Freedom of expression

The Indian Right has adopted an American strategy to demonise the Left. But it’s more dangerous

India’s free speech laws are far weaker than those in the USA, allowing legitimisation of state excesses in the name of national security.

In the late 1980s, a group of far-Right political analysts in the United States came up with a concept that sought to explain the deterioration of traditional Christian values in the West. The conservative ideologue and author William S Lind called it the “fourth-generation war”. As the Soviet Union fell, taking with it the dream of an international Communist regime, Lind proposed that the war had broadened in scope. From the realms of military and economics, it had spread to society and culture.

According to Lind, there was an army of intellectuals roaming the streets of America and Europe trying to assist non-state actors to bring down western society. Part of this grand scheme were the movements of atheism, feminism and gay rights. Besides other things, Lind’s proposition was also racist as it blamed Jews and their supporters of orchestrating this proxy war.

Years later, Lind’s idea has persisted. The difference now is that the Jews have been replaced by Muslims as the demons waging a culture battle against the West.

Something similar is happening in India today. Over the last few months, Right-Wing commentators in the country have been frequently using the term “Urban Naxal” to label anyone – from academics to activists – who questions the policies of the state or are perceived to be anti-establishment. Echoing Lind, these commentators say that these activists are covertly aiding those who are working to break India, such as Naxalites and Kashmiri separatists.

There is a difference, however, between the situation in India at present and that in the US. For one, the demonisation of activists is more dangerous in India because its free speech laws are far weaker than those in the US. In America, while anti-establishment intellectuals were demonised in public spaces, it did not necessarily translate into state action. But in India, there are signs that the State – with a majoritarian bent – is using such rhetoric to justify its excesses.

Cultural Marxism

Analysts like Lind built upon a movement that gained traction immediately after World War II. The war had given way to a fight for supremacy in a bipolar world dominated by two superpowers with two different world views. On one side was the communist Soviet Union and on the other was the free market US.

The period between two world wars saw the emergence of the “Frankfurt School”, a term used to describe influential figures on the Left who were associated with the Institute for Social Research at the Goethe University Frankfurt. Following the rise of Adolf Hitler, many of these thinkers left Germany and moved to the US.

By the 1960s, the ideas of the Frankfurt School came under heavy criticism from the American Right, who used the term “cultural Marxists” to label Leftist thinkers who were depicted as enemies of the Christian ethos characterised by the insistence on family values, and Capitalism. The civil rights movement of the 1960s was also painted as the handiwork of such cultural Marxists. While the “liberal” in economics was hailed as distinctly Western, the “liberal” in society and culture was dubbed a conspiracy.

In the battle that ensued, the focus turned to spaces seen as influencing culture in the US, especially cinema and universities. Cultural conservatives launched a sustained campaign, which included political lobbying, to change the composition of the humanities departments in the universities. This movement was sustained with the help of Republican support to the anti-Soviet hysteria that had engulfed the United States till the late 1980s.

Once the Soviet Union disintegrated and the threat of a nuclear war ended, cultural warfare became the primary ground of battle between the liberals and the conservatives in the US.

It is in this post-Cold War era that extreme conservatives like Lind prospered, coming up with concepts such as the “fourth-generation war”. A futuristic fantasy piece by Lind in The Washington Post in 1995 gave a peek into what the far-Right idea of a society that defeats the conspiracy of the cultural Marxists would look like. With the rise of Donald Trump to the post of US president, these ideas have gained new momentum, even featuring in memos of government functionaries which point to “Maoist tactics” to undermine the president.

It is hard to miss the similarities in the arguments of those like Lind and the contemporary Right in India. The term “cultural Marxists” has been replaced with “Urban Naxal”, but it refers to the same thing. According the narrative, Urban Naxals are a group of people trying to destroy all that is Indian (read Hindu) by encouraging “breaking India” forces such as the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist) and foreign-funded Christian missionaries. It does not matter that there is little evidence to support any such claim.

Similarly, like in the United States, academic spaces deemed to be the dens of immoral Leftists, such as Jawaharlal Nehru University, are being targeted. Even movements of oppressed communities, such as the widespread protests against the December 31 violence in Bhima Koregaon in Maharashtra, are ridiculed as the handiwork of violent Leftists and their supporters in urban spaces. The civil rights movement in the United States was targeted in the same way. Such voices grow louder when powerful leaders seen to espouse their cause – like a Donald Trump or a Narendra Modi – attain power.

State excesses

Last month, the police arrested five social activists working with Dalits, Adivasis and political prisoners for instigating the Bhima Koregaon protests on January 1. They were booked under the stringent Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, with television anchors labeling them as Maoist sympathisers. Allegations of a conspiracy to assassinate Prime Minister Narendra Modi were also floated.

The State often uses the pretext of national security to clamp down on people who question it, as Australian jurist Lawrence W Maher pointed out in an essay. He wrote:

“The history of sedition and allied public order and national security offences in the Anglo-Australian tradition reveals a strong legislative and judicial preference for sweeping up into the incitement category forms of political behaviour that do not present a demonstrated actual threat to the survival of existing political institutions.”

It is in this context that the campaign to brand activists “Urban Naxal” gains significance. Such rhetoric, aided by the media, legitimises state excesses in the name of national security, and has been used to pass draconian laws that restrict free speech and movement.

Threat to free speech

In India, the track record of the judiciary in curbing such restrictive laws has been poor. The Supreme Court fenced sedition laws as early as in 1962 in Kedarnath Singh v State of Bihar by stating that “strong words used to express disapprobation of the measures of Government with a view to their improvement or alteration by lawful means” is not treason. But at the same time, it has upheld laws such as the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities Prevention Act and the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. Under the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities Prevention Act, even forced confessions became admissible evidence in a trial.

Rhetoric demonising activists opposed to the State or its ideology also encourages violence from non-state actors as the concocted danger to majoritarian values constructs false cultural enemies. The murder of activists like Gauri Lankesh in 2017 and Narendra Dhabolkar in 2013 can be seen as examples of such violence.

Finally, the United States and India have vastly different attitudes to free speech. While the violation of free speech and movement is viewed as a great danger even by conservatives in the US, free speech culture remains superficial in India. It is reflected in the fact that the governments led by both Left and Right parties have had a history of clamping down on dissent and yet escaping public anger. But for the sake of the Constitutional right of free speech and association, labels like “Urban Naxal” should be opposed and countered.

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