Saturday, 22 August 2020

सुबह की बारिश

सुबह की बारिश कुछ याद दिलाए, 

एक फ़साना जो लिख ना पाए,

एक अधूरी दिलसोज़ कहानी,

पीली सफ़हों में छुपी रवानी,


बूँदों की आहट पत्तों से सरके,

भूरे बादल टहनियों पे बैठे,

गीली मिट्टी की पोर में घुलकर,

एक टीस की उल्फ़त घर बनाए,


अंजाने मक़ाम की पहचानी राहें,

साथ चले कुछ देर फिर छूटे,

सुबह की दूरी शब में ढ़ल कर,

वक़्त के मौसम नींद उड़ाए,


फिर तेज़ उठी बारिश की बूँदें,

गीली टीस भी खुल कर बरसे,

वक़्त के मरहम रूह जलाए,

सुबह की बारिश कुछ याद दिलाए.  

Wednesday, 22 July 2020

दिल बेज़ुबान

दिल बेज़ुबान

बहोत सालों के बाद कुछ लिखने और उसको म्यूज़िक में कम्पोज़ करने का फिर से मन हुवा. 

दिल बेज़ुबान, क्या कहे, क्या पता, 
ख़ुद से ही है, बेख़बर, बेवजह 
कभी किसी चीज़ की कमी, 
कभी रंगीं लगे ज़मीन, 
एक पल में ही ये ढूँढे, 
दोनों जहां.
दिल बेज़ुबान ...

कोई जो कुछ कह दे, 
यूँ साथ चल ले, 
सोयी सी आरज़ू को, 
धीमी सी आग दे दे...
भूले जो दिल कभी ना 
उस पाश की निशानी, 
बहलाती जिसकी बोली, 
फिर धूँध सी कहानी, 

कभी किसी चीज़ की कमी, 
कभी रंगीं लगे ज़मीन, 
एक पल में ही ये ढूँढे, 
दोनों जहां.
दिल बेज़ुबान ...

शायद, एक बार मुड़ के उन निगाहों से जो देखे, 
मिट जाए दूरियाँ, बिन कहे, आँखों से, 
लफ़्ज़ों की कोई कमी फिर दर्मयां ना आए, 
बेक़रारी में हसरतें पलें, 
खवाहिशों में ख़लिश 

कभी किसी चीज़ की कमी, 
कभी रंगीं लगे ज़मीन, 
एक पल में ही ये ढूँढे, 
दोनों जहां.
दिल बेज़ुबान ...

Thursday, 16 July 2020

When nationalism tried to ‘reform’ Indian sadhus

In 1930, a sadhu named Dhoortanand had come to a wealthy household of one Lalaji, promising him to double his wealth by conducting a three-day tapasya (penance, ritual). The next morning, Lalaji had to go to the police station to report on the absconding sadhu and the missing wealth. Apparently, Lalaji was not the only one to have fallen prey to the promise of becoming richer; such a tapasya, according to the police, was conducted in at least twenty-five households. Published under the title Gerua Daaku (Ochre-Robe Robber) under a Kahkaha series (joke-stories), the story and the name itself – Dhoortanand, meaning deceitful – symbolised the extent to which the figure of the sadhu had become the stock of social mocking in the early decades of the twentieth century.


Cutting across layers of time, perhaps there is no other Indian figure that comes close to sadhus in being seen as the bearer of disguise and artiste of deceit. From the times of the Ramayana when Ravana disguised as a sadhu abducted Sita to that of the initial reports on the Palghar lynching, the element of disguise – bad men in ochre coloured cloth – has been part of the social consciousness with which sadhus are revered, respected, ridiculed, abused, and politicised.


This is obviously not a new social phenomenon of the last twenty or thirty years, during which we have seen very popular holy-men ending up in jails on various charges of treason, murder, rape, sexual assault, running sex rackets, hoarding arms, and indulging in financial mis-regulation. In 2017, the apex body of Hindu sadhus – Akhil Bhartiya Akhara Parishad – issued a list of 14 ‘charlatans’ who, they claimed, brought disrepute to the name of sadhus. In the age of fake news, the organisation felt the need to release a list of ‘fake babas’ that also included one woman.


The little pondered point in all this is: how does the element of disguise, deeply entrenched in Indian psyche (as a child I was often reminded of not tip-toeing in the darkness of the outside alone lest a sadhu or a ‘budha baba’, an old man, will lure me away), disrupts our cosmos of faith and politics. While it is apt to call out the politicisation and communalisation of two recent crimes against the sadhus, the answer to the larger question of why this violence in the first place becomes possible is most likely hidden in the power of disguise and mystery of reverence through which sadhus and sadhvis themselves act, and through which the society venerates them.


