In his moving account of recent events in Dadri, journalist Ravish Kumar spoke of meeting a young engineer named Prashant who showed no remorse for a man beaten to death by a mob on the suspicion of having consumed beef.
Kumar lamented, “We are not understanding what is happening around us… Young men with their half-baked sense of history want me to pose with them for selfies, but are not willing to even consider my appeal that they give up their violent ideals.” How do we as a society make sense of Prashant?
In the run-up to the 2014 national elections, there was heated debate over whether Narendra Modi, his party and the RSS were fascists or not. Despite fears that India would turn into the Third Reich, today one need not look as far or as far back as 1930s Germany to comprehend the sociopolitical dynamics of India under the BJP. Closer home are the contemporary examples of China and Japan, two starkly different polities with remarkably similar mixes of elite activity and social movements, which spasmodically nudge their respective nations towards a politics of nationalism, nativism and intolerance.
This heady cocktail of social disruption rests on two pillars. The first is a political elite that manipulates memory, symbolism and policy to attain, consolidate or maintain political power. Yinan He has labelled this phenomenon “elite mythmaking”. Textbooks are rewritten, controversies kindled or rekindled, and public spaces claimed or reclaimed, all within the framework of a legitimising narrative that draws together a social coalition of continued political support.
In Japan, conservative prime ministers have frequently visited the Yasukuni shrine that commemorates — among many others — a handful of war criminals from World War II. This act endorses a particular interpretation of Japan’s role and actions in the war, and serves to propitiate key interest groups. In China, recent official celebrations commemorating the end of the same war displayed the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP’s) exaggeration of its own role in fighting and defeating Japanese imperialism. In India, the dominant elite myth until the 1990s was of a secular, socialist republic shepherded through industrialisation by a hegemonic political party. Since then, the rewriting of school textbooks, the rekindling of the Ayodhya dispute and, more recently, the claims of ancient India’s scientific prowess all signal elite mythmaking of a different nature.
Elite mythmaking would be a relatively unproblematic phenomenon in the marketplace of ideas if it weren’t for concurrent societal changes. Prashant the engineer constitutes the second vital aspect of the unravelling of India’s contemporary social fabric. Variously labelled bhakts in India, fen qing (“angry youth”) in China and uyoku dantai (“rightwing groups”) in Japan, the rise of these social extremists is reshaping 21st century politics in their respective countries.
They are young, urban, and online. They communicate frequently, organise efficiently, and pursue their agendas across multiple fronts, both physical and digital. They identify as nationalists, which in practice makes them nativists. They typically blame and excoriate an amorphous other — Chinese expansionists, Western cultural imperialists, Islamic fundamentalists — for their country’s ills and claim to draw their values from a period prior to the arrival of the insidious external influence. They have risen on the back of their country’s rapid economic growth and been emboldened by opportunity and education. They agitate, in the words of Evan Osnos, “not in pursuit of liberal democracy but in defence of sovereignty and prosperity”.
These new nationalists maintain strength in numbers, and move swiftly to muzzle dissent. Their preferred mode of attack is to question their opponent’s credentials and eventually label them a traitor or agent of the other. They are revisionists, vilifying votaries of the existing social order as soft on threats to the nation, both internal and external. If necessary, they are willing to threaten or resort to violence to achieve their aims. In Japan, this practice has taken the form of death threats to errant intellectuals and politicians, and the destruction of property. China’s so-called cyber nationalists prefer to inflict digital damage, though their ilk is not above street-fighting and vandalism. In India, on occasion, a man is lynched.
Indeed, the recent attack on Sudheendra Kulkarni is more than superficially similar to the case of Zhao Wei, a Chinese actress who, in 2001, wore a dress bearing the print of a Japanese military flag for a fashion magazine and paid the price when a construction worker smeared her face with human faeces in response. Just as the Shiv Sena honoured Kulkarni’s attackers as national heroes, so did Chinese nationalists hail Zhao’s attacker as a true patriot.
In China and Japan, these nationalists are a part of the political landscape, and for various pragmatic reasons, governments in these countries have dealt with them through a mix of accommodation and containment. In India, where mobile phone and internet penetration are considerably lower, they are still an emerging force, but are likely to grow over time, not least because they are emboldened by the BJP’s particular brand
of elite myth-making.
So far, the Indian polity’s response has been accommodative. But, as Jessica Weiss notes in the case of China, these “powerful patriots” can often turn against the state if not dealt with deftly. It was a potent mix of elite manipulation and grassroots agitation that produced the fruit we collectively reaped in Dadri. It is time to take stock of
how our society and politics have changed, and for the state to develop strategies for managing the discontent of India’s new nationalists within the framework of democracy and the rule of law.
The writer is a fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s security studies programme. Views are personal