16, Feb 2017 | Teesta Setalvad
There is a strange sense of déjà vu these days. Quick on the heels of assuming the U.S. presidency, Donald Trump has unleashed a series of brutal actions, proving that he is true to his word. Chillingly, it has been reported that an executive order currently being battled in the courts could bar 500,000 legal residents from returning to their homes after traveling abroad.
Large sections of the media within the U.S. have been prompt in condemnation and this column will therefore not list the obvious. Limiting myself to the surge of protest spurred by the most brazen Friday, January 28 executive order of banning immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries, I cannot but bring myself to draw some comparisons.
In India, on May 16, 2014, I wrote on my Facebook wall quoting from the famous Berthold Brecht lines: “In the dark times, Will there also be singing?/Yes, there will also be singing. About the dark times.”
Narendra Modi had swept to power that day. There was a palpable silence in the public domain that May, and for close to six months at least, there was no real resistance from a large section of the public sphere, the Indian media. I wrote about how the pernicious attacks on freedoms within India are a warning to Trump’s America. Now the worst, in a sense, has happened. And even as, with dark humor, we wonder what Modi and Trump discussed in their telephone conversation, it’s worth sparing a thought for the quality of protest and resistance that both of the world’s largest democracies have evoked.
As a woman, I felt humbled by the six-continent Women’s March to protest the way politics is turning in the United States. I also wondered shakily why Mohsin Shaikh’s brutal, hate-driven murder in June 2014, within days of Modi’s capture of Delhi, drew protests that were much smaller and more scattered. As Indians, we often argue that Trump is out of line, but India is “normal,” a phenomenal blindness that is clearly on display.
Consider these parallels in India:
1. Muslims not allowed. The Citizenship Bill amendments, introduced in Parliament but not yet passed, clearly exclude Muslims from the subcontinent from trying to avail of citizenship. What is that if not blatantly exclusionary?
2. The Mexican wall. Isn’t India far down the fencing road—with Pakistan and Bangladesh? Isn’t there a view that all economic migrants are “illegal Bangladeshis,” which the ruling party clearly and unequivocally says? What is so different from the Trumpian Mexican-as-outsider line?
3. Erosion of civil rights. As far as outrage about protest and civil rights groups, how much do we in India actually support groups and individuals who fight in courts for civil rights and other things? They are mostly dismissed as toxic, out of the mainstream or such.
4. Voter disenfranchisement. Well, the Indian Supreme Court has ruled in favor of BJP states that have tried to tie representation with literacy, toilets or other accessories. So you cannot contest local elections in several BJP states if you did not go to school or don’t have a toilet. Is that not eventually curtailing democracy?
6. Rise of corporate power. The corporate land grab has been made official by the Modi regime’s nullifying existing federal (central) legislation by overarching authority to local administrations to disempower the farmer.
7. Similarly, rights of the indigenous people over forests have been curtailed.
9. Attacks on Centers of Higher Learning. Indian universities have become battlegrounds for the Modi regime’s theocratic, majoritarian notion of politics, education and culture. Student leaders, articulate and aggressive, have been faced with sedition cases that are still pending. One Dalit research-scholar even took his own life (the protest movement calls it an “institutional murder”) and another Muslim scholar has simply disappeared for over three months from one of India’s most prestigious campuses, the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). In both instances—as in others where university campuses have turned into battlegrounds—the agent provocateur has been the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the strong arm of the supremacist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).
The ABVP bears a sinister similarity to the Jamiat-e-Talaba of Pakistan. “If you want to change a country, change its students,” noted American journalist Dan Brooks in an article in 2011. The RSS wants to “change India” just as the Jamaat-e-Islami (IJT) is trying to “change Pakistan.” If the ABVP is the former’s instrument for “changing students” in India, the IJT is the latter’s tool for “changing students” in Pakistan.
10. Online abuse. India’s leading political party, the BJP, allegedly directly commanded online abuse against key Indian public figures, including journalists, actors and political opponents, claims a new book. A former BJP volunteer has reportedly alleged that the party ordered a special social media unit of party volunteers to target specific individuals and troll them on social media. Former volunteer Sadhavi Khosla, who quit the BJP in 2015, claims in the book that she was part of the party’s social media unit and was one among many party volunteers who was allegedly pushed to target public figures, perceived by the party as dissidents and/or anti-Modi.
