Hate is the Modi government’s true “make in India” campaign

Authorities in Prayagraj demolish the house of an activist accused of violence during protests against bigoted remarks by BJP spokespersons. The lives and livelihoods of Muslim residents across India are being bulldozed, as are their constitutional rights. Rajesh Kumar Singh / AP Photo
25 June, 2022

Long years ago, at the stroke of the midnight hour on 15 August 1947, India achieved independence from British rule. Shortly before India made its “tryst with destiny,” Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru said that, for every nation, “a moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance.” Over the past few months, we have turned such a corner in India’s history, as a long suppressed desire finds utterance, with every Hindu festival taking us closer to an ethnic cleansing.

As Indian diplomats struggle to placate Islamic nations over bigoted remarks against the prophet Muhammad by two senior Bharatiya Janata Party leaders, what the Indian government tolerates and whom it abhors has come to define our foreign policy. At last count, 18 nations—as well as the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation and the Gulf Cooperation Council—have registered their protest. This diplomatic crisis, brewed on television, reveals how dangerous the Indian media landscape has become for Indians everywhere.

The perpetual made-for-television violence reaches every house and every mind in every news cycle. Last month, the lives and livelihoods of Muslim residents across India were bulldozed, as were their constitutional rights. One journalist rode a bulldozer herself, in a perfect visual metaphor for the state of the Indian media. Mobs, aided by the police and hate-news channels—and their corporate sponsors—are now as dangerous as a psychopath in control of their pathology. Under Narendra Modi, India is always an inch from a pogrom.

When summoned by the governments of three Islamic nations, Indian ambassadors dismissed the ruling party’s spokespersons as “fringe elements,” much like how last month’s vindictive and violent repression of Muslim lives was called an “anti-encroachment drive” even as illegal houses in Delhi’s posh neighbourhoods stand tall, mocking the poor. The waters have become so muddy that it is easy to forget, or perhaps irrelevant, that the words giving license to go after minorities are exercises in making the mind doubt itself, in rewriting history as it happens. The latest nightmare of life in the world’s largest democracy also reveals who dictates the rights of people to work, live, eat and pray—individual decisions that have become matters of the state, questioned on national television and enforced by lynch mobs. It has upped the ante with the sheer scale of mistruths and outright lies.

The absurdist nature of life in India struck me as reminiscent of Vladimir Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading. Set in a prison, the 1935 novel tells the story of the final three weeks of the life of Cincinnatus C, a citizen of a fictional country who is condemned to death for a crime that is never explained. Cincinnatus is accused of committing “gnostical turpitude”—which defies definition but roughly translates, within the context of the novel, as possessing “bad knowledge.” As a child, Cincinnatus was “opaque” in a city of “translucent” people, causing mistrust as people began questioning the “basic legality” of his existence. Soon after his incarceration, Cincinnatus asks his jailor about the date and time of his beheading. The jailor says that he is always told at the last moment. Cincinnatus responds, “It could be tomorrow morning?”

Throughout the novel, Cincinnatus keeps repeating “tomorrow, probably” and sometimes bursts out laughing when he imagines the judges finally realising the scale of the misunderstanding. As his anguish over his impending death intensifies, he cannot comprehend the cruelty being meted out to him: “I, who must pass through an ordeal of supreme pain, I, who in order to preserve a semblance of dignity … must, during that ordeal, keep control of all my faculties.” He tells his jailor that he dies every morning.

Cincinnatus’s real crime is to know something he is not supposed to know: that he was living in a farcical world without love, justice or original and critical thinking. There is no solid ground in the book, his prison cell disintegrates when he leaves the final time, words defy meaning and characters are introduced as something before being revealed to be something else. The text shifts relentlessly, allowing many plausible interpretations; to read it is an exercise in making the mind doubt itself.

Nothing could be more appropriate as a description of life in India, where, a year after the traumatising second wave of COVID-19, the government is taking on the World Health Organisation to deny the millions of deaths evidenced at the time by funeral pyres burning endlessly. Indian minorities, much like Cincinnatus, live in the inter-spaces into which they have been condemned but do not know when or why or how the punishment will come. The Modi government has disguised its hate for minorities as a meticulous process of law, rubber-stamping what is acceptable or unacceptable, which shift perpetually based in elastic words with stretchable meanings and the mood swings of tyrants and mobs. Perhaps Indian Muslims also say “tomorrow, probably” and sometimes burst out laughing when they imagine the powerful finally realising the scale of the misunderstanding. Much like Cincinnatus, they must keep control of their faculties as they live through this ordeal. Like him, they die every morning.

The hatemongers baying for blood, telling Muslims that the law cannot and will not protect them, is the new language used by the Hindu majority. There is the law. There is what is right. Then there is what is allowed to happen. And hate speech, above all, is about the law, with bigots claiming public spaces as a power flex and the state showing what it tolerates and whom it abhors. Hate is the government’s true “make in India” campaign.

Moderate citizens, now habituated to self-censorship, not only refuse to say out loud what they think of the violence but often do not know what to think about it. This is the greatest triumph of the Modi government: demolishing truth so entirely that it cannot be accused of lying. We are now well adjusted to a world where we are trained to not see, to not hear, to not understand, to not care if we understood, to not speak up if we cared. Those who do speak tend to do so in favour of the oppression. We have learnt myriad imaginative ways of avoiding the truth, as the government we enabled has turned the truth on its head in myriad imaginative ways.

The charade of elections in India—which the prime minister informs us is the “mother of democracy”—exists precisely to gloss over the farce of a crumbling democracy. It has never been clearer that Nehru’s India, a babel of diverse languages and cultures, found nothing to permanently unite it as one nation. Over these long years, pro-democracy advocates have begged and argued and prophesied as India hurtles headfirst into a genocidal crisis, with the ruling party and its supporters relishing every moment. With the incursions along the Chinese border, a deadly heat wave and a mutating COVID pathogen on the prowl, the only successful campaign the Modi government has fought has been against its own people. In its seventy-fifth year, India faces an employment crisis, a medical crisis, a humanitarian crisis and, most importantly, a crisis of conscience. The part of our soul telling us right from wrong has fallen silent. Therein lies the irreparable calamity.