The announcement slipped quietly into the Lok Sabha on September 15, a notable day in the recreation of the republic.
Alongside the fisheries minister’s relief package for fisheries and the health minister’s study on the efficacy of yoga in the recovery of Covid-19 patients, the culture minister declared an expert committee would start a “holistic study of original and evolution of Indian culture to since (sic) 12000 years”. The members included archeologists, a former Supreme Court judge, a Canadian-Indian immunologist and veterinary surgeon and the chairman of the “World Brahmin Federation”.
Do not be surprised if a report emerges some day of Hinduism and the caste system predating the Indus Valley civilisation and finds evidence of ancient flying chariots and nuclear physics. The cue to blurring the boundaries of religious myth and science came six years ago, when, soon after taking office, Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared the elephant-headed god Ganesha as proof of ancient India’s prowess in plastic-surgery.
The transformation of irrational belief, farce, and falsehood – manufactured in the Hindutva thought factory – into WhatsApp forward and elevated to party and government policy is largely established. This process wil be increasingly deployed in drawing the contours of the new republic, which is here in form, if not in constitutional decree. You can call it the Hindu-Rashtra strategy of political guidance and administrative procedure.
The Hindu-Rashtra strategy is leery of reason and fact, hostile to minorities, benevolent towards fake news and hate speech, manipulative of law and derisive of scientific inquiry. It is increasingly apparent that a diversity of Hindutva thought, once fragmented and scattered, is cohering into a strategy that is being put to action. It is currently being road-tested nationwide in varying degree and by varied method, its inherent contradictions and obvious illegalities managed by a largely captive mass media and powerful social-media engine.
A critical test of the Hindu-rashtra strategy is unfolding in the nation’s capital, where several of its strands have been woven into a 17,000-page chargesheet that the police have submitted to court. This chargesheet is based on what is called FIR 59/20, a first information report that alleges the Delhi riots, which claimed 58 lives in February, sprung from a great conspiracy hatched by protestors, liberals, students poets, writers, professors and others who do not heed the Hindutva narrative.
If the Hindu-rashtra strategy was first evident in Gujarat after the turn of the century, Kashmir and Uttar Pradesh are now its main laboratories. Detentions, preventive or others, on specious or non-existent grounds are common, the state has dropped democratic pretense, elements of majoritarian cultural hegemony are increasingly visible, and journalists are commonly subjected to intimidation through criminal cases or imprisonment.
The use of FIR 59/20 in Delhi is a gamble because resistance is more organised, and institutional capture is a work in progress. But if the older India can be quelled here, it can be quelled anywhere.
As with the case of the 12,000-year study, culture and history may appear be a relatively harmless use of the Hindu-rashtra approach, but they are important cogs of a backing long-term majoritarian narrative (students in Rajasthan, for instance, learn that Rana Pratap won the 16th-century battle of Haldighati and Akbar – the victor – lost).
The more immediate narrative is unfolding before us, in police practice, in the courts, in government policies, on television screens and on social media.
On the same day that the effort to probe Indian culture was announced, Solicitor General Tushar Mehta defended falsehood in the Supreme Court, as he has before, on behalf of the government and its proxies. This time, he tried to pass off hate speech as the constitutional right to freedom of expression. The case involved Sudarshan News, a Modi-loving Hindi news channel running a series –based on false or misleading claims – on “UPSC Jihad” or how Muslims were conspiring against India by entering the civil services.
“Freedom of the journalist is supreme,” said Mehta, who only earlier this year had likened journalists – reporting on despair and death among migrant workers after Modi’s four-hour lockdown in March –to “vultures” and critics of the government’s handling of the Covid-19 crisis as “prophets of doom who always spread negativity, negativity, negativity”.
Mehta’s arguments in the Sudarshan case took their cues directly from Hindu-Rashtra strategy, which conflates hate and free speech, refusing to distinguish opinion from incitement. As the Law Commission of India’s 27th report notes, “Incitement to not only violence but also to discrimination has been recognised as a ground for interfering with freedom of expression”.
Unfortunately for Mehta and the government, the Sudarshan case was heard by some of the Supreme Court’s few, remaining liberal justices, who suspended telecast and brushed aside his arguments, which are otherwise received almost without question by fellow judges. “The drift, tenor and content of the episodes is to bring the community [Muslims] into public hatred and disrepute,” said Justice Dhananjay Chandrachud, as fellow justices Kurian Joseph and Indu Malhotra concurred.
