When I was first invited to deliver this plenary address [to the Annual Conference on South Asia at the University of Wisconsin, Madison] a few months ago, I construed the topic given to me, “The Artistry of Free Speech in South Asia and South Asian Studies”, to mean that I could take up examples of free speech, dissenting voices and discourses of resistance emanating from South Asia in recent years in the face of increasing political authoritarianism. I imagined I would allude to some of my favourite artists, writers, journalists and scholars, those who expressed themselves with the greatest artistry, with courage and with conviction despite the shrinking space for democratic self-expression, and the disappearance of habits of critical engagement and informed appreciation in a wider public.

It never occurred to me that “free speech” would ever come to be an empty or nearly-empty set; nor that “artistry” would be reduced to its crudest form as the art of survival, finding ways to merely continue to live and function in our societies in the face of a deadly combination of oppression from the external environment and the failure of inspiration within. I did not foresee the way in which many of us have been gasping for breath this past summer after the elections in India, nor the vast zones of impenetrable silence, of the state of exception to the rule of law, that have descended upon places like Kashmir and Assam in just the last months.

I had planned to speak about banned books and cancelled concerts; censored films and exiled painters; brave activists and vicious trolls; indomitable poets and their ruthless assassins; online campaigns and real-life protest demonstrations; innocent prisoners and cruel jailors. I thought I’d broach the institutional and structural crises in the social sciences, humanities and arts, with my focus always on how to beat the odds and carry on as though negotiating an obstacle course.

Crisis of freedom

It did not strike me that I would need to understand and explain the pall of fear and the abject aphasia that have befallen us on the subcontinent, particularly in India, where I am from and where I have lived for the most part – conditions that feel unfamiliar and frightening in the world’s largest democracy, with a normally noisy public sphere and a boisterous arts scene.

I did not expect to have to talk about our utter inability to respond sensibly to what seems to be happening to our polity, our languages, our media and our consciousness. Such a profound crisis of freedom, of speech and of art, I would now reckon, has occurred for the first time in the history of modern India, including even the twinned crises of self and sovereignty swa-raj during the anti-colonial struggle that I tried to delineate at some length in my earlier work.

Let me begin with a confession of sorts. Throughout my life, I have taken my freedom as an Indian, as a citizen of India, for granted. This assumption of a baseline of inalienable liberty has been tempered for sure, with the knowledge of the many ways in which my freedom is both enabled and constrained by my gender, my religion, my caste, my class and so on. Working for so many years on Ambedkar has inevitably qualified my ideas of fundamental freedom, equality and justice forever, given the hierarchical and unequal nature of India’s caste society. I have also grown up learning how fellow-South Asians in other countries, like Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Nepal have had much less of a taste of freedom, democracy and self-rule, and much more visceral experiences of war and of want, relative to us India – or so we were taught to think.

Kashmiri journalists in Srinagar protest on October 12 against the internet blockade put into place by the Indian government. Credit: Tauseef Mustafa/ AFP

As I became a professional scholar of South Asian history, I realised more and more how recent, fragile and contingent an artefact freedom is in all of our cultures on the subcontinent. I have been facing the fundamental contradiction at the heart of Indian freedom in the form of the “problem”, as it is called, of Kashmir, which to me, both as an individual and as a scholar of history, presents a daily challenge to my faith in a certain vaunted, cherished and fiercely defended the idea of India. (Now of course the writing is on the wall, even for those millions of Indians who have been wilfully oblivious of the conflict in Kashmir for the past three decades or seven decades, however you do the math).

And lastly, thanks to the vagaries of my own circumstances, I have spent a lot of the past two years living in Istanbul. In Turkey, I realised for the first time how democracy can be hollowed out without diversity; how secularism, if it becomes fundamentalist, can be as harmful as religious extremism; how recurrent militarism can undermine even the most glorious struggle against empire; what happens to the arts and to academia when there is a severe rupture between the past and the present (as between the Ottoman Empire and the Turkish Republic); how a great cosmopolitan civilisation lasting over millennia can be eviscerated and ultimately destroyed by contemporary ideologies of majoritarian ethno-nationalism, illiberal democracy and right-wing populism.

Indian exceptionalism

Each day that I spent in Turkey I thought, as an Indian: there but for the grace of Gandhi, Ambedkar and Nehru goes my country, but we are saved by our liberal Constitution, we are not prone to military dictatorships, we know how to live with difference and we do not tend to purge others from our midst. As a good disciple of Ashis Nandy I said to myself that we know how to “host the otherness of the other” in our midst, to be ‘hospitable’ to those unlike ourselves. From my desk at a picture-window in Cihangir overlooking the beautiful Bosporus, I kept repeating this mantra of Indian exceptionalism to myself, even though the pile of evidence challenging my intrinsic bias towards India grew a little higher each day.

