By Aakar Patel
When people around the world say they are troubled by the rise of the ‘right’, they mean in essence two things. The first is majoritarianism, which privileges one group of people and gives them primacy. In such places the minority lives on sufferance. Meaning that diversity is tolerated rather than approved or celebrated. A group of citizens can be excluded totally from politics (for example through denial of representation or tickets) and this will be acceptable. The electoral success emanating from this will be seen as validation of majoritarianism.
Or a particular group can be identified as collectively dangerous and then be prevented from crossing national borders, even on valid documents. The cultural rights of the majority outweigh the legal and constitutional rights of the minority (which is why the stress on the word ‘wahin’ in the phrase ‘mandirwahinbanayenge’ is crucial). Majoritarianism is not only political but infused into the culture and difficult to resist even in the jurist, who pretends to be blind to all but law.
The second thing about the right that troubles softies globally is authoritarianism. This is a word that means forced submission to authority, accompanied by a curbing of individual freedom and civil liberties. This curbing of free speech and action is not seen as violative, but essential. Media in such places will be made anxious by slogans and words that resist the majoritarian consensus. It can support the violence required to curb the expression of freedom. The courts in such places will order nationalistic rituals in places where people pay to receive entertainment. These actions will ensure that the level of nationalism is at the requisite safe mark.
These then are the two things that, so far as I understand it, trouble people who worry about the rise of the ‘right’ (a vague word that wrongly conflates Hindutva with western conservatism). It is clear that majoritarianism is happening in India because Hindutva itself advertises it, and proudly. But to what extent can we attribute authoritarianism to the current government? We cannot. The Indian state is and has always been deeply authoritarian. The suspicion of the citizen demanding civil liberties was something felt by Nehru as much as it is felt by more recent leaders.
We can see evidence of this in many places but let us look at one in particular: our laws. The criminal justice system is actually about the rights of the accused (something that will surprise most Indians). In civilised societies, miscarriage of justice occurs even if the accused is not informed — in a language of their understanding — of their rights. We know this through Hollywood.
Or if procedure is not followed during search and seizure. In primitive societies, fairness and process are not important. There is marginal or no difference between accused and convict. The focus, in these societies which stress ‘law and order’, is on prevention. This is done not through deterrence, which requires a properly functioning justice system, but detention.
Indians suspected of future mischief can be held without trial or conviction and this is something all governments in India endorse. The Public Safety Act, under which police illegally detain even children in Jammu and Kashmir, is not the doing of Hindutva. The Indian state’s agent is licensed to kill the citizen on suspicion and get away without trial. AFSPA, which privileges a pampered and entitled army, is the gift of Congress to this nation. The awful Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (successor of Tada and Pota), under which Professor G N Saibaba was sentenced to life, was made worse under Manmohan Singh and Chidambaram.
Every Indian state has laws under which Indians can be picked up and held without trial. If we Times of India readers do not know or make much about it, it is because our faith, class and caste structures protect us from the excesses of a nasty and authoritarian state. The names of the laws themselves reveal how casually and arbitrarily the Indian can be jailed. Categories that come up in time are added randomly to produce such laws as the ‘Tamil Nadu Prevention of Dangerous Activities of Bootleggers, Drug-offenders, Forest-offenders, Goondas, Immoral Traffic Offenders, Sand-offenders, Sexual Offenders, Slum-grabbers and Video Pirates Act, 1982.’ (Yes, this is one single law.)
Karnataka has the Prevention of Dangerous Activities of Acid Attackers, Bootleggers, Depredator of Environment, Digital Offenders, Drug Offenders, Gamblers, Goondas, Immoral Traffic Offenders, Land Grabbers, Money Launderers, Sexual Predators and Video or Audio Pirates Act, 1985. Gujaratis have kept it nice and simple with the delightfully named Prevention of Anti-Social Activities Act, 1985. If the state feels you may get up to anti-social activity (Drinking? Eating meat? Doing dandiya wrongly?) in future, you are in jail. Both 1982 and 1985 are of course years from before the BJP era.
To me, the majoritarianism of recent times is only one of the troubling things our society needs to tackle. The real and long-term struggle is against authoritarianism, which remains even when the majoritarian instinct is curbed.