This observation appears unexceptional, following as it does the letter and practice of the law. But in the Hindu Rashtra, doing the right thing is a career-altering mark of disfavour and disrepute. Those who can disrupt the democratic ecosystem are favoured.
It is no longer news that the prime minister follows a host of serial abusers and hate-speech mongers or that police now routinely file cases against minority hate-crime or riot victims instead of Hindu perpetrators. Wanton hatred barely stirs public conscience, and any references to such incidents of hate crimes are drowned out in a flood of whataboutery.
It would be unwise to harbour hope in the observations of Justice Chandrachud – who concurred in the judgement that paved the way for the Ram temple in Ayodhya – and his colleagues. Other recent judgements in high courts and some lower courts have upheld the law, devoid of ideology or governmental influence. They have recently freed on bail peaceful dissenters or protestors, raising hopes that Hindu Rashtra strategy is so inherently wrong and violative of legal and constitutional principles that it will stall.
These hopes currently stand on thin ground.
Gradual and deliberate
The process of shuffling and replacing judges, administrators, police officers, to ensure they are Hindu-Rashtra friendly is gradual and deliberate, as is coopting of the media and other watchdogs. This strategy was honed in Gujarat, where police officers who insisted on following the law instead of the diktats of Narendra Modi, chief minister at the time, found themselves transferred, suspended, or their careers effectively over.
That strategy has similarly been used with inconvenient judges since: Justice S Muralidhar of the Delhi High Court, moved out overnight when he tried to hold the Delhi police to account during the March riots: Justice Akil Kureshi, batted around high courts before being moved to Tripura because he had delivered judgement regarded as adverse to Modi; or special judge Brijgopal Loya, who died in mysterious circumstances while hearing an extra-judicial killing involving Home Minister Amit Shah.
Independent public figures are islands in a rising sea that will, as things stand currently, subsume, or drown them sooner or later. The Hindu-Rashtra strategy is to tolerate when possible, sideline when required and eliminate when unavoidable.
In contrast, Recep Erdogan in Turkey tackled institutional independence with a hacksaw. Thousands of judges, army and police officers, bureaucrats and journalists are now in jail. Major Turkish media groups have been sold to Erdogan backers, a tactic used in the Philippines as well by another demagogue Rodrigo Duterte.
The Hindu-Rashtra approach is more gradual but equally effective, as evidenced by the state of journalism in India. The whittling away of independence has been quiet, beginning in Modi’s first term and accelerating in his second. It began with phone calls of displeasure to owners of mainstream media, who quickly learned to censor their editors or fire them. They learned what is acceptable, what is not, an editorial or story at a time. Now, they understand what is required of them.
Those who turned into unabashed mouthpieces of the government, the ruling party and majoritarianism retain not a whit of independence. They are tasked with distracting attention from governmental incompetence and mismanagement, and fulminating against anyone in dissonance with the Hindu-Rashtra strategy, as it relates to politics, law, or culture.
These propagandist media are essential cogs in the Hindu-Rashtra strategy, speedily deployed to turn an unfavourable narrative or create one. That is how terms like “love jihad” or “urban-naxal” or “jihadi” – once dismissed as imaginations of a fevered, somewhat insane minds –came to be firmly entrenched in whatsapp forwards, political speech, printed book and police charges heet.
That was the order followed for the Delhi riots investigation: “fake news” that made its way from WhatsApp forwards to a dodgy “fact-finding report” – accepted with alacrity by the home minister – to Delhi Riots 2020: The Untold Story, a book ridden with falsehoods.
Delhi police FIRs submitted to the courts overlap substantially with these manufactured narratives, helping create a grand conspiracy. It claims, with little legally admissible evidence, that peaceful protest against a discriminatory citizenship law was pre-planned from the start to cascade into riots meant to destabilise India. It ignores the only clear, real evidence – ruling party leaders on camera instigating Hindu rioters and policemen smashing closed-circuit cameras and brutalising Muslims.
The book captures this alleged conspiracy in one line when it say that “anti-CAA, anti-NRC, anti- NPR protests eventually became a protest against all other religions of the country, anti-police, anti-government and anti-India”; it talks of poets and artists who drummed up “anti-government” and “anti-Hindu hysteria”. By no great coincidence, the same allegation finds its way, as do many others, into FIR 59/20: A great fabric of conspiracy, held together by strands of credibility stretched gossamer thin. If it is rejected, it may be a setback to the Hindu rashtra, or at least galvanise opposition. If it is accepted, it will be an important leap towards the new republic.
Samar Halarnkar is the editor of Article-14.com, a project that tracks misuse of the law and the hope it offers.