Meanwhile, friends and colleagues in the Turkish media, journalism, arts and academia seemed to me to be far worse off than we were on the subcontinent. But the gap between them and us was closing fast. Now, the current Turkish offensive against the Kurds in Syria has painful echoes of the Indian government’s actions in Kashmir. Levels of violence may be different, the internationalisation of the two scenarios may be different, but the impulse of statist aggression against a minority seeking independence and the precipitation of a civil war-like situation are similar in the Turkish / Kurdish and the Indian / Kashmiri cases.

Today, after the parliamentary election of May 2019 has delivered its verdict, and two-and-a-half months have passed since the siege of Kashmir began, and Muslims as well as other minorities are in no uncertain terms demoted to second-class citizenship or to outright statelessness under the current regime, I am sure that many of you, Indians and non-Indians alike, South Asia specialists all, share my anxiety and alarm about what is happening in and to India.You might be worrying very concretely about your jobs and fellowships, your research visas and OCI cards, your archival access and ethnographic mobility, your book contracts and speaking engagements, your colleagues who are struggling to keep afloat, your relatives whom you can no longer talk to, and your students who have a bleak future.

An anti-lynching protest in Delhi in 2017. Credit: AFP

You, like me and many of my friends, might be scrabbling about trying to bone up on your Nazi, Fascist and Soviet history, seeking to learn about intellectuals and artists in other contexts of totalitarianism and tyranny who got out, couldn’t get out, survived to tell the tale, resisted, compromised, fled or lost their lives. As you do this you might be saying to yourself, this is surely a nightmare, from which we will all wake up tomorrow morning. Such things do not happen in India, nor for that matter in the United States.

Civil disobedience

In my lecture this afternoon, I would like to propose something like this: it is not sufficient any more to be defiant in the face of censorship. To resort to the methods of civil disobedience, principled non-violence and in whatever updated form, Gandhian satyagraha. (Gandhi is on my mind because it is the 150th anniversary of his birth this month.) To look to the opposition and the courts to deliver us from injustice. To sign petitions and write articles in whatever remains of a free press. To use television and social media as active agents and not just passive victims. It is just not enough.

What we need is a much deeper enquiry into freedom, both political and existential. A more fundamental exploration of the purposes and engines of art in our time. And more than anything, a reconfiguration of language such that we may speak of what is unspeakable. Towards these admittedly daunting ends, based on the little that I know about the past, I will suggest a few preliminary steps.

As I was pondering how to address such profound matters as the definition of freedom, the purposes of art, and the potentialities of language, it struck me that perhaps the one phenomenon in India that has been markedly on the rise in the past five years, and that causes the greatest disquiet to those of us who are concerned about the moral health of our polity, i.e., lynching, would allow me to touch on all three questions – of freedom, art and language – at one site.

It’s distressing, to say the least, to hear about the lynching of ordinary Indians day after day, mostly men, mostly Muslims and Dalits, invariably in no position to defend themselves against mob violence. It is a measure of how far we have fallen that we cannot begin to think about more abstract questions of creativity, imagination and form without first confronting a type of violence that is so gruesome as to destroy the bodily integrity of the victim, traumatise the community to which that victim belongs, and severely impair the protocols of coexistence between different communities within our society.

Two dimensions

Lynching in the shadow of the Hindu Right has principally two dimensions: that of religion, so that its targets are often Muslims; and that of caste, so that its targets are equally likely to be Dalits. It is often but not always associated with the politics of cow and beef, which again takes us back to non-Hindu and / or low-caste communities who are targeted. That both aggressors and victims are male suggests that we have to distinguish lynching from a proximate phenomenon like rape or gang-rape, where victims are overwhelmingly female and perpetrators can belong to any community, not just the majority community.

An anti-lynching protest in Delhi in 2017. Credit: HT Photo

Lynching in India today is meant to be theatrical and dramatic; it is a spectator sport, a contact sport, a blood sport, but also in this era, a cyber sport, a game played in virtual reality and relayed online; it is staged in order to be circulated through WhatsApp, Twitter, and other social media. Note by the way that the particular feature of lynching that would be familiar to Americans – to hang the victim from a tree until his or her neck snaps – is not the defining or necessary form that this act takes in the present-day Indian context.

The gruesome character of this violence (of lynching) is not mitigated or normalised by its repetition. Rather, it becomes ever more gruesome the more often it occurs. We are shocked by it not just the first time but each time, because it reminds us of our creaturely existence, our “bare life”, as it were, our vulnerability as bearers of bodies when the vestments of human rights, political safeguards and social relations are torn away, leaving us exposed to injury and annihilation at the hands of others. I am sorry that we have to go to the point of the utter breakdown of all self-expression in order to begin to find our way once more, back to the place of freedom of expression.