The history of disguise, known through epics and tales, is as old as the history of reverence. In the everyday practice of social engagement related to events of lifecycle such as birth, job, promotion, marriage, property, progeny, and illness, respect and disenchantment follow the specific context of the interaction between devotees/believers/clients and their babas and gurus. For some, their intervention yields positive results, for others, they become ‘useless’ or ‘powerless’. The belief in charisma mixes with the fear of a stranger – clothed in ochre robe – that produces a volatile situation, allowing mistrust to be no longer directed against an individual but towards the generic figure – sadhu – itself. So, for those who ingenuously believe that Indian society had an unbroken unquestionable faith in good deeds of sadhus, the account below will serve as an example of both ‘fact-check’ and ‘history-check’.

Nationalism as a ‘reforming’ project


In the first three decades of the twentieth century, the Hindi speaking belt fumed over the ‘social ills’ of the sadhu samaj (community of sadhus). Their change became the project of national reform. To some surprise to our belief, which is built upon the current understanding of ‘secular polity’, the ways proposed to reform them was through the route of direct politicisation based upon the ideology of anti-colonial nationalism. It was a time when disguise was both feared and applauded; when sadhus were both seen as Bolshevik agents and a committed army of Gandhian emissaries spreading the messages of swaraj and dharma.


In the Indian subcontinent, politics and religion have a long secret affair with each other. The disguise of the sadhu, from time to time, makes this affair theatrical and scandalous (remember Chandraswami from P. V. Narasimha Rao days or rape-accused Nithyananda who fled India to set up a new nation of Kailasa in an island in Ecuador). In the new habitat of mediatised life and polarised politics, the older element of disguise intermittently manifests in violent ways, as happened tragically with two sadhus and their driver in Palghar.

In the new age of modernity of the early twentieth century, the Hindi literate world was exposed to the deeds of ‘Kalyugi Sadhu’, not in a dissimilar way from the contemporary exposé of the ‘fake babas’. For instance, in an imaginary letter written by a worried Shakuntala to her aunt on the declining importance of pilgrim sites, (published in the famous Hindi magazine of Chaand in May 1928), the aunt held the samrajya of pakhandiyon (the empire of deceits) responsible for it. In another, written two years ago in the same magazine, sadhus were said to have become slaves to their senses ruled by taamas (corruption and aggression), avidhya (ignorance), and artha-sanchaar (greed). Numerous letters, editorials, poems, essays, and satires published in leading magazines such as Chaand, Stree Darpan, Lakshmi, and Ganga mocked and lamented the decline in the moral certitude of sadhus. The ‘real’ ones of the old times had disappeared; the modern sadhus were the new age ‘thugs’.


Concerned with the return of Kaliyug as an age of moral and social degeneration, the early twentieth century literate world grieved on the loss of those who were to provide the spiritual guidance. Exploitative colonialism, half-baked capitalism, new regime of clock-discipline, and modern sensibilities of consumption triggered the sense of lament. But the resolution of sadhus’ depravity was not found in rediscovering the path of individual self-purity but in assigning them a role in national politics. The contrast between moral depravity of this group and their neglect towards the nation was clearly laid out, for example, in this poem from 1926:

कंचन और कामिनियों पर, रहती इनकी दृष्टि सदा,

बात बात में ये करते हैं, स्वर्ग नर्क की सृष्टि सदा,

रहे राष्ट्र कंगाल, यहाँ तो, होती धन की वृष्टि सदा,

जनता भूखों मरे, यहाँ तो, रहती भोग समस्ती सदा,

अड्डे और अखाड़े तीर्थ, लमपटियों के बने हुवे,

क्या देंगे उठ्ठान हमें जो, स्वयं पाप में सने हुवे.


On beautiful and young women are their gaze fixed,

On every occasion they invoke heaven and abyss,

The nation remains poor, but here, the wealth rains,

People die of hunger, but here, excess and indulgence prevails,

The goons are ruling the centres of pilgrimage,

            What reawakening will those teach us, who are soiled in sins.

(sketches in Chaand, published in the 1920s)

The work of collective national regeneration arguably required sadhus to direct their wealth of wisdom acquired through penance towards national freedom and progress. An editorial went to the extent of claiming that a few organised sadhu groups could produce incredible national awareness which even thousands of non-cooperation movements couldn’t.


