30 June 2008 Society interview

'Democracy Is Now Psephocracy'

The famously trenchant political psychologist on being charged with criminal offence by the Gujarat police for "inflaming" communal hatred.
'Democracy Is Now Psephocracy'
'Democracy Is Now Psephocracy'
Famously trenchant political psychologist Ashis Nandy is charged with criminal offence by the Gujarat police for "inflaming" communal hatred. His crime: an article he wrote in January blaming Gujarat's middle-class Hindus for destroying communal harmony in the state. In an interview with Sheela Reddy, Nandy lashes out at Gujarat's NRI-inspired culture of hate and what it's doing to the national fabric.

Why did an article blaming Gujarat's middle class for the Hindu-Muslim divide anger Narendra Modi?

I don't know if it angered Modi but it surely angered a sizeable section of Gujarat's middle class and many expatriate Gujaratis. Many in Gujarat's middle class think that any criticism of them is an attack on Gujarat itself. Criticism threatens their fragile, artificially beefed-up self-image. Traditionally, Gujarati Hindus and Muslims have been very close to each other culturally. Studies of genocide show that when two communities are close to each other and then their relationship sours, it releases uncontrollable passions. This happened during Partition in Punjab, where Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs were remarkably close. But when that relationship collapsed, it released unimaginable furies. It was arguably the only known case of successful, large-scale ethnic cleansing in India. The non-Muslim population in West Punjab and the Muslim population in East Punjab came down from around 25 per cent to almost zero. This has a lesson for states like Gujarat.

Is this assault on freedom of expression in Gujarat recent?

It began earlier. Ask M.F. Husain or the students and staff of Baroda University's Fine Arts faculty. But the situation has worsened after human rights groups started giving a tough time to the Gujarat government. After Modi was refused a visa to the US, he felt he had to refurbish his image. There is huge support for Modi among First World Gujaratis and that support also often translates into money for Hindu nationalist causes. It is guilt money. The more they and their kids make a beeline for McDonald's and KFC, the more they feel that they have to donate for "Hindu" causes. Moreover, NRIs are more defensive about the status of India in the outside world because that status impinges directly on their self-respect in their adopted country. Indians and the Hindus back in India always seem to embarrass them. They are ever ready to fight to the last Indian in India for the glory of India outside India.

Was the article inflammatory as the complaint suggests?

It seems inflammatory because it challenges the self-serving illusions of the middle class against which it is directed. But since when have attacks on the middle class become a means of fomenting enmity among communities? My attack may seem strident, but it is tame compared to, say, Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay's critique of the Bengali middle class, a prescribed text in Bengal for at least seven decades. A middle class that can't stand radical criticism is not really a middle class; it only has middle-class income. I admit I am a traitor to my class, but I am in good company. I do believe that a robust scepticism towards the middle class is vital for the survival of a democratic culture. For, when a fish rots, it always begins to rot from its head.

Is the middle class more culpable than Modi in drawing the battleline between Hindus and Muslims in Gujarat?

Modi does represent the class. Development authoritarianism like in Singapore and China today is a hidden dream of the Indian middle class too. Modi personifies that dream. However, there is a larger issue involved here. Indian democracy is fast degenerating into a psephocracy—a system totally dominated by electoral victories and defeats. The moment you enter office, you begin to think of the next election.

So any critic of Narendra Modi is a traitor?

No, anyone who disagrees with the majority is a traitor. Anyone who asks why elections have to be won by organising riots is anti-Gujarat and anti-Hindu. The game started in Gujarat in 1969. Modi has strengthened the process and used it to win two elections. Now he thinks he can get away with anything.

Why do you see this as a government-inspired action ?

Because the Gujarat government has officially permitted the police to begin criminal proceedings against me.

Where do you think this is going?

This is part of a larger onslaught on freedom of speech and freedom of self-expression in India. The Taslima Nasreen   episode was not a brainchild of the BJP. She was expelled first from Bengal and then from India by exactly those parties that criticise Modi and the Hindu nationalists.

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