There’s been a discussion just in the past few days in the Indian public sphere, prompted by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh chief Mohan Bhagwat’s remark that there is no word for lynching in Indian languages, and Home Minister Amit Shah’s remark, that “human rights” need to be redefined in an Indian context, where we see an attempt to hide the realities of majoritarian mob violence behind the fig leaf of cultural difference: White people lynch black people, but Hindus do not do the same thing to Muslims, because Hindus have no word for “lynching”.

Besides, Indians shouldn’t really expect “human rights” any way, given the Western origin of that idea and the practices associated with it. As we decolonise, let us reject the colonial construct and Western import of “human rights” as well. (Note how easily this sort of argument infects the discourse of women’s rights and feminism as well).

Meanwhile cow protection, for us pious, vegetarian, Hindus, is our dharmic duty. Muslims, who might work in the meat industry, and have the sanction of Islam to consume beef, and Dalits who work in the leather industry and also consume beef as a part of their diet, will not be allowed recourse to their fundamental rights as Indian citizens, that would automatically guarantee them protection and redress in the event of violence directed at them on the basis of their religious or caste identity.

Lynching as a continuum

This is where India has arrived, it appears, making it really challenging to speak in a responsible way about free speech and artistic expression.The architects of India’s freedom and the founders of the Indian republic had alerted us to the inadequacy of independence from British rule without communal amity on the one hand (remember Gandhi’s lonely vigil in Noakhali during Partition) and social justice on the other (recall Ambedkar’s historic speech to the Assembly on the eve of the promulgation of the Constitution in 1950). Tagore had already renounced the violent methods of revolution as early as 1905 at the time of the Swadeshi movement and the first Partition of Bengal; he then unequivocally rejected nationalism as an ideology even as its star rose higher than ever at the time of World War I. Nehru would not accede to the moral legitimacy of the two-nation theory at any point before, during or after Independence.

Jawaharlal Nehru University students at a demonstration.

Nothing in the political legacy of these “makers of modern India” suggests that we would end up bludgeoning Muslim boys on the street and beating Dalits to death at every opportunity. That watching and vicariously participating in these bloody spectacles would become a national pastime. That elections would be fought and won based on a leader’s ability to whip up the voting masses into a murderous frenzy.

Lynching has the character of unorganised, chaotic, popular violence, the people turning on some among them, the strong against the weak, especially those who are minorities in a numerical sense or minoritised in terms of their powerlessness, poverty and marginality. Lynching thus is on a continuum with more familiar forms of mass violence such as “communal riots” or “caste war” that have been a part of Indian social and political life since the very inception of the nation. But in the Hindu Rashtra, lynching now has a counterpart in organised, bureaucratic and state-led violence against citizens.

Counting non-citizens

It is to this end that biopolitical structures of mass enumeration, classification, surveillance and control, like the Universal Identification System “Aadhar” and the National Register of Citizens, have been put in to place by successive Bharatiya Janata Party governments. These are designed as much to count citizens as to count out non-citizens; to exclude as to include. In Assam but also in other states where there are significant non-Hindu populations, whether Muslim, Christian or tribal, the Home Minister has made it clear that their status as citizens is dubious and subject to revision or annulment. Only Hindus, and other “Indic” groups like Sikhs, Buddhists and Jains, are to be regarded as uncontroversial for the purported coincidence of their historical origins, community identity and citizenship status.

At one level, citizenship resides in and flows from the Constitution of India. But it is also the case that for millions of Indians, their citizenship originates in historical events of extraordinary violence and extended duration: Partition, migration, population transfer, the integration of princely states, the linguistic reorganisation of states – processes that begin the mid-1940s and extend not just into the 1970s with the creation of Bangladesh, but arguably, to the present, keeping in mind recent developments from say Andhra Pradesh and Telangana to Jammu and Kashmir.

Now we arrive at a juncture where, on the one hand, a Muslim or a Dalit can be lynched at any moment at any location, and on the other hand, the Indian state systematically and across party-lines and administrations conducts extended counter-insurgency operations against a range of populations, from Kashmiris in the Valley to tribals in Chattisgarh to separatist groups in Nagaland and Manipur.

Going further than previous administrations, as is their wont, the Hindu supremacists currently in power propose to incarcerate newly-defined “non-citizens”, “illegal immigrants” and “stateless persons” in massive detention camps – not somewhere hidden and out of the way, mind you, say in the distant eastern highlands of Assam, but really just outside Mumbai. At its most capacious, a zone of exception to the rule of law, of the suspension of democratic rights, of a state of emergency indefinite in its temporal extension, need not look like a camp at all – it could encompass 8 million Kashmiris inside their homes, in their villages and towns, for 75 days and counting, for example.