Various calls made in pamphlets and essays titled Bharatvarsha ke Sadhu (Sadhus of India), Sadhuwon ka Sangathan (The Organisation of Sadhus), Rashtra ka Uththaan aur Sadhu-Samaj (The National Awakening and the sadhu-Community), Sadhuwon ki Shiksha (The Education of Sadhus), Bharat ki Bhaavi Unnati (The Future Progress of India) and many more of this variety, which all pondered over their depravity, lust, and greed, suggested that on reform they could become efficient ‘dharm sainiks’ (religious soldiers) and political emissaries.

It was so because they were itinerant, generally revered but currently debauched, and domestically unattached. And this was precisely the dilemma: on the one hand, the itinerant strangeness was seen as a benefit for deploying them in the cause of the nation, on the other, the deceits of the likes of Dhoortanand also and only became possible through the surfeit of disguise. Modernity and reformist nationalism both amplified their problem and attracted them to a direct political involvement. While sadhus were imagined to strengthen the messaging of nationalism, it was the ‘purity of nationalism’ itself which was thought to reform them.

Who were they?


              है नहीं जिनको ज़रा भी ध्यान अपने देश का,

            जिनके दिल कुछ भी असर होता नही उपदेश का,

            एक अक्षर भी पढ़े लिक्खे नहीं होते हैं जो,

आजकल घरबार तज कर साधु बन जाते हैं वो,

रंग लिए कपड़े कमंडल भी लिया एक हाथ में,

बांध लगोंटी जटा सिर भस्म सारे गाट में.


            With no feeling towards our nation,

            On whom, is no effect of any sermon,

            Those, who are completely illiterate and ignorant,

            These days, renounce their homes and become sadhus,

            They have their cloth coloured, and also sport a kamandal (a brass pot),

            Wrapped in loin-cloth, the head and hair all ash-smeared.

In a tract named Nakli Sadhu (Fake Sadhu, published from Benares, 1916), which featured the above poem, a vigilant Shastriji exposed the truth of the ‘new age’ sadhus. Besides alleging that they rejoiced in reciting ‘ganja mantra’ and seeking sex with widows in Kashi, Shastriji exposed the truth that anyone who could don an ochre rob, including a fourteen-year-old, could become a sadhu. In an encounter at a railway platform, signifying itinerancy, a sadhu ‘accepted’ this truth: he never had a guru (in fact, he himself claimed to be one) and while being at Kashi, he opened some patras (folios of texts) to every pundit inquiring what these ‘black letters’ meant. These men, nonetheless, acquire high sounding titles such as Virjanand, Dharmanand, and Asteyanand.


Other tracts pointed to different reasons behind someone turning into a sadhu that included famines and agrarian distress, but a majority of them referred to domestic feud, sloth and laziness, illiteracy, and indifference towards work. One author compared their unproductivity with pigeons in Germany, who according to him, were more productive.


The unemployed and the unwilling turned to begging under the disguise of the sadhu. In some cases, true repentance for greed turned a wealthy man into a sadhu; in others, such as Premchand’s Karmabhoomi, Amarkant became a wanderer-sadhu not only because of the appeal of Gandhian nationalism (which he drifted from, only to return to it later) but also because of his father’s reproach and wife’s dominance.


These literary examples actually corresponded to real life incidents. In Calcutta, in 1916, the C.I.D nabbed a Rajput who had become a sadhu and had enrolled chelas (disciples) to commit shop and motor car robberies. In Amarkot, in 1913, a C.I.D detective who was on the tail of a sadhu – whose past was not known – himself got exposed as a police spy and finally became the sadhu’s disciple. The stories only get fascinatingly colourful as one digs deeper into literature, police records, and newspaper reports.


Disguise, however, eventually met its obverse: the technique that recorded identities. The burst in publications on sadhus followed the colonial technology of enumeration. Literature represents social reality and governance constitutes and inflects it. The sense of numbers, newly introduced by Census, made the problem look ‘acute’. The porous boundary of social locations from which sadhus came was accentuated by the knowledge derived from quantified numbers. Reportedly, according to these tracts published after the 1911 Census, India had 50-70 lakhs of sadhus who were not only a drain on the economy because they were dependent on others for their food and shelter, but also a waste of resource who ought to be better utilised. The chosen pious service was in spreading the message of nationalism.


The fear of disguise


The year was 1920 and the month December. Two things made the Congress Nagpur Session historical. One, the unanimous resolution on non-cooperation movement and second the Congress’ official sanction to take up the cause of workers. Post-First World War, the industrial strikes had spiked up. The Rowlatt Satyagraha had started a year ago. The first mass phase of the national movement was swelling to expand.