11. And this list is incomplete without the facile decision of de-monetization that has set back India’s economy, virtually crippling the informal sector.
These are just some thoughts. Let’s be a bit careful before we join the lament about Trump. We must see a spade for what it is back home.
Protests swelled across America, flooding airports in New York, Newark, Denver, Los Angeles, San Diego, Denver, Portland, San Francisco, Los Angeles and beyond. A Brooklyn Court declared Trump’s order illegal and unconstitutional. The University of Michigan defied Trump’s witch-hunt of undocumented students by refusing to provide key information. Academics have protested, the U.S. media is on fine display and it seems time that we in India, breathe deeply and take stock.
How have Indians responded post-2014 to a Modi-fied India? People? Opposition political parties, academics, cultural practioneers, the media, our courts? It is time to take stock.
It has not been all gloom and doom, certainly. While large sections of the electronic media have caved in to crass corporate interests, the “other” media has emerged, fairly brave and unflinching. In print, the newspapers have not been as crudely supine, though sharp, critical and consistent campaigns against the executive-driven majoritarianism are sorely missing.
Both situations, in a sense, happened due to the easy and available play of the politically ambiguous, where even sharp critics of Modi and Trump came across as confusing and rattled. Both leaders emerged in reaction to decades of a certain kind of politics, and while none in programmatic vision or policy really signal change, strongmen appeared to give large numbers of people succor.
The real problem with this paradigm, however, is and was the hate politics that the rise of Modi and Trump effectively mean. I argued then, as I feel more certain now, that it was not just the development plank that won Modi his clinching victory with a bare 31 percent of the vote in May 2014, but the fact that here was a man who had “successfully overseen the pogrom of 2002” that won him chunks of the vote.
With a mosque burnt down in Texas on January 29, men and women of different origins are fearful of walking America’s streets after Trump’s executive order. The official permit to hate seems also to have gripped large sections of the United States.
Arguably, the lynchings of Muslims and Dalits in India, on grounds that they were beef-eaters and this was abhorrent to the Brahmanic Hindu upper crust, would not have been possible but for the climate generated after Modi occupied power.
Similarly white policemen may feel more empowered than last year in Dallas, in Ferguson, and other incidents of police brutality. Dark days indeed for both the world’s largest democracies.
Barely six months ago, as Trump’s rise appeared to become more real, a piece in the Huffington Post made interesting reading. Titled, “My Modi Illusions Have Shattered, Thanks In Part To Donald Trump,” the writer is one of those myriad non-resident Indians who sailed into the Indian political scene rooting for a Modi victory in 2014. Riju Agarwal, an engineer and former policy analyst, wrote:
However, all of my counterarguments have slowly proven to be misguided. While Modi himself may have been able to avoid direct censure (at least so far), his inability and unwillingness to rein in his hot-headed and bigoted compatriots is damning nonetheless. So while Modi and his cabinet, sitting in their ivory tower, deal with the logjams of the democratic process, unable to build momentum for many of their darling economic policies, the RSS and offshoot Hindu nationalist groups have seized the opportunity to consolidate their base and expand their influence at the grassroots with near-perfect impunity.
…Trump’s rise in the US has been another critical catalyst towards my belated fear for the future of secularism in India. When Modi was first running his campaign, it was subconsciously easy for me to ignore his dubious human rights record because as a middle-class Hindu, I would always be in the protected majority under his leadership. From this position of safety, I was able to minimize his secular shortcomings, which were likely inconsequential to my personal wellbeing, and maximize instead his professed economic agenda, which was likely to confer benefits to me. I lacked the empathy to understand that the erosion of secularism and the clear conflation of church and state would endanger millions of Indians. I lacked the foresight to understand how the bully state that has spread insidiously via the agents of the far right is actually undermining rights and privileges for not just the minority, but for all Indians who have come to expect freedom of religion and speech as fundamental rights. However, now that Trump is rising to power in the US with a clearly xenophobic and anti-immigrant agenda, I have found myself for the first time to be in the endangered minority whose rights and privileges may be at risk.
Time then to pull up our socks and call a spade a spade, whether on far-off foreign shores or back home.