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September 2, 2019

The power of ideas


September 2, 2019

The unraveling of civil liberties under Modi’s government has shocked many international observers who viewed India as a model of liberal democracy for the Third World.

The blatant use of force on Kashmir and the concomitant vitriol against dissenting voices has only confirmed the rapid dissolution of democratic norms in India, with the word fascism becoming increasingly more appropriate to describe the majoritarianism across the border.

People more well-versed with history, however, realize that authoritarianism is an essential feature of state-society relations across South Asia. Not only in India but across the region in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal, we continue to witness hybrid regimes with a poor human rights record. What explains the consistency with which these disparate states are afraid of their own citizens? More importantly, why is it that curbing ideas becomes a central concern for an authoritarian dispensation?

Part of the answer can be obtained by examining the colonial history of South Asia. It must be remembered that, while the British Empire was constructed through brute force, it nonetheless maintained a liberal posture in the name of the ‘civilizing mission’ for natives. One of the greatest proponents of liberal philosophy, John Stuart Mill, also emerged as a major defender of colonial authority. His claim was that the key task of modern society was to protect and cherish the autonomy of the individual, even if it ran counter to majority opinion. Only a society based on rational individuals who think critically was suited for democracy and citizenship.

The dark flip-side of this argument was Mill’s insistence that colonial rule was justified because the natives were not trained to think as individuals. Instead, they operated as unthinking mobs that could not be controlled or reasoned with. From this liberal perspective, colonialism was a pedagogical process in which the colonized had to be taught the manners of rationality before being integrated into modern society, a situation famously described by Indian historian Dipesh Chakrabarty as placing the colonized in the “waiting room of history.”

The fear of the masses and their ability to turn into crowds haunted colonial authorities since at least 1857’s War of Independence. In the inter-war period, the colonial state was obsessed with enhancing techniques to demobilize the ‘unthinking’ mobs that threatened colonial rule. Colonial Punjab became the first site in the world to witness the use of tear-gas as a method of crowd control. Colonial officials provided detailed reports on the efficacy of tear-gas since they needed to justify it in the aftermath of the First World War where gas was equated with the worst excesses of the conflict.

The reason provided for the use of the gas was that the pain and suffocation caused by it was able to induce panic among the participants. This led the protesters to leave the crowd, abdicate the common purpose that bound them and think only of their own self-preservation. In other words, the suffering caused by tear-gas had the potential to impose rational behaviour on the crowds by turning them away from their compatriots, a form of liberalism secured not through reason but by inducing bodily pain.

While the state grew apt at controlling crowds through sophisticated/violent techniques, another problem arose for them in the figure of the ‘agitator’. These were individuals who were deemed to be the masterminds behind the chaos and often belonged to the growing community of cosmopolitan individuals who were turning towards anti-colonialism. The same period (1920-1930s) saw an Empire-wide crackdown on intellectuals and journalists, making censorship a cornerstone of imperial policy.

This situation created a paradox for the paternalistic colonial state. On one side, it categorized the colonized subjects as unthinking mobs, a characterization used to justify the absence of democracy in the colonies. On the other hand, the characters that the state feared the most were anti-colonial thinkers whose ability to understand and lay bare the roots of colonial violence were viewed as a threat to the system. For example in the famous Meerut Conspiracy Case, Indians were given life-sentences for merely possessing books of Marx, Lenin and other revolutionary thinkers. It was said that the natives were unable to reflect, but when they dared to engage with ideas, they were brutally punished.

Some of the stalwarts of the anti-colonial period were themselves prolific writers and were often imprisoned for producing ‘subversive’ literature. The fact that such people were routinely imprisoned (and at times, executed) exposed the hollowness of colonial paternalism and signalled another important truth of politics: only a confrontation with the coercive apparatus of the state could open up possibilities for freedom. Consequently, going to jail became a metaphor for an agitator ‘suffering’ for the nation, turning political prisoners into central figures on the national stage. This is why, unlike in Europe where the prison system was used to discredit individuals, jails turned into sites producing political celebrities in the colonial world, a legacy that continues to confound bureaucrats unable to understand the popular appeal of jailed politicians.

This brief history brings to light two strands that continue to haunt the postcolonial states in the region. One is the general fear of the ‘illiterate’ masses who supposedly neither understand the intricacies of high politics nor possess the politeness necessary to protest in ‘civilized’ ways. On the other hand, those who can demonstrate their capacity to think critically are viewed as ‘subversive’ elements who can easily persuade the trusting masses towards the overthrow of the government. The conclusion was that the masses have to be kept away from critical ideas, while intellectuals have to be demonized in front of the masses.

In such a situation, it is clear that universities and the media will be in the front line of attacks by any authoritarian state. This is because the former is the site of the production of ideas and the latter a conduit for information in an era where both have to be managed, if not criminalized. The spectacular attacks on Jawaharlal Nehru University by the Modi government were a reflection of the fear of ideas that shapes the fragile consensus formed by contemporary fascists. The attacks on academics, journalists and public intellectuals across South Asia are testament that the colonial legacy of replacing critical thinking with docile obedience continues to be a central technique of governance.

Today we see an even more sinister version of this colonial divide. Crowds are mobilized as mobs to target minority communities (as in Gujarat) or to denounce foreign governments by states themselves, as long as the people abdicate their right to think to the state. In Pakistan, anti-democratic forces openly question the capacity of ordinary people to make correct choices, a view that has led to so many instances of ‘guided’ democracies. On the other hand, there has always been a pervasive mistrust of public intellectuals who criticize state policies, placing universities and media houses at the front lines of the alleged 5th generation warfare that threatens the country.

Ideas are central in politics because they provide content and direction to the mass rage that exists in unequal and authoritarian societies. But if crowds without ideas are a combination of disaggregated and headless individuals, ideas without the masses are ineffective. For this reason, states are increasingly turning into bureaucratic machines responsible for inducing cognitive disorientation in society and targeting those who produce ideas. In such a climate of fear and pervasive obedience, perhaps the most revolutionary act is to muster the courage to start thinking critically and fearlessly about the defaulting present that we all inhabit.

The writer is an historian and a member of the Haqooq-e-Khalq Movement.

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