A little known fact from the Nagpur session is the attendance of 106 sadhus whom Gandhi thanked for becoming messengers of the non-cooperation movement. The hitherto dispersed efforts to unite the sadhus finally took shape in the Congress’ forum as a Sadhu Sangha was formed with the aim to establish provincial branches for disseminating the idea of swaraj. Soon, next year in April, an All India Political Sadhu Sabha was established with headquarters in Hardwar. A committee of 15 was formed to draft rules and draw up a programme. These institutional and locational affiliations did not make identification easier though.


The inexplicable of Indian society, in colonial minds, was often made intelligible through religion and religious figures as they captured and explained the fear and fascination of the ‘mysterious east’. As historian Kim Wagner has shown, religious mendicants, ascetics, yogis, faqirs, and sadhus were thought to be behind the 1830s peak in ‘thuggee’, in conspiring the 1857 ‘mutiny’, and in fanning the unrest of the 1890s. As during these previous episodes, the period of the 1910s-20s also caught the colonial state unaware but then, the endemic lack of information could only be filled by an increased surveillance. But when a gang of 40 sadhus from Gujarat finally arrived in north Bihar via Allahabad, Benares, Ghazipur, and Ballia in 1918, the superintendent of police in Saran noted down in his personal diary: “mission unknown”.


Various sadhus pop up in the diaries, character chargesheets, confidential reports, and demi-official letters of the colonial officials who tried to track their movements and past records. The sadhus, in turn, attained greater but predictable circuits of mobility as they used railways to visit industrial centres such as Jharia and Jamalpur, Asansol and Lilooah in Bihar and Bengal. They gave speeches, claimed charisma, encouraged strikes, distributed pamphlets, and preached on cow-slaughter and Hindu-Muslim unity. A pamphlet, Swaraj ka Gola (Fireball of Freedom, early 1920s) exhorted people to “listen to Gandhi and become ready now”, to “be a mendicant if you want to maintain the prestige of India in the world”.


For these emissaries, Gandhi became the template of political activism. But on the ground, many of them overturned the message of Gandhi when talking about race, labour unrest, and social boycott. It were not only Russian films, showing the achievements of Bolshevik revolution that the colonial state wanted to control, the itinerant sadhus had also become Bolshevik agents in their eyes. The element of disguise kept the colonial state anxious about their motives and intentions. When it able to find, the police character ‘chargesheets’ described a few of them as men of ‘low character’, without livelihood, and visiting prostitutes.


The newness of the 90s


One thing seems pretty clear in all this: the disguise of the sadhus has disguised them as the subjects of this colourful past. They inhabited the unspecified cracks of not belonging to any of the neatly defined blocks of conservativism, nationalism, and radicalism. For the state, they became the perpetrator of mischief and bearer of Bolshevik radicalism, and therefore treated as an object of surveillance. For the society, ideally, they remained the figure of respect but practically of contempt; for nationalist organisations, they were seen as an army of unproductive lot who needed reform through nationalism. For the historian, they remain a usually untouched subject of research because their ambiguous pasts of consolidating workers and at the same time professing to ‘save’ religion unsettles certain definite notions about the present.


A day before sadhus were lynched to death in Palghar, two doctors were also caught and beaten by the locals. Rumours of child kidnappers and raiders coming to the villages had reportedly circulated. A premeditated judgement was arrived at that sadhus were in disguise. The selective media politicisation over the lynching added a new meaning to the ‘aura’ of disguise by stripping it off of all historical complexity and reducing it to communal identity. But the culture and politics since the 1980s have slowly brewed this concoction.


With the inception of the Indian variety of tele-evangelism since the early 90s, a renewed importance of the figure of ‘holy-men and women’ in our social, cultural, and commercial life has taken place. Nearly all aspects of our everyday life – from deciding the colour of the cloth to be worn on a particular day to that of the position of the toilet in the house – have been stirred by 24/7 sermons on the benefits of things such as Vaastu, stone rings, ‘nationalised’ yoga, daily horoscope, and not least, the art of living. The tension between an ideal venerable figure and a charlatan has simply multiplied. The pervasive mediatised faith in things that are quotidian in nature but are deemed governed by cosmic energy and planetary movements is a new feature of consumption-ridden Indian cosmopolitan life.


