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Dear Mr. Pankaj Mishra, Stop Spreading Lies About Nationalism And The BJP

A Rejoinder to a New York Times op-ed by Pankaj Mishra

05/12/2016 5:27 PM IST | Updated 08/12/2016 8:52 AM IST
Danish Siddiqui / Reuters

Harbouring outsized egos and brooking no opposition, certain glib-tongued liberals are still to come to terms with the decisive electoral triumph of Narendra Modi. These die-hard dogmatists have turned into schlockmeisters pedalling a deceptive narrative that exploits certain adverse global events to demonise Modi, his government and his followers.

Pankaj Mishra's article, "The Incendiary Appeal of Demagoguery in Our Time" is a classic example of this incurable and corrosive malady. It's an op-ed that ostensibly assays America's endorsement of Donald Trump but in reality, is a lowly, no-holds barred attack on Modi. The logically deviant, factually compromised and propagandist nature of this vitriolic diatribe compels me to post a response. Mishra's litany of lies is so exhaustive and incredibly outlandish that almost every word that he pens crumbles with the indignity of falsehood—so much so that a point-by-point rebuttal is nigh impossible within the scope of this article. I will restrict myself to the more salient facets of this choleric vituperation to unravel the mendacity of his report.

Accusations of 'fascism'

He launches his Philippic with a sweeping and inflammatory indictment of the nationalist surge as an "alt-right organisation inspired by fascist and Nazis" using borrowed terminology from the West that bears little relevance to the ideological rift in the Indian context (nationalist and anti-nationalist is more appropriate) and extrapolating obliquely from an alien philosophy that just cannot capture the moral moorings of an indigenous aspiration. This is a flawed interpretation but the intent is clear: to cast the Hindu nationalist movement as an anti-democratic expression by throwing in politically provocative words such as "fascist" and "Nazi."

But such a conjecture fails to find factually validity in the origins of the BJP or its treatment of political power. Historically speaking, the BJS or the Bharatiya Jan Sangh (the original avatar of the BJP) was conceptualized by the RSS (a quasi- cultural organisation) for the express purpose of espousing its ideology through the electoral process. And it has remained true to these tenets even through trying times of stark victimization and corrupt political manipulations aimed at unjustly depriving the BJP of its rightful claim to govern. Contrastingly, other political parties like the Communists when faced with electoral wilderness sought to gain dominance by spawning brutal, bloodthirsty off-shoots like the Maoists who champion anarchy and celebrate rampant bloodshed.

Attempts to drag down nationalists by linking them to discredited authoritarian European ideologies like fascism and Nazism is a dishonest strategy that cannot be allowed to pass.

The BJP has assumed and relinquished constitutional authority manifold times throughout its political career, each time conforming strictly to the tenets of democracy; first at the state level since 1967 and more importantly at the Centre (federal level) since 1996.

Mukesh Gupta / Reuters

At the Centre, the BJP has been invested with power on several occasions: 1996, 1998 and 1999 and 2014; during these terms its behaviour has exemplified a textbook exposition of democratic norms and principles. Especially significant is the dignified manner of its exit during its second stint in power: a classic example of parliamentary savoir-faire at its best. In late 1999, after a successful tenure of 13 months, the BJP was forced to seek a vote of confidence as a result a realignment of political parties. It was a test that the BJP lost by a single vote in a house of 540; a vote whose legitimacy was questionable, having been cast by a Congress member who had ceased for all intents and purposes to be a member of the august body after being elected to a state legislature. Yet without a murmur of protest, Atal Behari Vajpayee (the BJP Prime Minister) bowed down before the diktat of the Lok Sabha and put in his papers, in the larger interest of democracy. It was a shining moment in the history of democracy in India.

Compare this with what Prime Minister Indira Gandhi of the Congress party did when faced with an adverse court judgement against her election to Parliament: she suspended the Constitution, jailed hordes of political opponents and imposed a state of emergency.

With these facts, it is left up to the reader to make an informed decision as to which Indian political party is democratic and which is not.

Attempts to drag down nationalists by linking them to discredited authoritarian European ideologies like fascism and Nazism is a clever but dishonest strategy that cannot be allowed to pass.

A perusal of the timeline of Hindu nationalism reveals an anachronism that puts paid to this outright lie. While murmurings of Hindu assertiveness were evident in the military campaigns of the Maratha warrior Shivaji (1623-1680), Hindu nationalism or Hindutva as a formal ideology took shape in 1923 through the thoughts of Veer Savarkar, enunciated in his monumental work Hindutva: Who Is a Hindu? (reprinted in 1928 but first published in 1923 under the title Essentials Of Hindutva).

In 1923 neither Hitler nor Mussolini were indomitable world figures, for the extreme ideologies they espoused to become a fountainhead for Hindu nationalists in India.

