In March last year a bizarre and unprecedented phenomenon occurred. Indian women began to launch a defence of Indian men on the social media and at dinner tables. Indian men were not as bad as the world perceived them to be, the women said, not all Indian men were rapists. Indian men, naturally, agreed. They were reacting to a documentary called ‘India’s Daughter’, which was about the gang rape and murder of a young woman in Delhi in December 2012. They had not watched the documentary yet, but they were led to believe that the film, directed by Leslee Udwin, a foreigner, had disdain for Indian society. There were many forces that fuelled the outrage but the primary source of the commotion, they did not realise, was one person whose motivation had nothing to do with rape or affection for the Indian male.
A few days earlier the communist and feminist Kavita Krishnan had published a curious note, which was nationalistic. She was yet to watch the documentary but was “beset with a growing sense of unease at the global publicity campaign” of the film, which had featured her. Her “unease” had something to do with Udwin’s comment to an interviewer: “I made a film on rape in India. Men’s brutal attitudes truly shocked me”. Krishnan was also concerned that the film’s publicity campaign appeared to create the impression that Indian women were in need of a rescue by a “white savior”. Krishnan wrote, “What comes through, then, is a sense of India as a place of ignorance and brutality towards women that inspires both shock and pity but also calls for a rap on the knuckles from the ‘civilised world’ for its ‘brutal attitudes’. Nirbhaya, described patronisingly as a speaker of ‘excellent English’ is marked approvingly as a good subject for the global rescue mission.”
The reason behind this juvenile Sangh-like lament might be explained by an event that occurred a few days earlier.
She had appeared on Times Now to condemn the government’s absurd action of offloading the Greenpeace activist Priya Pillai when she was on her way to London to complain to a group of British Members of Parliament about a mining company’s seeming transgressions in a tribal area. The news anchor Arnab Goswami berated Krishnan for her defence of Pillai and called Krishnan, among other insults, an “anti-national”. Krishnan, who usually holds her own, was rattled. She was humiliated, as she later conveyed. On the show she mumbled that she was not an anti-national.
A few days later when she would watch the publicity campaign of ‘India’s Daughter’ she may have grown nervous. She was featured in the film and the film appeared to be “anti-national”. That would explain her attempt to preempt, in her curious note, all reactions to the documentary.
It was a time, just a year ago, when “anti-national” was a very serious allegation. People who were accused of that condition believed it was extremely important to deny the charge. Krishnan, for instance, went to great lengths, even inadvertently duping women into launch a comical defence of Indian men. Those days people who were against the beef-ban were deemed “anti-national”. Aamir Khan was declared “anti-national” for revealing that his wife had suggested they leave the country because of an atmosphere of intolerance. It is possible that he also lost millions of rupees in endorsement contracts. The opposite of the “anti-national” was clearly defined as a “patriot”. Even in polite sophisticated circles it was not socially acceptable for anyone to claim he was not a patriot. Or to make fun of patriotism.
But in February this year something happened. It might seem like a minor cultural moment but it is more significant than it appears. “Anti-national” became a joke, and people began to lampoon not merely nationalism but also patriotism. On the social media and in middle class get-togethers regular people began to proclaim themselves as “anti-national”. If a news anchor calls a communist an “anti-national” on national television today she would laugh, even accept she is. The Sangh fellowship lost a powerful political emotion of an influential class of society. For old notions to die, we do not always need to wait for old men to die. Sometimes, an idea perishes when it becomes the joke of a generation.
The joke was in the making for the past several months as the BJP’s politicians frequently described anti-Sangh feelings as “anti-national”, but in February a string of events led to the trivialisation of a stigma. Delhi police slapped sedition charges on a bunch of college students, one of whom, Kanhaiya Kumar, was thrashed by patriots. An unknowable number of people on the social media soon began to identify themselves overtly as “anti-national” without any fear, establishing a new meaning of “anti-national” — as “anti-imbecility”. It is a meaning that has come to stay. When Kumar was released he gave a speech. Never before has such a widely broadcast and disseminated speech, delivered in an Indian language, converted patriotism into a joke.
There is, indeed, a type of activism that may harm the nation even though the activists may have honorable intentions. For instance, mass movements that use foreign funds to impede India’s nuclear power generation. Also, there is history. In the past, the Central Intelligence Agency had sponsored several mass movements and cultural forces in the United States and other nations, including the defunct Indian magazine, ‘Imprint’ and some activities of the feminist Gloria Steinem. A moment in a recent New Yorker profile of Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, a financier of social change, has gone unnoticed in India:
‘Walker spent a long time talking with (Indian) government officials, trying to dispel their suspicion. But, he realised, it certainly was a delicate question, what Ford thought it was doing, funding attempts to undermine centuries-old customs in foreign countries. What if some foreign country tried to do that in America?’
If the Modi government says the same thing, many Indians would find it hilarious.
Manu Joseph is a journalist and the author of the novel, The Illicit Happiness of Other People
The views expressed are personal, he tweets @manujosephsan