In 1979, the Shah of Iran was finally ousted from his throne and forced into exile by a disillusioned and beleaguered country which had had enough of a puppet dynasty that had driven the nation to ruin. However, the monarchy was supplanted by an Islamic Republic which ultimately far exceeded the tyranny of the one it had overthrown.
In 2014, the BJP in India won a thumping victory against the tottering Congress, which was enfeebled by corrupt and weak governance and crippled by dynastic politics which had left the country seething and desperate for change. However, here too the transformation from victor to dictator was swift and complete. The politics of greed gave way to the politics of creed.
To read Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis in India in 2021 – 21 years after it was published in French – is to experience what I can only call “political Unheimlich”. With a Hindi translation being published, the prescient qualities of Persepolis will become evident to a large number of people in India. Every single frame of the graphic novel, every single historical occurrence illustrated as a monochrome cartoon, is an uncannily precise representation of the trajectory of Indian politics and cultural life of the past decade. The events that unfold before a young Marji leave their shadow on a subcontinent riven by religious polarisation, caste divisions more entrenched than ever before, and economic strife.
We share the cognitive struggles of Marji the child seeking to comprehend complex political developments, and also the impotent rage of an adult Marji incensed by the systematic dismantling of all individual and civil liberties under the Republic. To step into Marji’s shoes is to participate in an imaginative exercise whereby both reader and protagonist navigate with mute horror the depredations worked upon a troubled nation by a regime that doesn’t care much for individual rights.
The pattern of historical mirroring is established early on, when Marji’s communist uncle Anoosh, who had been incarcerated for his political beliefs, observes with pithy nonchalance that in a land plagued by ignorance and apathy, the only way to capture the attention of the masses is to dangle the shiny toy of religiously-orientated nationalism: “In a country where half the population is illiterate you cannot unite the people around Marx. The only thing that can really unite them is nationalism or a religious ethic…”.
In India, too, the politics of Hindutva has been deftly used to manufacture consent from an overwhelming majority of the populace, and the spectre of Islamophobia that lurks beneath the veneer of progressiveness adopted by the Great Indian Middle Class has been dragged to the surface in the process of marketing the pipe-dream of national splendour and glory.
Although Marji’s uncle Anoosh is right in noting that religious fanatics don’t know how to govern a country and will inevitably return to the empty edifices of faith to seek refuge, his prediction of a successful revolution of the proletariat smacks of the naïve idealism that has persistently been the downfall of proto-Marxist thinkers. At the present moment, his optimistic prognostication does nor appear applicable to the Indian context, even though a potential movement of farmers into the political space is brewing.
One of the first attacks mounted by hardline regimes is upon the educational system. The best way to ensure future support for totalitarian politics is to indoctrinate the minds who will go on to become the architects of the future, and the easiest way to do this is by seizing control of education. The foundations of critical thinking and the spirit of inquiry are usually established within the precincts of the school and the classroom, and these are the arenas which are transformed into war-zones in the ideological battlefield of hegemonic fascism.
After the Islamic Revolution in Iran, bilingual schools and universities were shut down for two years. Marji recalls a spokesperson for the Iranian Ministry of Education remarking that “[t]he educational system and what is written in school books, at all levels, are decadent. Everything needs to be revised to ensure that our children are not led astray from the true path of Islam.” Explicit parallels are evident in the overhauling of curricula in Indian educational institutions, not the least of which is through the new National Education Policy.
The saffronisation of education in India, which was only tentatively problematic at first, has become definitively worrying now with such measures as the University Grants Commission’s attempts to institute a “Cow Science” examination as well as the reformulation of the History syllabus to include a new paper on the subject of the “Idea of Bharat”.
There are numerous other similarities between the Shiite Iran of Satrapi’s youth – as captured in Persepolis – and present-day India. The suspected murder of the dissident Mohsen and the imprisonment of the communist Anoosh recall the murder of Gauri Lankesh and the government’s continued crackdown on political protestors, ranging from intellectual thinkers like Hany Babu to student leaders such as Umar Khalid, Sharjeel Imam, Natasha Narwal, and Devangana Kalita.
Similarly, the modalities of the mass protests against the Shah are reminiscent of the many waves of protest – from Shaheen Bagh to the ongoing farmers’ protests in Punjab – that have battered India in recent years. The attempts of the Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution to control women’s autonomy and penalise outward expressions of heterosexual love have their counterpart in activities that began with the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and its satellite organisation Bajrang Dal, and have now become part of several BJP governments’ agenda at the state level.
However, perhaps the most poignant parallel between the two can be discerned in the case of Uncle Taher in Persepolis. Taher has a heart attack and is admitted to hospital. This being his third stroke, he needs open-heart surgery. But since the hospitals in Iran are ill-equipped, he has to be taken to England. Border closures mean that only the very seriously ill are allowed to travel. They are given a passport only if the Director of the hospital signs a permission slip.
When Taher’s wife visits the office of the Director, he finds that the post is occupied by her former window-washer. Having shown the proper amount of reverence under the Regime, he has been elevated to a position he is neither qualified for nor deserves. When Taher’s wife pleads with him, he refuses to issue a permit, saying Taher will recover if god wills it.
A similar refrain was used to justify the organisation of the Kumbh Mela in March 2021 during the second wave of the coronavirus pandemic in India. Just as in the case of Taher (who subsequently dies), belief in divine benevolence is exposed as complacency at best and a sham at worst.
The fundamental takeaway from Satrapi’s Persepolis is the essential homogeneity of totalitarian ideology. Tyrannical powers in all countries operate in similar ways – they seize power with the help a well-planned and cleverly-orchestrated programme of religious fundamentalism and nationalist muscle-flexing to convert the majority to their cause, and then proceed to consolidate their rule by systematically dismantling opposition, stifling activism, wresting control of the pillars of democracy, and hitting at the nerve-centre of dissent – the educational system.
Satrapi, as she documents in Persepolis, was able to escape by shifting base to another country. What does the future hold for millions like her in India?