Serbia With Nukes

In an essay published in Haaretz in 2006, Tony Judt referred to Israel as ‘Serbia with nukes.’ The phrase was not his own; he was citing an unnamed person, who was himself adapting Helmut Schmidt's dismissive description of the Soviet Union (‘Upper Volta with nukes’). But Judt was not being random or flippant in his choice of analogies. A decade after the war in what used to be Yugoslavia, Serbia still carried a stench. It was not just the stench of massacred civilians, rape camps and ethnic cleansing, but also of a particular kind of nationhood: one saturated with aggression and self-pity.  Identified (not least by themselves) with Slobodan Milosevic, Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, Serbs appeared obsessed with wrongs – old and new – suffered at the hands of outsiders and internal enemies, convinced that nobody understood their insecurity in their own homeland, and driven by a monstrous, paranoid desire for dominance. It warped them to the extent that they were no longer recognizable as civilized, let alone liberal and democratic in the post-Cold-War European self-image. They were, moreover, not only driven by a sense of their own importance (to Europe and civilization), but actually not much more than a small tribe of provincials. That Serbs themselves could acknowledge their pathology is evident in Srdan Spasojevic’s wryly titled A Serbian Film, which was promptly banned all over the world for its unflinching depiction of a savage dystopia.

When Judt suggested that Israel was ‘Serbia with nukes,’ in the aftermath of brutal invasions of Gaza and Lebanon, he thus pointed to a mode of civic identity and political functioning that is both horrifying and laughable: the mode of an unbalanced child with deadly weapons, a danger to itself as well to those around it. Watching events in India unfold over the past few days, I was reminded of Judt’s use of the phrase, and wondered if it does not describe India also. There too, a majority that is undeniably in command of every sector of social, political and economic life is obsessed with what it calls the ‘appeasement’ of minorities. There too, monstrous things have happened, not just once in a while but as a matter of course. There too, world-power pretensions are simultaneously desperate and ludicrous, because of the nationalist conviction that the enemies that matter most (‘anti-national elements’) are within its borders. The nationalist is, in other words, unable to pull his head out of his ass: his vision of the world is limited by his uncontrollable desire for revenge against what is within his own body. Even the obsession with Pakistan is merely the displacement of an internal enmity to a location just beyond an unconvincing border.

It is useful to look at the JNU crisis in the light – or rather, pitch darkness – of this rectal nationhood. In some ways, what has happened at JNU must be welcomed: the attacks on students by police and patriotic mobs, and the statements by various politicians affiliated with the government, have clarified things. When sedition laws are deployed against student politicians making speeches on campus, a defendant in a courtroom is assaulted by goons (who are also lawyers!) in front of the police not once but twice, and cabinet ministers declare that “the nation can never tolerate insults to Mother India,” we should have no trouble using the word ‘fascism.’ Suddenly, ordinary Indians – not just cranky academics – are using it, and even some who voted for the BJP in the last election are dismayed. References to Germany in the 1930s are being bandied about more or less nakedly in the Indian press, to say nothing of the network of diasporic commentators and users of social media. We need only be a little surprised that it took people so long to follow the cranky academics and pseudo-secular bleeding hearts, who began fretting after the 2014 election.

The fascist attacks on JNU are welcome also because they are not really about JNU, or even about any particular principle associated with that university. They are, rather, about very general ideas of the nature of the state, the content of nationhood and the meaning of dissent. It happened at JNU, but it could have just as easily have happened at another university, although in that case, the national anguish would probably have been more muted. But because the arrest and beating of a student for giving a mildly ‘anti-national’ speech happened at an institution that has long prized its elite status, large numbers of Indians have been moved to identity with the poor jholawalas. This, as I said, is a good thing, because if decent, middle-class, Hindu citizens will not take to the streets or use the f-word when pregnant Muslim women are cut open and fetuses ripped out, men are lynched for having the wrong kind of meat in the fridge, and families are herded into ghetto-like camps because their homes have gone up in flames, at least they will march when the same forces come after smart, smartly dressed members of the ‘majority community.’ Something extraordinary is happening in the country, the Supreme Court opined yesterday. Indeed, but it did not start at JNU. At most, it can be said that the JNU incident alerted the majority that it too can be cast in the role of the ‘anti-national element.’ It produced an insight – and such insights are rare for national majorities – that JNU and Naroda Patiya are on the same continuum. It is that insight that is extraordinary. And because it is difficult to bear, there is already the impulse to separate the predicament of the jholawalas from the predicament of the circumcised. While the widespread impulse of Indian liberals and their foreign allies to 'stand in solidarity' with JNU is laudable, the jholawalas need our solidarity much less than do the katuas. If the dignity of the latter was assured, the former would have no trouble.