Hindutva was and is a distinct entity that grew from a sense of Hindu hurt. It was not a feeling of Hindu supremacy. It was conceptualised in direct response to Islamic invasions (not inspired by fascists or Nazis) that had pillaged a vast Hindu subcontinent, leaving hundreds of temples destroyed, thousands of Hindus massacred and millions forcibly converted to Islam.

In the 1930s, Hitler and the Nazi party, right or wrong, were the predominant political entities of those times, fascinating enough to become case-studies of exceptional political ascendancy: even Subhas Chandra Bose, a former president of the Congress party sought Hitler's support for India's freedom movement. Therefore, any affinities in the past between the two movements were coincidental rather than central to the thrust of Hindu nationalism. One need not read too much in to it.

The moot point, however, is that these are antiquated polemics that have little significance to Hindu nationalism in its current avatar or present times. To draw parallels in a distraction and a scaremongering tactic designed to extract political advantage at the cost of practical truth. Hindu nationalism is a dynamic ideology that is constantly undergoing reformative evolution to match the changing times and discarding unsuitable attributes along the way.

The fabricated spectre of 2002

Continuing his calculated, systematic campaign of obfuscation, Mishra proceeds to delegitimise Modi's ascendancy by ascribing it to decadent state institutions and intellectualism gone rogue. He pompously pontificates:

"In the case of India, the role of institutional rot — venal legislators, a mendacious media — and the elites' moral and intellectual truancy is clear. To see it one only has to remember that Mr. Modi, the chief minister of Gujarat from 2001 to 2014, was accused of supervising mass murder and gang rapes of Muslims — and consequently was barred from travel to the United States for nearly a decade — and that none of that prevented him from being elected to India's highest office."

Nothing can be further than the truth for Mishra artfully misrepresents the storyline by recourse to half-truths; he expediently edits out a sentinel fact of this narrative—that Modi was unequivocally exonerated by the highest court of the land.

Post the 2002 Gujarat riots, we were made to believe through a relentless barrage of scathing criticism orchestrated by significant section of the English language media that Narendra Modi, the CM of Gujarat was evil incarnate; someone who had not only fiddled when Gujarat was burning but someone who had diabolically fuelled the flames of revenge by exhorting Hindus to turn on Muslims. So, confident, so descriptive and so overwhelming were these accusations of collusion that one hesitated to even harbour an iota of doubt or question its validity. A person is deemed innocent until proven guilty. But, in the case of Modi, this axiom was turned on its head: Narendra Modi was guilty until proven innocent: this was the warped line of injustice pursued by the anti-nationalists.

A person is deemed innocent until proven guilty. But, in the case of Modi, this axiom was turned on its head...

But finally, when the judiciary stepped in to adjudicate right and wrong a completely different picture emerged. A Special Investigations Team (SIT) instituted by the Supreme Court after an extensive investigation that interrogated scores of witnesses and Narendra Modi himself found no evidence against him: a finding that was doubly verified by another layer of scrutiny via an amicus curiae. Moreover, the several instances of diabolical brutality highlighted by Modi detractors, such as the evisceration of a foetus from a mother's womb, proved to be nothing more than a figment of imagination.

On 26 December 2013, the metropolitan court in Ahmedabad upheld the SIT report which was later endorsed by the Supreme Court. Only after this process of vetting did the BJP invest Modi with the mantle of leadership.

"A fringe outfit"? Not so much

Carrying on his campaign of misinformation, Mishra describes the nationalists as a "fringe outfit for much of the country's existence"—a spin that casts the BJP as an upstart with no real claim to credibility.

The mantra that anti-nationalists chant to buttress their assertion is the paltry 2 of 542 seats won by the BJP in the general elections of 1984. That election was not a representative reflection of the political imprint of India; it was a freak verdict impacted heavily by a tidal wave of sympathy post Indira Gandhi's assassination and one that defies generalisation.

Since the 1920s the nationalist movement has been an important force in Indian politics... even influencing top leaders of the Congress such as Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and Rajendra Prasad.

A comprehensive overview of modern historical events and successive electoral verdicts post-independence is vital to sketch an authentic perspective of Hindu nationalism. Since the 1920s the nationalist movement has been an important force in Indian politics, making its ethos felt perceptibly through overtly nationalistic leaders like Veer Savarkar (1883-1966) and Shyam Prasad Mookerjee, a minister in Nehru's first cabinet and even influencing top leaders of the Congress such as Deputy PM Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and President Rajendra Prasad.

The BJS (the forerunner of the BJP) has qualified as a national party since the first general election in 1951.From 1967 onwards—that is, for nearly 50 years of India's 70 years of independence—the BJP has been the largest party in terms of vote percentage after the Congress, polling between 7% and 31% of the national electorate. These figures, though not outstandingly impressive, need to be interpreted in the context of the advantage that Congress had in the post-independence years as the leader of the freedom movement and against the fact that the Congress itself has crossed the 40% vote mark in only four of 13 general elections since 1967.

