Modis vision for the country is one that stifles dissent and difference, says the author and academic Amit Chaudhuri

Four months have passed since Narendra Modi and the BJP came back to power in India, and more seems to have happened there than in the last 40 years. The sense of severance that many experience today, of being divorced from the workings of the nation, exceeds even the helplessness felt during the suspension of civil liberties in the emergency of 1975 to 1977 and the political traumas that followed.

This is because without the matter being explicitly articulated citizen has been set against citizen: not just Muslim against Hindu or, say, Kashmiris against the rest of India, but those who subscribe to the BJPs new conception of the nation against those who do not, leaving one without trust in the other.

How to judge these past four months? A series of disruptions has dwarfed the now distant seeming upset of Modis economically disastrous demonetisation programme of 2016. In August there was the abrogation of article 370 of the Indian constitution, which granted special status to Kashmir in acknowledgment of its contested history. This was followed immediately by the house arrest of elected Kashmiri leaders and the imprisonment of thousands of others.

What we saw was the attempt to take a difficult and divisive issue and simply place it to one side by act of will, so that it requires no further discussion. There is the impression that not just the Kashmiris but all our fates are now being decided for us.

The home minister, Amit Shah, would have us believe that the restrictions in Kashmir are all in the mind. I asked a Kashmiri how she interpreted this. She speculated that what was being implied was that the lack of protest in Kashmir was equal to normalcy. But a lack of protest in a democratic country is strange, and a sustained lack of protest alarming. Is this the normalcy that Indians wish to be bestowed on them by their government?

Then there is spectacle of a different sort: of the government borrowing an unprecedented sum of money from the Reserve Bank of India; of it failing to pay the Central Reserve Police Force; of the economy tanking, of Modi pronouncing that India is in the ascendant. We live simultaneously in disparate realities: a normal Kashmir, an abnormal country; a bankrupt economy; a rising India competing scripts, none of which acknowledge the existence of the other, as distant as countryman has grown to countryman.

If asked what this governments one great recent achievement is, some people might draw attention to the number of toilets built in a country with poor sanitation. Others, whose experience of the new India is different, would say that its greatest success has been in creating a climate of fear. As a consequence, dissent has a purer form now. Its no longer, as it was once, preaching to the converted. Its not even the pointing out of unpleasant facts. Its simply a demonstration that dissent continues to be possible.

India has not, outside of Indira Gandhis declaration of emergency, been in this place before, and certainly not with the degree of popular support we see now, which can only be characterised as a form of inebriation. The judiciary, the police and other law enforcement agencies are all seen, rightly or wrongly, to belong to the government, and many high-profile lawbreakers seem to be those who, coincidentally, disagree with the BJP. The number of cases of sedition, a charge left over from colonial India, has risen dramatically.

The National Register of Citizens is a BJP-backed project aimed at uncovering foreigners. Villagers wait to check their names in the register in Assam. Photograph: Anupam Nath/AP

Of course, the erosion of institutional independence didnt happen overnight. Over the last 30 years all governments in India, state and central, have had limited respect for civil liberties and democracy: Indian parties are only fervent democrats when theyre in opposition. But no government has been as openly and robustly punitive towards dissent as this one.

Could this ferocious and successful discouragement of dissent herald the achhe din (good times) Modi has advertised to Indian voters at his rallies? A dissent-free country is a normal country; a dissent-free political environment constitutes a good time for its rulers.

I myself have first-hand experience of this. I recently signed a letter of protest addressed to the prime minister, drawing attention to increased religious violence. My co-signatories were 48 of Indias most eminent film-makers, academics, activists, artists and writers. In response to a petition in Muzzafurpur, Bihar, a court has now asked the police to open a case against us.

Then theres the National Register of Citizens (NRC), a central government-backed project in the state of Assam aimed at uncovering and expelling foreigners (that is, Muslim refugees from Bangladesh who dont have the relevant documents, though the reality has turned out to be far messier, though, messily, the majority of those now deemed foreigners have turned out to be Hindus). Many are threatened with being uprooted, and others in the region are being asked to help uproot their neighbours. These extraordinary developments got me thinking about ethnicity and citizenship. About the trajectory of Indians in the 20th century: of Gandhis relocation to England and then to South Africa, where, made conscious of his race and colour, he first moved towards politics; of Sikhs settling en masse in Canada after murderous violence against them in 1984; of Bengalis departing a declining Kolkata in the 70s.

Indians are a many-sided people: they are entrepreneurial, curious, cultured, open-minded, adventurous. They have great writers, scientists, businessmen; they have Gandhi. Theyre also great migrants: theyve gone to and worked and settled in every part of the world. They know the pain of discrimination and upheaval intimately. In this context, the fraught rhetoric surrounding the NRC, where illegal migrant is time and again conflated with Muslim, and Muslim with foreigner, shows a disconnect between what Indians have historically known, felt and achieved as migrants, despite hostility and opposition, and how, at home, they perceive those they suddenly decide are the other.

Its odd that our past hasnt given us a more immediate sense of the value and inevitability of plurality, of accommodating difference. Instead, many of us have refashioned ourselves as north Indian Brahmin manqus, wanting Hindi as the official national language, wanting to be what were not, wanting our nation to be what it cant be. Only a determined abstention from self-inquiry could have got us here. Rather than accepting an India where lack of dissent is expected, it is time to look inward: to recollect the journeys weve made, and assess whether weve ended up where we wanted to be.

Amit Chaudhuri is professor of contemporary literature at the University of East Anglia and an author



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