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Saturday, February 28, 2009

Creeping Fascism

As the Political Class Fiddles...

After the 2002 state-supported pogroms against Muslims in Gujarat, India has been remarkably free from large-scale civil violence. Instead, we have seen the eruption of small but equally insidious incidents. Attacks on tribal Christian communities in Orissa; violence against ethnic groups in Maharashtra; Maoist terror in Central India; insurgencies in Kashmir and the Northeast; and now, organized assaults on urban youth in Karnataka.

The rise of these local fascist groups is a growing phenomenon. Their protest is not political: against secularism, which is the BJP/RSS agenda; or against class like the Communists. Their beef is against modernization, a sweeping phenomenon that embraces lifestyle, art and entertainment. The core of their dogma is feudal: a revolt against practices such as intermingling of sexes, “Western” ways of dressing and entertainment, freedom of expression and non-hierarchical behavior.

These thuggish bands don’t stand for anything but are defined by what they are against. Even then, there is no consistency and their targets are wholly arbitrary. The only thing they concede to modernity is the media; they always take care to inform the media before they strike innocents. In fact, their members are ridiculous and pathetic, easily contained by a police force backed by political will. They are a bunch of maladjusted, violent individuals, nevertheless dangerous in a mob.

Not too long ago, we were in Goa, where we attended the first showing of the film Slumdog Millionaire at the Inox multiplex in Panjim’s awesome Maquinez Palace Plaza. We got there early only to find a television crew hanging about. We thought the TV guys were there to get a reaction from viewers. Soon, a bunch of sorry-looking men showed up and unfurled a banner protesting that the film showed the Hindu mythological god Rama in a bad light. They said they were the Hindu Janjagran Manch, a formation intended to galvanize the Hindu majority against foreign influences.

Many of us argued with the demonstrators, asking why they were protesting especially when they could not have seen the film. This was the first show; unless they had seen a pirated DVD, in which case they had violated the laws of intellectual property rights. I talked to their leader, who seemed supremely unaware that India was governed by laws. He said the film was an insult to Rama and must be banned. I told him there was no such provision in the Constitution and he looked at me quizzically. Clearly, he did not know that our country is governed by the Constitution. I explained to him that Republic Day celebrated the charter. He walked away with an incredulous look in his face, as though I was from Mars or some other planet.

In the event, we walked into the cinema hall to see the film. It was a slap -in-the-face experience. There was a film that dealt with urban slum dwellers made in 1963 by the leftist ideologue K A Abbas. Shehar aur Sapna was a na├»ve treatise that combined elements of Marxism and romantic anti-industrial zeal. It flopped at the box office but won the government’s National Film Award in 1964, largely because it suited the prevalent socialist ideology. It was a depressing, nihilist film that I saw as a teenager because like all kids growing up then, I was vaguely leftist.

Unlike Abbas’s film, Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire is uplifting. Interviews with slum kids who saw the movie reveal they relate to it because it gives them hope that they can escape the filth and poverty of the slums. The Abbas film, on the other hand, was an indictment of the system. His anger was directed against industrial development and the displacement and anomie that accompany it. Sadly, even today, such attitudes are prevalent among large sections of the privilegentsia. At a time of rapid urbanization and explosive growth of the middle class, the old battles of caste and class identity have largely been bypassed to be replaced by issues of governance.

The Boyle film challenges the hopeless and bleak vision of urban poverty and rural feudalism painted by books written by Rohinton Mistry (A Fine Balance) and Arvind Adiga (White Tiger). It is also a love story and that sweetens the film’s relentless portrayal of slum life in today’s India, especially for Muslims. The moral is simple: you can escape poverty by the sheer dint of individual effort. It’s an important message to deliver, especially to politicians who build vote banks of poverty. Even the political system has been unable to deliver the basic minimum including primary education and public health care.

Coming back to the showing of Slumdog Millionaire in Goa, we were shocked to learn as we came out of the cinema hall that the peaceful protesters of the Hindu Janjagran Manch were displaced by the hoodlums of the Shiv Sena, who destroyed posters and threatened to break the glass frontage of the Inox box office. In the event, the police came and took them away and no serious damage was done.

It is a worrying situation because the mainstream political system is still fighting the old battles of religion, caste and class. Instead of standing resolutely against the rise of these fascist groups, mainstream politicians have been equivocal in their response. Thus, Rajasthan chief minister Ashok Gehlot felt compelled to condemn the rise of “pub culture,” as did various other politicians. They are blind to the incipient rise of local fascist groups that target not Muslims or Dalits but those who represent the emergent culture of achievement and optimism.

copyright rajiv desai 2009

A version of this article will be published in the forthcoming issue of Education World.