Around the same time, in the 1980s and 90s, the political mobilisation around the issue of masjid-mandir started, which renewed the importance of the figure of the sadhu and the sadhvi in Indian political life. Now, the intermixing of religion and politics has gone to such an extent that politicians appear in the ‘disguise’ of sadhus. No guess there!


Politically, in the rise of sadhus is encapsulated the ascendancy of Hindu neo-orthodoxy, which professes conservatism in its values and modernity in its claim. It quickly adapts itself to the needs of the changing times but professes to adhere to the customs from Indra’s times. While ‘disguise’ continues to operate, as some godmen continue to build empires of wealth with tunnels carved inside their mansions, the new echo-chamber of hate-politics, fake-news, and polarised social beliefs present an event such as Palghar in unambiguous religious framework. Arnab Goswami took a lead in presenting the death of two sadhus as an attack on 80 per cent Hindus orchestrated by Sonia Gandhi. The historical past of disguise was sacrificed at the altar of politically motivated reporting.


There would always be good sadhus and clever charlatans. In their everyday lives, people would filter through them using their experience and engagement with them. There was politicisation of sadhus attempted in the past; there is a politicisation done over them in the present. In the past, the accent was on their reform through nationalism, which meant the society accepted their ills. In the present, the clear articulation of the shrill media is on their Hindu identity to stoke suspicion and social polarisation in the name of exclusionary nationalism.


If history repeats itself, it is about time that the literate society, at least of the Hindi belt, takes exception to two things. One, the media-fuelled hatred that deliberately, and dastardly, invents symbolic icons of ‘imagined communities’ to fuel divisions in the society, and two, to question itself for allowing the increasing number of ‘charlatans’ gaining ground in every aspect of our everyday life. This is what the fore-fathers and -mothers of this public sphere had tried to do around hundred years ago.

Thursday, 14 May 2020

A social anatomy of Covid-19 in India

A social anatomy of Covid-19 in India
Two trends are clear when analysing the relationship between Covid-19 and social conditions. One, as similar to natural disasters, it has hit worse the socially marginal communities. Migrants, refugees, urban poor, and daily wagers notwithstanding, the most telling example in terms of actual loss of life is coming from the U.S.A. In Louisiana and Chicago, the death among the blacks is as high as 70 per cent. The existing medical conditions reflecting long-standing social depravity, access to health services, and the nature of jobs that put them to greater exposure are reportedly the reasons behind this.
Another unsettling trend is consolidating on the other side of the globe. In India, the rise in accusing marginal, minority communities, particularly Muslims, alike the perpetrators of ‘original sin’, in spreading the virus either due to negligence or with alleged criminal intent is deeply troubling. At the same time, however, these examples reveal the structural faultlines of nation-states that feed the politics crafted around ‘religious or racial identities’, which the pliable mainstream media exploits and a significant section of majoritarian community gleefully endorses.
The current anti-Muslim diatribe on some leading national and regional news channels as well as in social media began in the wake of almost half a dozen deaths reported towards the end of March, investigating which, it was found that all of them had attended the annual conference of an Islamic missionary group, the Tablighi Jamaat, in Delhi mid-March. While some media houses have restricted to the use of the word ‘Jamaati’, the general insidious purport is of essentializing the whole community of Muslims. It comes as no surprise that #coronajihad was trending amongst Indian twitterati. Some channels described the supposed role of Tablighi Jamaat in spreading virus as ‘virus terrorism’.

