of to send an example that those perpetuating this collapse will not get away. Not now. Not ever.   

That immediate response must come with a longer-term resolve to make our institutions impenetrably strong, our Constitution even more robust so that the disgrace that has been brought to the work of Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar is never again allowed to happen. But that day may never come and the idea of India will be irrevocably lost if more voices don’t stand up, speak up and protest – all of India will have to rise today to stop us from sinking.

(The author is a journalist and a faculty member at SPJIMR. Views are personal)