In the 1988 film The accused Directed by Jonathan Kaplan, the protagonist, Sarah Tobias, played to perfection by Jodie Foster, is gang raped by three men in a bar. The courts do not give her justice and one of the rapists harasses her in a parking lot. She then persuades a lawyer, played by Kathryn McGillin, to reopen the case by charging not only the three rapists, but also the men who stood around, watched, clapped, cheered and incited the rapists, with criminal intimidation. Rapists are convicted by the court, as are bystanders who laughed when a woman was gang raped. And the message “when a woman says no, she means no” has become part of the feminist lexicon.
The film came to our minds as we watched two ‘honourable’ members of the Lok Sabha laughing while their party member heaped the most disgusting, despicable and sickening insults on another member, Danish Ali, on the floor of the House. Aren’t the people who watched, clapped and cheered as a fellow citizen of this country and his community were dishonored complicit in brutal hate speech that is drying up an entire community? I forced myself to watch the video just to understand the perverse mindset of not only the man who uttered these insults, but also the mindset of two members of his party; a party that owes much of its success to promoting anti-minority sentiments.
A screenshot of Sansad TV by Ramesh Bidhuri.
We see the same joy when Muslims are lynched or tied to trees and forced to sing Jai Shree Ram (Hindutva slogan) on the faces of passers-by who take photos of humiliation and violence on their phones. We saw the same excitement and applause when a mob of men stripped two women naked and forced them to parade naked in Manipur, while openly assaulting them.
Something very ugly has happened in our society. And it is a society that holds up the platitude that “the world is one family” as its unique contribution to world history. Let’s make no mistake, silence or laughter in the face of nauseating comments and acts of violence is acquiescence. One day, future generations will wonder why our generation remained silent when this happened in our country, the same way young people in today’s Germany ask their grandparents how they could do it. part of the “final solution” imagined by Hitler. They are asking these questions despite the rise of a right-wing neo-Nazi movement in the country.
The question has perplexed many historians of modern Germany. Based on hard work and time spent going through their personal correspondence and diaries, historians tell us that not all Germans were active participants or supporters of the Holocaust. Some were deeply skeptical of Hitler’s plan to create a country free of Jewry, but remained silent, and some approved of what was happening before their eyes. The question of how the Germans reacted to the Final Solution is complex and complicated.
The conditions imposed on defeated Germany after World War I by the victors created and sustained deep-rooted grievances and dealt a blow to national pride. This generated a strong sense of nationalism among most people. As Germans were racked by unrest in the interwar period, a strong sense of victimization hung over the country. Hitler wanted to create a world power dominated by the Aryan race by conquering the Slavic nations and exterminating the Jewish community causing the worry and mortification associated with the development of strong nationalism in the country. Many may not have supported the concentration camp, but they became silent spectators to the horror inflicted on the Jewish community. Families were separated and friendships were broken because of the Nazi project. But national pride, survival of the nation and the importance of race as a marker of the nation’s identity have absorbed the population to a large extent.
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We should learn the lessons that history teaches us. Once politicians, skilled at manipulating insecurity and national pride, organize the political community on the question of identity – whether racial or religious, ethnic or linguistic – on the basis of selective memory of history, exaggerated grievances and rabid nationalism, societies rarely recover.
Cynical politicians use these weapons to radicalize societies in the service of their own ambitions and their quest for absolute power. Societies suffer, and this suffering is not easily healed. It might never heal. Hatred becomes a part of the personal and collective psyche as weak, unrecognized feelings translate into strong passions. In India, hate speech and those who support it have triggered the transformation of unexpressed prejudice into violence. And this is justified in the name of one of the most destructive ideologies: nationalism and pseudo-histories. Nationalism that exploits the past and targets present communities on that basis is terrible to see.
Eric Hobsbawm. Credit: Twitter
British historian Donald Sassoon edited and wrote the preface to a collection of essays written by a colleague historian Eric Hobsbawm. According to Sassoon, Hobsbawm liked to say that there may have been a time when he thought that historians, who fueled the nationalist project, unlike architects and civil engineers, could not cause disasters. Hobsbawm came to recognize that history in the hands of nationalists can kill more people than that of incompetent builders. “History is the raw material for nationalist, ethnic or fundamentalist ideologies, just as the poppy is the raw material for heroin addicts,” he writes.