It is comforting, no doubt, to rally around ‘the Constitution’ in extraordinary times, or around ‘the republic,’ as many alarmed Indians have done in the past week. This is understandable; one needs handles to gain ideological traction. But the republic is not some pristine principle, and the Indian Constitution, like any constitution, is a flawed political product. Fetishizing them will take us only so far. The Constitution and the republic have not prevented gross abuses of power in the past, from police violence against the poor, Dalits and minorities, through brutal counterinsurgency tactics in remote corners of the map, to stifled speech at every turn. They have not prevented rampant discrimination in housing and employment, or diverted polite, university-educated, middle-class citizens from their smug conversations about ‘those people.’ (Most fascists are perfectly nice.) The Sangh Parivar did not invent all this, and people have not always taken to the streets (or Facebook) in protest. While some of those abuses are in the nature of the modern state, others are specifically rooted in the Indian state, which has attempted from the outset to deploy democracy without liberalism. It is only now, when the outright fascists are in power, that the implications of that formula have come home to roost, and citizens who have been at best wishy-washy about liberal principles are reaching for the Constitution. But it may very well be necessary to take a closer look at the Constitution itself – and at the principles to which the citizen is willing to commit – before ‘the republic’ can provide adequate protection against commonplace episodes of the extraordinary.

There is, in addition, a dire need to look again at the purposes of Indian nationhood. That nationhood needs a purpose will, of course, appear nonsensical to some: to the dyed-in-the-wool nationalist, especially on the political right, nationhood simply is. It creates a state to protect its boundaries, and it regards dissent as a challenge to its very existence. That is the starting point of Serbia-with-nukes. Indian nationhood, however, has historically had a romantic component that is intertwined with the idea of justice: the idea that underlying the miraculous historical convergence of people from Kashmir to Kanyakumari, Punjab to Assam, is the objective of doing ‘the right thing,’ and not just for yourself. The right thing could be derived from the European Enlightenment or from sources closer to home, but the principle guided a wide range of ideologues: Nehru, Ambedkar, Gandhi, Rabindranath and even Bose, who was not a democrat. The imperative of justice, and not just self-interest, produced something new in the form of a national identity, a national space, and a national state. That, really, is the only defensible reason to be a nationalist. Otherwise there is no point in being so absurdly attached to arbitrary borders assembled by a regime that everybody recognizes as illegitimate: the British-Indian colonial state. Nor is there any point in arresting, beating and hanging those who question the map.

India is not Serbia or Israel, and not just because it is much bigger in every way. But there has emerged in India a tribe of Serbs, who appear superficially to be two different tribes. One is rustic, boorish, clad in saffron bandannas or khaki shorts, highly sensitive to 'insults to the nation,' and imbued with a predilection for murder and rape. The other is suave, English-speaking (with the right private-school accent), well-shod, and clad in neatly ironed shirts. They do not, as a general rule, murder or rape. But because they share the vision of a nationhood that is forever threatened by ‘anti-nationals,’ and that has no purpose except revenge and dominance, they give their approval to the murderers and rapists, and show themselves to be provincials of the worst sort. They are a menace to their neighbors, compatriots and themselves, and no one is more responsible for the farcical reality of a twenty-first-century nation-state that relies on mob violence to reassure itself of its permanence, continues to debate whether Shivaji was greater than Aurangzeb, and uses sedition laws against those who give the wrong answer.

February 19, 2016