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The way history returns

Reading Hannah Arendt in the times of Modi

The way history returns

“The totalitarian movements aim at and succeed in organizing masses — not classes, like the old interest parties of the Continental nation-states; not citizens with opinions about, and interests in, handling of public affairs, like the parties of Anglo-Saxon countries.”

These lines from Hannah Arendt, the prominent German philosopher, whose masterful work on The Origins of Totalitarianism (first published in 1950) depicting the landscape of totalitarian regimes of Germany and Russia, lays bare the entrails of the way totalitarian regimes work.

Looking at the current world of street thugs, lynching people (mostly Muslims and dalits) and their equally hyper and crass supporters on the social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook in India, one is reminded of how many ways in which history can return to us as a farce, to paraphrase Marx.

Read alsoWar of narratives

The world of Modi-led India today and the global story of right-wing regimes is feeding on this disinterest in arguments and opinions but an unshakeable faith in prejudices masquerading as ‘belief’. In a recent piece, a prominent Indian columnist argued that the problem with history as a discipline is that it doesn’t try and draw lessons from the past. Works of Arendt highlight how it can be a case of mistaken interpretation.

It will be worthwhile to list out a few things which started as a series of disconnected trends during the previous UPA regime in India, picked up momentum with the ascent of Modi to power, have now reached a crescendo with the election of Yogi Adityanath as the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, the largest state in terms of population in north India.

Just a few bullet points should suffice:

  • A huge positioning of Modi as a messiah of Hindu development rashtra
  • Massive mobilisation of people through new and old, offline and online mediums into mobs where in the ‘chaos of opinions’ an unshakeable faith in Modi and Hindutva is proclaimed through worst kinds of name callings and threat of physical violence
  • Organising self-appointed militia on the streets by converting them into mobs, dispensing instant ‘justice’ by targeting primarily Muslims and also dalits in the name of cow protection (roughly 20 such reported cases in the first six months of 2017) protecting Hindu girls and thereby creating a mass frenzy founded on dubious interpretations of faith and honour
Whether it’s ordinary people being forced to stand and die for hours in the queue in front of the banks post-demonetisation, people suddenly being asked to prove their loyalty to an economic measure like GST under the name of ‘one nation, one tax’, or directly on the issue of ‘beef eating’’, terror incidents of everyday are not really one blundering step followed by another.

To quote Hannah Arendt once again, “…within the organisational framework of the movement, so long as it holds together, the fanaticised members can be reached by neither experience nor argument…Total loyalty is possible only when fidelity is emptied of all concrete content, from which changes of mind might naturally arise…every political program which deals with issues more specific than ideological questions of importance for centuries is an obstruction to totalitarianism…” It is this phenomenon, where no ‘facts’ matter and the áge of post-truths’ is proclaimed and history is written everyday through WhatsApp messages.

  • In many cases of mob violence, it is the victims who are often persecuted or terrorised into taking their complaints back. A de facto alliance between state arms and militia on the streets is complete
  • A certain section of elite section allying with the masses/mobs on the ground and rationalising the violence unleashed by the mobs or the state agencies
  • A gradually escalated proxy war with Pakistan in the name of ‘terrorism’ leading to a virtual breakdown of diplomatic relations and as an extension of that logic, opening of another front with China in recent months
  • Bullying of opposition governments as in Delhi or West Bengal or in Bihar by filing corruption charges against prominent leaders, putting them inside prisons even for a short term through state agencies with very compliant state agencies
  • A huge positioning of Modi as a global leader, partly driven through his constant travels across the globe
  • Economic big bang measures like de-monetisation and GST announced as kingly measures with PM announcing them as national extravaganza, launch of a new blockbuster through televised addresses or midnight convening of Parliament
  • Takeover of key institutions (especially of cultural and intellectual enterprise) and replacing their heads with people with completely dubious and suspect credentials even at the expense of better-known right-wing leaders and ideologues. Indian Council of Historical Research has a head whose sole credential to academic excellence is to claim that Mahabharat and Ramayan were real; Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) has a head who has a few C-lister movies to his credit besides the role of Yudhishthir in the television serial, Mahabharat in the 1980s to cite just a few examples. The critical factor in this unlike the NDA 1 regime of Atal Bihari Vajpayee is that while during the latter’s regime the attempt was to give institutions a right wing ideological colour, the current regime has a holistic contempt towards any kind of intellectual enterprise, be it of left or right variety. A complete mythologisation of history at the expense of the discipline is a characteristic, very prominent during Hitler’s regime
  • A huge back-up by both television and social media with media clearly playing a partisan role (to put it mildly) eulogising Modi and his acolytes at the level of infallible gods

Hannah Arendt goes on to say, “the practical goal of the movement is to organise as many people as possible within its framework and to set and keep them in motion; a political goal that would constitute the end of the movement simply does not exist.”

Hence, whether it’s ordinary people being forced to stand and die for hours in the queue in front of the banks post-demonetisation, people suddenly being asked to prove their loyalty to an economic measure like GST under the name of ‘one nation, one tax’, or directly on the issue of ‘beef eating’’, terror incidents of everyday are not really one blundering step followed by another. They simply feed into each other.

Hence, the more the measures hurt them, the more their faith in the supreme leader becomes stronger, as they are made to believe that against the previous regimes of non-action they all are being part of a huge enterprise, sacrificing for the nation on everyday basis.

Avinash Kumar

avinash photo copy
The author has been in the development sector for more than a decade and currently works with an International non-governmental organisation based in Delhi. He may be reached at: [email protected]

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