(From the twitter handle of Vishweshwar Bhat, editor-in-chief of Vishwanavi Daily, a South Indian newspaper), reproduced from
After a long, initial indifferent approach towards the epidemic – for instance, on 13th March, which was also the first day of the congregation of Tablighi Jamaat, the Healthy Ministry had given a press release saying ‘coronavirus is not a health emergency and there is no need to panic’ – the government finally took note of the imminent threat. However, very soon, not only to health, the virus also has become a threat to the body-politic of the nation and to the fabric of social life in neighbourhoods and families.
While it doesn’t seem unusual to perceive vulnerability along the terms of family, neighbourhood, and nation, implicit in doing so is the gradual and continuous search for the ‘internal other’ which threatens these spaces. Initially there was some anger expressed towards China (once again, a global pattern can be traced in the way Donald Trump insistently kept calling it a ‘Chinese Virus’), which manifested in sporadic attacks on and forced quarantine of ‘Chinese’ looking individuals from North-East states (who are derogatorily referred as ‘chinkis’ in mainland India). However, both the anger and the attacks subsided.
Meanwhile, the news about the deaths and transmission related to Tablighi Jamaat broke out, which infused a fresh energy in otherwise ‘dull’ media discussions that had already turned to ‘celebrity chats’ to spice up their content. The Jamaat brought virus back into the news but this time through its social vectors.
Now was an ever-present, already existing ‘internal other’ which could be blamed for the pandemic. The optics were impressive: a large group of Muslims gathered ‘secretively’, held meetings, and then many of them dispersed to transmit the virus in the society across the regions. The Muslim bodies were portrayed as ‘corona bombs’ signifying their deliberate intent to harm the nation’s body-politic. Even those who did not travel and remained at the Markaz (Jamaat’s headquarters) in Delhi were dubbed as people who were hiding after acting out a conspiracy.
The issue is not of denying the spread of contamination that happened when Tabligh members, both who had come from outside of India as well as those from within India, dispersed to different parts of the country. The concern is with the invention of a public discourse in which politics along community lines prevails over critical questioning of obvious administrative lapses. The concern is with a barrage of fake videos and news circulated daily on WhatsApp groups of family and friends, which even after being proven false, lingers on in the memory of users. A specific video for the consumers of fake news might be false but the general belief of Muslims being intently responsible for the spread acquires the status of the truth. The ruling party’s media spokespersons daily break down the ‘data’ of infection along what percentage of it has been caused by Jamaat. This reflects the ‘savvy’ use of new media to constantly widen the perceived and existing gulf, but also to invoke a troubled historical past.
In both long- and short-term contexts, the inevitability of this thematisation of Muslim culpability is not hard to discern. Historically, for the right-wing politics, Muslims have represented a threat to both the core constituents of social and political life: family and nation. From inter-religious marriages to the narrative of population explosion, they have been seen as a threat.
In the more immediate run, the enactment of the controversial Citizenship Amendment Bill, which according to the experts, introduces the criteria of religion for citizenship for the first time in Indian Constitution, played on and further intensified the marginalisation and insecurities of Muslims and their vilification. A two-month long sit-in protest, that took place in Delhi against it, was predominantly attended by Muslims, which culminated into a horrific pogrom in which at least 36 Muslims were killed. The political provocation has been happening for some time through accusations of Muslim men wooing away Hindu girls (“love jihad”), and their involvement in cow-slaughter and beef eating that eventually led to a number of deaths due to mob lynching. A toxic mix of hate-ridden politics and fake news, amplified in the echo-chamber of a pliant media newsrooms, has nurtured a society willing to transform the fact-based Tablighi role into a felt simmering anger against the Muslim community.
The whole process rather turned out ugly very fast. A very subtle drive is on its way to exclude Muslims from the economic activities. For example, a gated neighbourhood decided to ban the entry of Muslim vendors inside; a Muslim fruit vendor was forced to shut his shop while the Hindus were left untouched; a Muslim family was attacked with weapons because they didn’t switch off the light on 5 April as the Prime Minister had demanded the nation to do so; a mosque was ransacked and partially burnt in Delhi and shots were fired on another near Delhi. In the southern state of Karnataka, milk and vegetable sellers were beaten up and prohibited to work. A village in the same state banned the entry of Muslims. Even the Muslim individuals doing relief work of distributing food were attacked in Bengaluru, and so were Muslim truck drivers in a northeast state of India. To avoid transmission of the virus, messages are in circulation to not “receive money from Muslims”.
Urban migrants and Dalits have also faced similar discriminatory acts but studies suggest that the effect of economic disruption might be felt more by Muslims. 19 per cent of the total Muslim workers are engaged in casual jobs in comparison to 13 per cent of Hindus. 48 per cent of the total workforce classified as ‘self-employed’ are of Muslims. Working without any social security network, the informal labour market of India is huge (around 90 percent of the total workforce). Historically, Muslims have been underrepresented in secured jobs and education, and therefore, any targeted exclusion from the informal sector will hit them very hard.
The virus will affect different social segments differently. Seemingly, for many, the operative word in ‘social distancing’ – the measure to flatten the curve – is ‘distancing’. For marginals and minorities, the social might become the main thing to watch out for, not only because of the structural reasons that is already making hunger and death more imminent amongst them but also because how politics, media, and society keeps that ‘social’ fissured and fractured.

Nitin Sinha, senior research fellow, Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient, Berlin
Reyazul Haque, research fellow, Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient, Berlin

Sunday, 12 April 2020

A call for unity or ‘rituals of authoritarianism’?

A call for unity or ‘rituals of authoritarianism’? 

