No one lived in this country with so much fear before,” asserted a friend while dealing with India’s newly amended citizenship law (referred to popularly as the CAA) with such ferocious conviction that I wondered if the India I had visited just a few weeks ago was some kind of a Gulag where Christians and Muslims were being transported in trains to spend their lives in the Rajasthan desert, listening to RSS leaders talking about Lord Rāma and getting them lined up for “ghar wāpsi” rituals, or whether India had become a hall of mirrors where WhatsApp messages constituted reality. I wondered if it mattered at all that Indians lived their lives with any modicum of honesty or what really mattered was the willingness of activists, ideologues, and politicians to manipulate reality and how deftly they constructed simulacra — anything that would go viral on Twitter or be incorporated into a report in the local newspaper whose editors were eager to grind their particular political axes or a hit-piece in The New York Times.
How the anti-CAA riots were manufactured and how they morphed into general mayhem, ‘peace marches’, and national ‘bandhs’, which then got deftly mixed into local issues, JNU fee agitation, or whatever was politically convenient need to be told one day by historians who can sift through the deluge of political chaff from the little grains of reality and tell readers how fear was stoked by whom, for what reason, and through what venues.
But the manufacturing of imagined scenarios, as they have done in the case of CAA, is neither new nor unique to the present-day Indian situation: these dire scenarios have popped up in the news media or in the statements of church leaders, Western politicians, academics, and activists in the past, and especially when the BJP was set to win an election. Thus, back in 1998, editors of left-leaning magazines and newspapers, like N Ram of The Hindu/Frontline, collaborated with activists and academics both in India and in the US to start a “watch group” called “BJP Watch” when the BJP formed the NDA coalition government. They offered a provocative selection of commentaries and reports that claimed that with the BJP in power the lives of minorities would be at risk, that they would be literally pushed into the Arabian Sea, and that riots would be manufactured to make India a Hindu nation.
The creation of this “watch group” was described benignly by an India Today report as “peculiar” and “adventurous,” and that the group included “eminent scholars”. It said that Ram had warned that “Given the RSS’ semi-fascist origins, we are suspicious about the BJP’s attitude towards civil society and democracy… The BJP threatens the institutions of civil society”. That the editors of the inaptly named The Hindu to continue with their old mischief, stoking fear, evoking a variety of political, civilisational, and cultural horror has been noted here and here but now they are not the only ones to manufacture this nonsense. We can scroll through the print and wire versions (pun intended) of the “mainstream” media whose army of reporters and commentators skillfully drum up and present biased reports and analyses which then feeds into the “never has there been so much fear” worldview of those viscerally opposed to the BJP.
If this news dynamic was confined only within the Indian media space, there would be less consequence. Between 1998 and now, however, we have seen that a variety of foreign forces, international media, and Indian groups based in the West also contributing to and ratcheting up the pressure on the BJP governments. Academics quickly line up to sign petitions that condemn the BJP leadership or any law they make, and they have done so in the case of the CAA. American government agencies and committees, like the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) are quick to add fuel to the fire, lecture to Indian leaders, and intrude into the affairs of the nation.
That the USCIRF, which lectured Indian government on CAA, is commandeered by rightwing Christian commissioners has been noted here, and having interacted with both the commissioners and the USCIRF staff, this author knows firsthand how “religious freedom” is used as a convenient handle for encouraging Christian proselytism around the world. Concerns that we expressed about predatory proselytism were brushed aside not only by the USCIRF commissioners but also by staff at the US State Department, which also produces annual reports on “religious freedom” around the world.
Those that the USCIRF and the State Department rely on to provide grist for their mill include Indian-American groups like the Federation of Indian American Christian Organizations (FIACONA), whose website is full of anti-Hindu drivel, and the Indian American Muslim Council (IAMC) which is even more adept in circulating, through their weekly emails and newsletters and their website posts, the most virulent anti-Hindu propaganda (available plentifully through the Indian media), strategically masked as “anti-Hindutva” opinions and reports.
That these Christian and Muslim organisations, otherwise at loggerheads around the world, collaborate to demonise Hindus and Hindu political activism goes to show how the two supremacist and monopolist religious groups work in tandem in their bid to eventually make the world Christian or Muslim. It is not surprising therefore that this anti-Hindu propaganda/activism gets picked up by international Christian agencies and media, who then use their clout in the halls of power to have their bidding done, and whose messages then get recirculated in Indian Christian media and churches. It is an echo chamber.
What was dumbfounding, on my recent visit to India, was to watch the dozen or so Christian channels on TV — with swarthy pastors blathering 24×7 in Kannada, Telugu, Tamil, Hindi… about how Lord Jesus Christ was going to save Hindus and bring justice, peace, and goodness to the land of Bharat that is India. Alas, none of India’s sociologists, cultural warriors, and activists bothers to do careful content analyses of the propaganda on these channels and how they construct scenarios of threat and martyrdom among the most ignorant viewers of these channels. The writers who get featured in The Economic and Political Weekly, wear well-manufactured blinkers so that they can avoid looking at and listening to the drivel.
The views of the Indian left and its clever band of “minority” collaborators thus have seeped deep into certain sections of Indian society, including students in elite colleges and universities — with the deracinated and anglicised Hindu turning out to be the most vociferous of the BJP’s opponents. They will read The New York Times and the Economist, pay through their nose for subscribing to these foreign news media, watch CNN and Al Jazeera, and believe that these venues offer “real” news.
But the tide has begun to turn, with social media enabling ordinary viewers and readers to doubt and challenge the false and the fake narratives, and for a nascent and small group of English language news portals and magazines to offer alternative narratives. Unless there is balance in news reports and unless space is offered for a variety of opinions, fearmongering as in the case of CAA will continue.
Some dismiss these new venues as “right-wing media”, fearful what they read there may challenge their view of the world, but having been involved in writing for some of these newspapers and magazines over the past twenty-five years, one notices that enough force has been gathered to begin to poke holes in the left/’progressive’ fortress. India just needs to keep at it.