Indian version of McCarthyism takes hold
There are, broadly speaking, two approaches to building as also to breaking – be it a policy, an institution or for that matter a nation. One is the top down approach that can offer a new vision, open new vistas and push to a new era. The other is the bottom up, and this is the one that is said to deliver lasting impact – “block by block, brick by brick, calloused hand by calloused hand,” as Barack Obama once put it.
Usually spoken in terms of putting together from the ground up, we have occasion to study this in India for its opposite purpose – the breaking down and the demolition of a whole set of values and ideals that we have regarded as being the core of democratic India. What we are witnessing is the tearing down of proud and vibrant nation by a tearing down not only of its ideals (which we many argue were lost long before, with the duplicity of a variety of political players) but also of the fig leaf that might allow us to pretend that we are after all work in progress and while we have faults, we are moving in the right direction. This time around, that pretense is gone, too.
What we are witnessing is the tearing down of proud and vibrant nation by a tearing down not only of its ideals but also of the fig leaf that might allow us to pretend that we are after all work in progress and while we have faults, we are moving in the right direction.
The covers are off and we can see that we are a nation divided, strict red lines drawn to separate pro-something from its anti-that thing, the establishment from the anti-establishment and Left from the Right. It is for the nation to reflect on the fact that technology via our telecom revolution gave us one India, one tariff, one number. We want “one nation, one health card”. We want electricity tariffs to move to “one India, one tariff”. Some years back, the title of a chapter in the Economic Survey of India document was “powering one India”. We are united in our tech advancement. But we have been fractured at the level of humanity, understanding and togetherness of the larger purpose of what a nation is meant to be. The citadel is being broken from the inside.
This is the picture that emerges as we look to the names of anti-CAA protestors put out by the Delhi police for their alleged role in the Delhi riots –Sitaram Yechury, Jayati Ghosh, Professor Apoorvanand, Yogendra Yadav, Rahul Roy and so many others. The action is the most brazen attack to date on citizens’ who have over the years stood for a point of view that the government clearly wants to silence. It comes in an atmosphere in which all manner of opposition is being crushed.
You could argue that the nation was built top down, but it is being broken from the bottom up.
The attack on rationalists, secularists, NGOs, select academics, the coinage of terms like “urban naxals” (now regular usage in the Indian lexicon), the arrests and continued detention of Varavara Rao and Sudha Bharadwaj, the cases against pro-dalit activists like Anand Teltumbde and others, the repeated and consistent attempt to divide along lines of religion, the shrillness of the voices that are let loose to put down any one who stands up to authority -- all reflect a pattern and a way of thinking that is alien to the way independent India has been built. You could argue that the nation was built top down, but it is being broken from the bottom up.
This is a threat like independent India has never seen before – the forced creation of chasms that never were so wide that they couldn’t be crossed. As it is, our ideology was never strict ideology. It was dipped in a liberal dose of pragmatism so that we have had occasions in the past when Atal Behari Vajpayee praised Indira Gandhi, the Shiv Sena joined forces with the Muslim League and even the BJP tied up, did it not, with Mehbooba Mufti in J&K before that State was put into turmoil. Similarly, the longest serving Chief Minister of West Bengal Jyoti Basu of the CPI(M) had very good relations with the capitalist class and would not be the one to dismiss their concerns.
In India, there is a bit of this and a bit of that as the nation works its way to a path of assimilation with a lot of muddling through. We are not America where the lines of the debate are drawn sharply between capitalism and socialism, between the public and the private sector so that insurance became an acrimonious debate or between redistribution and rewards. There should therefore be no threat of a Joseph McCarthy rising in the nation. Yet, what we are seeing is the rise of an Indian version of McCarthyism that is dreadful because we may not have left within us the institutional firepower to stand up to it, let alone fight it at least in the near term. New boundaries are tested every time and they seem to pass, either unchallenged or the challengers effectively quashed.
What we are seeing is the rise of an Indian version of McCarthyism that is dreadful because we may not have left within us the institutional firepower to stand up to it, let alone fight it at least in the near term.
How and why have we reached this pass? Why is India, sovereign, socialist, secular, democratic republic, facing an assault to the very preamble and principles of the constitution and the values enshrined in it? How and why has McCarthyism, if this is what we can call it, come to India?
Answers to some of these questions are not easy. For one, an India built from the top down means that some of the principles we have agreed, constitutionally and otherwise in the ways we live and work, have not been agreed in a real sense. Many insightful observers hold that Mrs. Gandhi lost the election after the Emergency not because fundamental rights were suspended but because of the excesses of Sanjay Gandhi and his cronies under the campaign of forced sterilisations. We have through the years and under all regimes glorified the principles of non-violence but everyday reality tends to celebrate violence, most of which has been historically perpetrated by the State. Rights are routinely denied, coercive power is routinely used and a vast majority have not really seen the meaning of freedom that is promised in theory but not delivered in practice.
Rights are routinely denied, coercive power is routinely used and a vast majority have not really seen the meaning of freedom that is promised in theory but not delivered in practice.
It was said of McCarthyism (“Have you no sense of decency? McCarthyism 50 years later”) as it may be said of its Indian version today, from a 2004 symposium: “McCarthy was not, in fact, the inventor but the galvanic force, the inheritor, of a kind of rhetoric that had been growing in American politics for over a generation.” We have many versions of this in our body-politic, allowed to play and propagate under the surface while we conveniently looked away.
That of course is no relief from the torment of today. But if and when this phase passes, the rebuilding will require a new imagination of how this country and its first principles are agreed, guaranteed and delivered to the people of India.
(Jagdish Rattanani is a journalist and faculty member at SPJIMR)