The surging figures of death induced the people in Italy to go to their balconies, and sing and clap for their health workers who face the toughest challenge everywhere. Subsequently, similar sporadic events happened elsewhere in different countries. Amidst the growing deployment of the war metaphor by many world leaders, communities invent their rituals of thanksgiving for people they imaginatively feel bonded with within the national territory. It is not so ironic that in the severest time of global crisis, world leaders from Trump and Macron to Modi, have called for an aggressive reassertion of national unity.

The language of unity whips up the emotional register of solidarity but it inevitably requires tangible forms of action. It is exactly at this point of intersection between apparent well-intentioned messages of unity and the choice of actions that leaders and their followers propound, that the perils of politics threaten to expose the predicament of unity. These ‘rituals of unity’ acquire Frankenstein potential to eat up what it professes to promote.

The head of the state addressing the nation

In two major addresses to the nation, the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has so far assigned two tasks to the nation. A great orator, communicator, and an event dazzler that he is, he hardly presents before the nation the details of steps his government is taking in ‘fighting’ the virus but rather requests in a demanding way to observe rituals of solidarity that transposes the ‘war’ into the realm of faith and frenzy.

Image taken from here

After observing a ‘self-exacted’ curfew for 14 hours on March 22, the nation broke into a frenzy of clapping, banging steel plates, blowing conch shells, and playing metal bells because the leader of the nation had asked it to do so for five minutes at 5 p.m. Unlike in other countries, this was not an organic, spontaneous response but an orchestrated one from the top, which was even ‘rehearsed’ a day before in some parts of the country.

Called for to display solidarity for health and emergency service providers, of course, Modi did not ask anyone to step out of the house which would breach the observance of social distancing. But the ritual, as it usually does, acquired its own dynamics; it rejoiced the nation to the extent that people gathered in streets banging plates collectively, took processions out, and even went to temples to blow shells. It is true that the landscape of India is dotted with deities ascribed with the power of healing but either corona or its divine antidote has not yet made it to that pantheon. Nonetheless, the ‘sound therapy’, which Covid-19 received that day in India drowned the more sensible and critical voices that kept asking the government about its preparedness on PPE, ventilators, and relief packages. Asking these questions are readily branded as acts of defiance against the show of solidarity.

At the sudden notice of four hours, a complete lockdown for 21 days started on March 25. Since then, India has seen massive exodus of poor labour-migrants from cities back to the villages. The initial planning to foresee the effects of the lockdown was missing; in fact, until the 13th of March the official line was of not treating corona as a health emergency.

Deprived of shelter, occupation, and food these migrants had no option but to defy the norms of official lockdown and social distancing. In the process, they had to bear the brunt of police beating while walking for hundreds of kilometres, sometimes thousands, on highways. Modi’s apology to millions of migrants for the ‘inconvenience’ caused due to the lockdown was rooted in emotional appeal sans the robust clarity on the institutional front to assuage the palpable fear of hunger these migrants displayed. This was soon superseded by another call on 3rd of April for a new ritual of switching off the electric lights for nine minutes at 9 p.m. on Sunday the 5th of April.

The charismatic ‘excesses’

Intelligent leaders learn from mistakes; clever ones repeat them to expand and consolidate their hold. When leaders know that their charisma sways over people’s reasoning, and that the charisma has a dedicated and unquestioning support of the mainstream media, our understanding of their acts also need to go beyond the what appears at the surface. The charisma is a packaged product in which his oratory, crafty use of various emotional registers, amplification of his words on social media, and endorsement through print and electronic media plays a crucial role.

In his addresses, Modi imbibed at once the role of the head of the state and of the leader whom the ‘mob’ and the mass deferentially adore. As the head of the state he asked to observe social distancing but as the theatrical leader in him, without saying so, encourages the mass to go beyond his literal message to show an unflinching support. The viral video of a guy banging a steel plate on his head was the mark of this nature of support and devotion people have for their charismatic leader but at the same time it was also the negation of the call given by the head of the state. But because both the roles are fused in one individual, the net worth of this exercise always generates a surplus of political capital. These rituals are therefore not the emptied gestures, as one would like to believe, but loaded with full potential to achieve political consolidation in an indirect but fully concerted way.

The Indian politics in the last eight months has been acutely fractured along sharp ideological divisions due to a series of constitutional amendments, which the ruling party introduced. Two of these have been most divisive: abrogation of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution that gave special status to Jammu and Kashmir, and the introduction of the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act, which stipulates a fast-track, almost document free, route to grant citizenship to practically everyone other than the followers of Islam from three Muslim-majority neighbouring countries. This introduced the criteria of religion for citizenship for the first time in the Indian constitution. A situation of pandemic, leading to a call for unity, would naturally seem benign in these situations. After all, the virus does not select its host based on caste, class, region, religion, or race.

