Early in this government’s tenure, the Bharatiya Janata Party and its ideologues discovered “anti-nationals”, those who dared speak out against the policies of the ruling dispensation. Then, the government found the “urban naxal”, also known as the “half-Maoist”, linking voices of dissent with armed rebellion against the State.
Since Indian Air Force jets flew into Pakistani territory last week, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, various leaders of the ruling party and its allies have repeatedly raised the spectre of “internal enemies”. This time, as most of the television media went into a jingoistic delirium, those who questioned the government or any state institution were equated with alleged threats from across the border.
The latest round of paranoia arguably predated the strikes. After a suicide attack in South Kashmir on February 14 left 40 Central Reserve Police Force personnel dead, mobs in various cities attacked Kashmiris studying and working there.
Tacit consent to this violence seemed to flow right from the top. The prime minister only spoke out against the attacks a week later, when most of the initial public fury had been spent and hundreds of Kashmiris had fled back home in panic.
The strikes on Balakot in Pakistan on February 26 took place in the public mood generated by Pulwama, when there was a consensus that the government should not be questioned and even the Opposition stood in solidarity with it.
Yet as a cloud of misinformation grew around the strikes, questions emerged, many of them from Opposition parties. Modi countered these by conflating the Opposition with Pakistan: their questions had “brought a smile” to Pakistan’s face, he said.
Meanwhile, the figure of the prime minister, the armed forces and security agencies were merged into a monolithic national interest. Modi’s speech at the India Today conclave on March 2, for instance, invoked “elements both inside and outside the country”, “enemies fearful of India’s valour”. Modi questioned those “doubting the intentions of the government and the armed forces”. He suggested that “in opposing Narendra Modi, these people have started opposing India as well”.
This pathology is now manifest in various parts of the polity. A BJP legislator in Karnataka tweeted on March 1 that in the last five years, the Modi government had vanquished “external enemies”, the next five would be devoted to eliminating “internal enemies”.
On March 2, also in Karnataka, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the student wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the BJP’s ideological mentor, forced an academic to kneel and apologise for posts critical of the ruling party that they deemed to be “anti-national”.
The same day, the spiritual teacher “Sadguru” Jaggi Vasudev, when asked by the Times Now channel about the Jawaharlal Nehru University students who had allegedly been part of a group that shouted seditious slogans in 2016, declared that “this is the time to deal with all of them”. He explained, “Right now, the country is ready for this, country’s emotion is ready for all of this...we must act for solution.”
The new rage for declaring enemies was atomised further as social media users attacked journalists who did not toe the government line. Morphed photographs of journalist Rajdeep Sardesai emerged in which he was shown sporting a beard and a cap, and called the “new JEM Chief”, a reference to the banned terrorist outfit Jaish-e-Mohammed, which had claimed responsibility for the Pulwama attack. Similar images of journalist Nikhil Wagle were also circulated.
As the government rides on a tide of martial jingoism, it might want to note that declaring “enemies of the state” has traditionally been associated with states given to political repression.
Most recently, authoritarian governments in South East Asia, such as Myanmar and Cambodia, have branded certain journalists and news outlets as such, often as a prelude to intimidation and imprisonment. In North Korea, it is an epithet applied to those trying to escape from the repressive regime into neighbouring countries. Does the Indian government really want to be in this august company?