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Triumph of measles

India’s dark, new nationalism mirrors a global phenomenon. But do we really want our version of Turkey’s Erdogan? Samar Halarnkar writes.
Hindustan Times | By Samar Halarnkar
UPDATED ON FEB 02, 2012 01:21 AM IST

To see what an India dominated by so-called nationalists would look like, it is instructive to look at modern Turkey. Turkish Premier Recep Tayyip Erdogan is the mirror-image of what so-called nationalists want of a leader. Clad in suit and tie, Erdogan has overseen a period of economic prosperity. The West sees him as a “mild” or “moderate” Islamist, who believes in Turkish secular democracy and a future with Europe. Yet, it is clear the usually glowering Erdogan has quietly turned Turkey — in many parts, a westernised society with strongly secular foundations — to the east and the Islamic world. As a strategic reorientation, this is fine, but Erdogan’s religious orientation goes hand-in-hand with a stifling of the media and the rise of a dark, new nationalism.

More than 100 journalists are presently imprisoned in supposedly democratic Turkey, more than in totalitarian China and Iran. A vaguely worded law called Article 301 bans the media from criticising “Turkishness”, which usually is what the government says it is. Reporters without Borders, a global media advocacy groups, ranked Turkey at 98th position in media freedom in 2008; today it has slipped to 138.

Erdogan’s autocratic ways — in the manner of “nationalists” almost everywhere — were not immediate but gradually evident. In June 2010, he powered his party, the AKP (the Justice and Development Party), to a third landslide win in general elections. In October 2010, he called a closed-door meeting of 50 top editors and media magnates and lectured them on toning down coverage of Turkey’s Kashmir, Kurdistan. It lasted three hours and at the end of it, Turkey’s top five media agencies released a statement that pledged “…(not to) broadcast news that incites the public to violence, panic, chaos, hate or enmity”.

Now, imagine Manmohan Singh delivering such a lecture. It is even harder to imagine that the Indian media would obey him. But it is not inconceivable that a future government of so-called nationalists would pressure the media, be intolerant of diversity and drastically prune the great tree of free expression.

We are already witnessing a slow, insidious, Erdogan-like hardening in states such as Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka, which are now quietly introducing “nationalistic” legislation, from banning cow slaughter to teaching the Bhagvad Gita in schools. Attacks on free expression by so-called nationalists are growing, the latest being a Turkey-like case of treason against a 25-year-old freelance political cartoonist called Aseem Trivedi for mocking the Indian State. A judge in Beed, Maharashtra, has ordered the police to bring Trivedi to court, and in Mumbai, after a lawyer filed a police complaint, an internet company blocked the cartoonist’s website (

I use the term “so-called” as a preface to nationalists because in truth they are anything but. Albert Einstein called nationalism “an infantile disease… the measles of mankind”, but he was being kind.

A US diplomat called Dan Fried got it right, likening nationalism to cheap alcohol: first it gets you drunk, then it makes you blind, then it kills you. That is certainly what happened with Germany of the Third Reich; that is how good men and women could first condone Adolf Hitler’s mild excesses and were blind to the Holocaust.

Much as we like to say that self-proclaimed ‘nationalists’ — let’s call them the measles people — of organisations like the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the Ram Sene, the Shiv Sena and a bunch of others stricken by such infantility, represent the Indian fringe, there is little doubt that this disease, this blindness of xenophobia and chauvinism, is spreading.

The withdrawal of Jashn-e-Azadi, a film on troubled Kashmir, from a festival at Pune’s Symbiosis University, is the latest evidence of the growing power of so-called nationalists. Over the past decade, a range of people or works of arts and culture have been forced out of public fora by no more than the threat of violence from the measles people.

There are three reasons for the growth of cultural and religious intolerance in India.

One, globalisation and the subsequent relentless pace of change have left people dizzy, breathless and anxious, susceptible to persuasion from people they might have laughed off or ignored half a generation ago. Many of us have become these people.

Two, the ruling Congress party’s anxiety over its electoral future in an era of coalitions persuade it to succumb to such threats, however minor. Instead of ensuring public order, the government uses the false threat of public disorder to ban or allow disruption, as it did with the Jaipur Literary Festival.

Three, the rise of so-called nationalism in India mirrors the definitive rise of the right and far right in nations as diverse as Holland, the US and Turkey. Across the world, it is the so-called nationalists who reflect the chauvinism and hate born of the 2010s, an age of stress and anxiety.

There are no easy ways out. In Russia, where ultra-nationalist groups propounding things like racial purity find resonance, left-liberals have recently been forced to align with milder “nationalists” to create a united front against the autocratic Putin. But like the Arab Spring, where liberals initially joined hands with Islamists and now fear a winter of Islamisation around the corner, such strange partnerships are fraught with unintended consequences.

The ideal definition of a nationalist would be someone who puts nation above all else, not an insecure measles man who promotes a nation with his culture as predominant. The real nationalist is someone who believes in diversity, tolerance, patriotism and progress for all. But this sounds like a mythical person, does it not, with a mythical name, such as Mahatma Gandhi?

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