AOL

Seats won in Lok Sabha; (Data extracted from Election Commission of India: http://eci.nic.in/eci/eci.html)

In more recent times the dominance of the BJP has been far more definitive (see above graph). The BJP has emerged as the largest single party in four of eight general elections held after 1989. So, let us bury once and for all this outrageous myth.

The faulty Kashmir card

The Kashmir issue is another weapon in Mishra's dubious arsenal, and one that he exploits to the hilt by highlighting selected aspects that conform to his warped view.

Despite his weighty reputation as a member of the genteel intellectual literati, his writings at times can only be classified as sleazy tabloid journalism, rating high on melodrama but woefully indigent in terms of facts and logic. Like a hit and run perpetrator, he hurls wild and sensational accusations, conjures up false illusions of monstrosity and moves on without adequate substantiation. A classic example is his bizarre claims on the antecedents of the Chattisinghpora massacre in 2001 on the eve of Bill Clinton's visit to India in which 30 Sikhs were brutally gunned down. Praveen Swami (a senior Indian journalist who has been an Associate editor of The Hindu and the diplomatic editor of The Daily Telegraph) demolished his stance several years ago with a finality would be humiliatingly embarrassing for most writers:

"Chattisinghpora is particularly interesting because of the diametrically opposed ideological narratives it generated a narrative heavily based on conjecture and assumption, but devoid of actual evidence. One particularly influential media commentary came from the novelist Pankaj Mishra, whose assertion that the massacre was the outcome of an Indian covert operation gained wide currency in this country and abroad. Writing in The Hindu, Mishra –not known for any experience of reporting either on Jammu and Kashmir or conflict situations in India asserted that 'the number of atrocities in Kashmir is so high and the situation in general so murky that it is hard to get to the truth.' Mishra did not see fit to provide evidence of his assertion that levels of atrocities in Kashmir were high, or what they were high in comparison to. Nor did he explain just why the existence of atrocities was, per se, an obstacle to arriving to the truth. Instead, the bald assertion was used, through a series of leaps of logic, to assert that the general situation 'lends weight to the suspicion... that the massacre in Chittisinghpura [sic.] was organised by Indian intelligence agencies in order to influence Clinton."

(Practising Journalism: Values, Constraints, Implications ed. Nalini Rajan. SAGE Publications India, 2005)

So, when Mishra speaks of a "brutal campaign in Kashmir" by security forces without substantiation I am forced to recall a rejoinder I posed to him nearly 15 years ago in the NY Review of Books:

"When the Pakistani army let loose a reign of terror in Bangladesh in 1971, nearly ten million Bangladeshis crossed over to India. The number of refugees is directly proportional to the degree of victimization. If the atrocities perpetrated by the Indian army on the Kashmiri Muslims are as widespread and gruesome as Pankaj Mishra claims, then why are the Muslims not fleeing the valley? Why are not refugees pouring into Pakistan?"

I am yet to receive an appropriate response.

Also, Mishra fails to acknowledge that the India army was stationed in Kashmir after a total collapse of law and order that resulted in nearly a quarter million Kashmiri Hindus being driven out from the Valley in act of ethnic cleansing that is unparalleled in recent times.

Anindito Mukherjee / Reuters

"Cruel" and "callous"?

Finally, Mishra concludes with a hyperbolic jab that can be best described as psychotic haranguing, wild and baseless and a misnomer: "Hindu supremacism, in its cruelty and callousness..."

For one, Hindu nationalism is not supremacist in construct or callous and cruel in its execution.

The attitude of the current BJP government (which draws inspiration from Hindu nationalism) can hardly be called callous and cruel. It embodies a sensitivity, compassion and altruism rare to governments.

This is arguably the most humane and empathetic government India has had since independence; it is cruel and callous only in the warped minds of the likes of Mishra.

The train of tweets by the Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj testify to the scores of Indians all over the world that she has personally gone out of her way to help regardless of religion or political affiliation: she demonstrates a heart-felt concern that is unique to this government.

And, when a man travelling with an unwell father tweets the Railway Minister for help from a moving train and is surprised to find the station master waiting for him on arrival with a wheelchair, it says tons about the sensitivity of this government that touches the common citizen.

This is the first government that has addressed such intimately personal issues as toilets.

Modi himself has shown exemplary magnanimity by personally supervising the flood relief operations in Kashmir, inviting Pakistani PM Nawaz Sharif to his inaugural ceremony and making an unexpected stop in Islamabad to mend Indo-Pak relations.

Hindu nationalism has its heart and mind in the right place. It has given India what is arguably the most humane and empathetic government since independence; it is cruel and callous only in the warped minds, dysfunctional writings and telescopic vision of the likes of Mishra.

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