Turning pandemic into a series of events

However, a pandemic-crisis is not an event that unfolds outside of our social, economic, and cultural faultlines, institutional capacities, and political systems. But it was turned into a series of events in two ways. One, the suspense-ridden advance announcements of Modi’s addresses to the nation transformed what otherwise needed to be a detailing of the collective administrative response into a spectacle of an individual crusade. Angela Merkel who has been widely lauded for her addresses that exuded sobriety and transparency, emphasising the role of democracy and liberal values in times of curtailment on liberties, had not made such advance announcements. It should be clear that the build-up to a spectacle eventually feeds a spectacle in turn: People coming out on streets on a call to observe social distancing is an extension rather than violation of the spectacle that Modi creates deliberately around his speeches.

At the second call of Mr Modi, the pandemic again turned into an event of festivity, resembling the joyous and popular autumn festival of Diwali when people decorate their houses with lights and burst firecrackers. Sadly, nearly a hundred person had already fallen prey to the virus by the 5th April when these ‘celebrations’ took place, and lakhs of nearly starving migrant workers were still on road braving fatigue, exhaustion, police beating, and fears of infection.

To those who argue that these events were not celebrations but exercises in showing oneness and unity, one just needs to ask a simple question: What actually were the pressing tangible markers of ‘disunity’ that required such ritualistic calls? Why were such calls endorsed with chants of ‘Jai Shri Ram’, and ‘Jai Modi’ both in real spaces of neighbourhoods and in family and friends whatsapp groups? Once again, the excess in performance is noticeable: Modi asked to light diyas but people in many parts of the country burst firecrackers. This is the mark of endorsement by people, which consolidates his hold although at the face value it seems to repudiate his message. The leader’s excess in demanding these rituals and the masses’ excessive acts of endorsement fuse together to create the invincibility of his political capital as well as maintaining the strain of warrior-victim, that is, all he has in mind is the good of the nation.

The second instance, which has turned the Indian corona response into an event is of the mainstream media’s liking for finding the ‘true’ culprit. Navigating through Kanika Kapoor’s story, it finally hit the Muslim button. The instances of racial attacks on Asians in many western countries, the accusations exchanged between communities of deliberately spreading the virus in the Middle-East, and the recent Muslim vilification in India following the detection of infections caused due to a Tablighi Jamaat event held in mid-March are examples showing that the virus does not only act on given biological infirmities in human bodies. It also violently accentuates existing social tensions, especially if it suits the interests of (and is allowed/encouraged by) the politically dominant. Pandemic then becomes an event of a series of headlines interspersed with propagation of fake news, which feeds on the established imagery of the ‘other’.

Power to cult-ship

After the diya celebration on the 5th, some reports poured in that communities and co-habitants of buildings and residential societies had indulged in vigilantism against those who found little merit in obeying the assigned national task. When desired unity of actions and ideas in the society start becoming violently enforceable at the call of the supreme leader, the slide into faith-based authoritarianism from the questioning-based democracy becomes very tangible, if not inevitable.  

In Hungary, Viktor Orban got the coronavirus bill passed to rule by decree with no expiry date on it. The resurrection of authoritarianism took the usual route of law. In European nations of liberal democracies, fear is being expressed that the corona-induced emergency measures should not re-alter the contours of liberty. In a democracy like India, where majoritarianism has already been on the rise, the pandemic has opened a social schism for power wielders to keep the nation busy with ‘rituals of unity’.

Shekhar Gupta calls it a matter of spicing up. As he says, ‘He [Modi] spiced it up with the idea of ringing of bells and clanging of thalis. You can laugh at this as much as you wish’. Seeing from Modi’s perspective, as Gupta does, this of course might be true. But this is no mere sprinkling of spices in an otherwise potently harmful broth. Through these rituals, Indian leadership is sculpting a different route to authoritarianism. This is the route of cult-ship where excesses are tolerated, even promoted. They may lead to the apparent undermining of the state’s order but eventually augment the individual’s power. The road is not through law or parliament but through direct communication with people, which Modi has always championed since becoming the prime minister. This is neither a matter to be dismissed nor ridiculed away. What the nation needs to seriously discern is that when it zealously participates and enforces such tasks summoned by the leader, it actually partakes in the ‘rituals of authoritarianism’.