Nationalism in the wrong hands can frighten a nation. Politicians must be careful when talking about primordial passions, because the consequences for human societies are serious. The politicization of religion or ethnicity leads to unimaginable tragedies. Some might participate in these tragedies; others might watch, but the witnesses are by no means innocent.
The question of how we remember history became acute in the period following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The 1990s witnessed a series of ethno-nationalist wars that overwhelmed the Balkans then a large part of the world. The rise of fanatical nationalism based on selective historical memory that resulted in hatred and massacres has motivated a number of scholars to attempt to understand the politics of selective memory.
Jürgen Habermas. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
The German philosopher Jurgen Habermas, part of the tradition established by the interwar Frankfurt School of Critical Theory, has written extensively on memory. Habermas uses the term collective memory to convincingly argue for dialogue and communication between contested worldviews. It’s a way of recovering from the past and learning from it. He sought a broader political community within which these debates would be conducted in order to neutralize the devastating effects of nationalism. Accordingly, Habermas argues for the need for post-national forms of political community, i.e. the European Union, so that the bloody history of the nation can be transcended and we can move beyond the nation-state.
Many scholars who subscribe to critical theory have struggled with the idea of memory. Max Horkheimer, one of the school’s most prominent members, had written that “past injustice has happened and is over.” The killed are really killed. The underlying belief is that we cannot forget the past. To forget the past is to repress it in the Freudian sense. What is repressed will eventually appear as an illness at one point or another. The best thing we can do is accept the past to ensure that atrocities committed centuries ago are not repeated in the present or future.
In India, however, we face another, more troubling phenomenon: the legitimization of state power through selective memory and hypernationalism. It does not allow people to accept the past, it reopens old wounds, targets minorities and attempts to build a nation through muscular and aggressive nationalism, whether in the form of hate speech, lynching of Muslims or destruction of churches. A nation built on tolerance of hate speech, or open support for such speech, as we saw in the Lok Sabha, cannot help but be scarred. Because violence hurts not only the victim but also the perpetrator.
The manipulation of a common past explodes in the consciousness of the people, and creates an enemy with whom there can be neither truck nor transaction. This is the tragedy of our time. Urdu poet Bashir Badr wrote: ‘dushmani jam kar karo lekin ye gunjaish rahe / jab kabhi hum dost ho jaaen to sharminda na hon’ (be my enemy with all the passion you command, but leave enough room, because if we become friends, we will not be ashamed). In the language of political theory: no matter how great the social divide, there should be space for reconciliation.
In this folio taken from a quintet by Amir Khusro, a Muslim pilgrim learns a lesson in piety from a Brahmin. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
The project of reconciliation, or even making room for future friendships, is difficult. Manipulations of historical memory have become a convenient weapon to cover up bad governance, hunger and poverty. The forced exclusion of memories that tell the story of a fusion culture in medieval times – from Hindustani classical music, to miniature Mughal paintings, to magnificent Mughal architecture, to how all communities worshiped the roadside shrines of Sufi saints, the formation of a beautiful common. The language, Urdu, the folk music of love and nostalgia, the great literary and poetic works – have torn apart community solidarity. This is expected to create a fictitious solidarity within the dominant community; solidarity used for ignoble purposes, such as obtaining a majority in the next elections.
For Tagore, nationalism was one of the West’s most pernicious exports. He argued that nationalism is not a child of liberty or reason, but quite the opposite: of fervent romanticism and the idea of political messiahs whose consequence is invariably the annihilation of liberty. He believed in a world that would not be broken into fragments by narrow domestic walls. In his essay on nationalism, Tagore writes that “my countrymen will truly win their India by fighting against the education which teaches them that a country is greater than the ideals of humanity.”
Finally, it is a shame that the new building housing the Indian Parliament, which should have been inaugurated with a renewed commitment to the Constitution, was inaugurated with vulgar hate speeches. This does not bode well for a parliamentary democracy, or what remains of it.
Neera Chandhoke was a professor of political science at the University of Delhi.