Confirmation of a slide towards an authoritarian-majoritarian state may be detected in recent statements by Ajit Doval, India’s cabinet-level National Security Adviser, and Gen. Bipin Rawat, Chief of India’s Defence Staff.
Delivering prepared remarks before the National Police Academy in Hyderabad four days ago, Mr. Doval told officers entering the higher police service that “civil society” was the new frontier they had to defend. The young officers should realize that enemy forces wished to “subvert, suborn, divide, and manipulate” India’s “civil society”. Doval didn’t, in so many words, instruct police officers to focus vigilant eyes on our nation’s civil society, but the inference was unmistakable. A day earlier, Gen. Rawat had told a TV channel that people in Jammu and Kashmir are now saying that they will “lynch terrorists”, which he thought was a “positive sign”.
On the other side of the globe, retired Lt.-Gen. Michael Flynn, once Trump’s National Security Adviser, said this in San Antonio, Texas, on November 13: “If we are going to have one nation under God – which we must – we have to have one religion.” At this one prominent Republican, Ohio state treasurer and Senate candidate Josh Mandel, tweeted, “We stand with General Flynn.” However, most Americans seem shocked and offended by Flynn’s totalitarian call.
Rawat’s expression of delight at the lynching of suspected terrorists has to be condemned. The “terrorist” label is not something to throw around casually. Even confirmed terrorists must be punished lawfully. Above all, when lynching is encouraged from such a high pedestal, what hope remains for individuals chased by cruel mobs in different corners of our land? Everyone knows who will not pull up Gen. Rawat. We also know who will criticize the latest of his questionable public interventions. Probably a group or two of writers and artists. Maybe some lawyers and professors. Possibly a few politicians. Perhaps some ex-judges. Perhaps a team of former civil servants. An association committed to democratic rights might speak up.
That’s right. Voices from civil society will protest, which is just the alert that Mr. Doval sounded before India’s gallant young police officers. Civil society is the new frontier that must be defended. Not against curbs by the state. Against troublesome voices from citizens.
Citizens ought to thank Mr. Doval for reminding them of their significance. For arresting India’s slide away from democracy and equality is a task that seems to have fallen on their shoulders. True, some MPs or Chief Ministers might also help. On the other hand, they might not be able to, or might not be allowed to. Forces inimical to democracy seem not only to have state power and money power. They seem able to control what people see and hear about what’s happening in the present. And about what happened in the past, which can be manufactured just as the present can be distorted.
Those troubled by what India faces shouldn’t waste hopes on pressures from the US and other democratic states. These lands have their own internal problems. Moreover, America’s need for India in its contest with China places clear limits on what people like Biden, Kamala Harris or Antony Blinken can demand from Modi.
Mr Doval’s remark reveals his clear grasp. Not the governments, but the civil societies of democratic nations in North America and Europe and countries like Japan, Australia, and South Africa are the forces that impact the minds of the Indian people. These forces will affect India not through efforts to “subvert, suborn, divide, and manipulate”, exercises repulsive to the minds of anyone believing in liberty, equality and fraternity, but because of the natural attractions of life in a democracy.
Life in democracies like the US falls far short of ideals. Yet with all its failings that life beckons millions of Indians. Even if governments in some these democracies fall for the extremist temptation voiced by Michael Flynn, we may be certain that civil societies in those lands will still uphold liberty, equality and fraternity.
Herein lies one of the great contradictions in the dreams of India’s majoritarians. They might accuse the world’s democracies – not openly of course, but indirectly – of wanting to “subvert, suborn, divide, and manipulate” India’s civil society. All the same, they want the good opinion of these democracies. Nothing pleases them more than a good chit from a civil society institution in any one of these democracies, especially from a newspaper, journal, university campus or measuring agency which, over time, has built a reputation.
This is an Achilles’ heel for defenders of coercion, hierarchy, and intolerance in India. Wanting the good opinion of civil societies in the world’s great democracies, wanting, too, to claim equal rights when they travel to or work in those democracies, they still want the freedom to deny equality to certain groups in India.
There’s another blatant contradiction and difficulty for India’s majoritarians. They want India’s trade and other links with the Gulf, the Arab world, and Iran to continue and grow. They want Bangladesh to be closer to India than to China. They wish to retain or recover the Afghan people’s goodwill that was earned by decades of cooperation. They cheered the recent conference, chaired by none other than Mr Doval, of the security chiefs of many countries around Afghanistan, most of them with Muslim majorities. And yet they want to deny or ignore the mistreatment of India’s Muslims.
This second contradiction is not less significant than the attempt to marry love for equal rights abroad with a denial of equality in India, but it is the latter that I wish to underline here, because of its connection to India’s civil society.
This civil society includes inhabitants of two realms without which India, it seems, is incomplete. India can live without Pakistan, but not without cricket or Bollywood. We know that lately each of these kingdoms played a part in insaniyat’s survival. Virat Kohli salvaged a precious thing when, denouncing inhuman bigotry, he defended Mohammed Shami. And countless movie lovers stood up against the targeting of Shah Rukh Khan and his son.
Civil society is not a pushover. And it extends beyond the two realms mentioned. Most importantly, it extends to our courtrooms, where magistrates and justices, who inhabit the state-citizen border and are pledged to the Constitution and its protections, preside. It extends, too, to our classrooms, where a teacher or a professor helps young minds to think for themselves.
Potentially, civil society also extends, though not always visibly, into the families and trusted friends of our policemen, soldiers, inspectors, investigators, government officers of all kinds. An intervention on behalf of insaniyat can emanate from quarters close to the powerful.
Thank you, Doval-ji, for reminding us of the power of civil society, which is no external power. Its real strength is internal. Majoritarians and authoritarians, whether native or foreign, may have to reckon with the inner Hind Swaraj of the “ordinary” Indian – in the home, the street, the polling booth, the classroom, the courtroom, wherever.
(Rajmohan Gandhi is presently teaching at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.)
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