The Insecurity of Petty Ideas
by M J Akbar
The times have changed. Patriotism used to be the last refuge of the scoundrel. The scoundrel is now the last refuge of patriotism. This is not because the cad and the poseur have filled up, but because we are busy chopping democracy up into little pocket-sized units of petty patriotism. Culture, economics and the history of the last hundred years unite us. The greed for votes is beginning to divide us. It is one thing for municipal-level politicians to try and survive by wooing the lowest common denominator. But when politicians of some stature, a Cabinet Minister hoping to rise to Prime Minister, or a Chief Minister begins to parrot the pidgin politics of parochialism, then it is time to address the infection with a scalpel. Regional separatism is the sore that can deteriorate into secessionist cancer if not addressed in time.
The idealism of India was always vulnerable to a challenge from smaller ideas. It is more comforting, particularly at moments of stress, to snuggle into a nest. That is the first option of the insecure. When the insecure become aggressive, they find pseudo-strength in hysteria. India is a democracy with a fundamental commitment to free speech. The intelligent hysteric has learnt to dress a lie in the robes of morality. Morality makes it fashionable to a self-congratulatory elite.
A familiar charge, voiced recently by a Kashmiri secessionist ensconced in Delhi’s academia, is that India is a fascist state. This is precisely the sort of thing that sounds suitably liberal in seminar rooms and doubtless envelops the audience in the warm glow of self-satisfaction. There: how brave of us! We have given shelter to the oppressed!
The obvious irony, of course, is that in a genuinely fascist state, the great orator would be locked up — and the key thrown away — before he could have uttered the first letter of “fascist”. A dissident has a right to the liberalism of Indian democracy, academia and mainstream media. But the fact that even secessionists, sometimes thinly disguised in parallel demands, enjoy the benefits of a generous culture is proof of India’s liberal polity. After all, the most egregious instance of provocation in recent years has been the manner in which some demonstrators flaunted the Pakistan flag in pursuit of their political demands. I wonder if anyone in Pakistan would have been allowed to carry the Indian flag during a demonstration.
Freedom and independence are neither the same thing, nor interchangeable. The great age of European colonialism is over; every nation can claim to be independent. That does not necessarily mean that it is free. Freedom is not merely release from some magic cage Europe constructed to fetter distant lands. Freedom is a principle that the state shares with every citizen. India is both independent and free.
A nation can be colonised by its own elites, perhaps more easily than by foreign ones. A purist political scientist might debate this definition of such “colonisation”; after all a dictatorship can be as nationalist in its objectives as a democratic one. But the spirit of oppression that pervades through a dictatorship or an oppressive oligarchy is not all that distant from the ethos of colonial rule. The British Raj was not a continuous exercise in brutality. In many instances it was liberal and reformist. Many unbiased critics would certainly compare it favourably to the feudalism that prevailed in much of India during British rule. Not every feudal was a despot, but many were; many more were simply irresponsible and self-indulgent. It was only when they had to defend the right of the British to rule an alien land did the splendidly adorned Viceroys and plum-voiced Oxbridge civil servants descended to ruthlessness. If the lathi did not silence India’s voice, the bayonet would. If that did not suffice, the guns appeared.
Paradoxically, it can be easier to defend a fascist state than a democracy. The former does not offer habeas corpus [“Show us the body”] through which courts can limit the power of the executive. In a country not too far away, thousands have been picked up and thrown into jail before they are cherry picked for transportation to a foreign prison where they can be punished for real or imagined terrorism. Intelligence agencies run an alternative power structure in the name of security, designed to intimidate their own countrymen, backed up by their own foreign policy.
But because a democracy like India has a soft, even pulpy interior, it would be a fallacy to believe that it will necessarily be weak in the defence of its national integrity. India may have more political parties than it has voters, and the struggle for office may be laced with passions that ignite personal vendettas, but when it comes to security of the state differences melt and all parties close ranks.
The state is not sectarian. Some Kashmiris might be advertising a long list of complaints but they should check with Khalistanis in Punjab or Nagas in the Northeast. Their list might be longer. The great healing power of democracy lies in a simple fact: the door is never closed. Yesterday’s secessionists are today’s Chief Ministers in the Northeast. The Akalis passed the Anandpur Sahib Resolution in the 1980s; who remembers the resolution now?
Anger is not the prerogative of the secessionist alone. There is a perceptible rage brewing among Indians who believe in India, and cannot understand why those Kashmiris who agitate for separation in the valley should have no qualms about taking full advantage of academic institutions and business opportunities in the rest of India. There is a growing view that the achievements of India, political, academic and economic, should be reserved for those who believe in India, and not extended to those who wanted to subvert it.
There is logic in this view. And yet it hurts the spirit of the very Constitution we seek to protect. It is useful to add a warning. Compromise with principles is the first step on that slippery road towards abandonment. An hour of crisis, such as we face today, demands that we rise above our anger to preserve the values of our founding generation, who gave us our Constitution. The worst of times calls out for the best in us.
Monday, November 17, 2008
The Insecurity of Petty Ideas