Proto-Fascist proclivities

Of course, pesky garden variety “anti-nationals” found anywhere and everywhere in India (especially in universities – and there are many such in this very room) are invited to “go back to Pakistan”, or else can always be sent off to regular jails, and denied even basic habeas corpus rights. Sudha Bharadwaj, Gautam Navlakha, Anand Teltumbde, Vernon Gonsalves and many more find themselves banned from the public sphere, abandoned by the criminal justice system, and left without legal redress.

A protest in Mumbai in 2018 against the arrests of human rights activists. Credit: HT Photo

When Perry Anderson had pointed out the authoritarian, indeed proto-Fascist proclivities on the Indian state and the Indian project of nation-building back in 2012, many of us, not least myself, took exception to his extremely critical, even judgmental reading of the history of modern India. I personally thought it a misreading coming from an embittered left perspective. Alas it has taken just five years for the Hindu Right to not just uncover but also to legitimate and mainstream these dark tendencies repressed by the liberal, secular and democratic ideals of India’s Constitution.

Today we travel with Jean Améry, Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Paul Célan, Simone Weil and WG Sebald, asking if literature is still possible and art still makes sense; wondering how the abject negation of human dignity may be reconciled with any expression of human creativity; perplexed at how the liberation of the self can occur through the annihilation of the other.

Here we are then, in the brave new India, where temples are being constructed and idols garlanded to honour the murderers of Mahatma Gandhi, Vinayak Savarkar and Nathuram Godse; where we are being told that 200 millions of our Muslim fellow-citizens are outsiders and intruders and deserve to be interned or exterminated; where those who clean our waste are themselves thrown away on the garbage heap of history; where the world’s largest and most inventive film industry turns out only kitsch and trash; where every building, every institution, every city and every dream of Nehru’s India is being systematically attacked and destroyed; where our sacred sites, whether Ayodhya and Banaras or Sabarmati and Santiniketan, are being desecrated by those who neither understand tradition nor value modernity; where a jungle of languages and dialects is burning like the Amazon, irretrievably sending entire archives of civilisational knowledge up in smoke; where no one cares, no one remembers, and no one knows what the meaning is, of words like “freedom” and “truth” and “beauty” and “art” – or indeed their Indian equivalents.

Here we are. We don’t even have a word for “lynching”.

Balancing art and freedom

To close where I began, in Istanbul, as luck would have it, my husband and I rented an apartment one floor down from the Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk. In talking with him, browsing his massive library, hanging about in his writing space, admiring his photographs and visiting his museum, learning the intricacies of his literary practice, making our acquaintance with his security detail in the building, and having some glimpse, as neighbours and younger friends whom he liked to indulge, of his everyday life, we came to see how the balance between art and freedom, criticism and constraint, plays out in Turkey differently from India.

A protest in Mumbai in 2018 against the murder of Bangalore journalist Gauri Lankesh.

In the same vicinity lived the legendary photographer, originally from Armenia, now deceased, Ara Güler, whom we saw on occasion around the neighbourhood just before he passed away, and the film-maker Nuri Ceylan, whose cinematic oeuvre we became addicted to though we hesitated like teenagers to go up and talk to him in the corner café.

What I learnt from these encounters with the living masters of Turkish life, art and letters – however much I was reliant on translation and interpretation, and whatever nuances I undoubtedly missed because of being an outsider to the culture – was that there are ways to grasp freedom and make it one’s own, to express oneself freely and surprisingly – it is possible to be an artist, be an intellectual, be a thinking, feeling and moral human being in a mode that is not necessarily or overtly oppositional and combative.

When Peter Handke won his Nobel Prize for Literature this year, I couldn’t help but contrast his defence of the Serbian genocide against Bosnians during the Balkan wars of the 1990s with Orhan Pamuk’s open criticism and condemnation of the Turkish genocide against Armenians in the early 20th century. (Incidentally, I myself attended some sessions of the trial of the Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic in The Hague in 2004, the only time I have been in a room as a mass-murderer, despite living in Delhi for the past many years – an experience I shall never forget.)

Politics is inescapable but politics is not the be-all and end-all of art. Had that been the case, a Pamuk and a Ceylan would be in jail or dead, or at the very least they would be diminished in mind and spirit, given the political circumstances in their country now and for the past many decades. Instead they have found a modus vivendi, but not just that, they have found that most precious of gifts, inspiration.

Seeing this at close quarters but without the preconceptions and baggage that I bring to reading artefacts in a context of cultural politics in my own country, I found to be a deeply moving and enlightening experience. It really forced me to think again what it is that we do when we write, when we sing, when we paint, when we take a photograph or make a film. What do we do for ourselves and what do we do for the society in which we live.

I am not very articulate about it yet, I fear, but I think I learnt something new.

Ananya Vajpeyi is the author of Righteous Republic: The Political Foundations of Modern India. This is a slightly edited version of a speech Ananya Vajpeyi made at the Annual Conference on South Asia at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, on October 19.