Last Man with a Lightbulb and Not a Word to Speak to His Soul: Why Hindus are Losing the Story War

10/07/2017 03:52 am ET Updated Oct 07, 2017
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Despite the leadership of a tremendously selfless, intelligent and inspiring human being as Prime Minister, things remain ominous for India.

The promise of a civilizational vision that would channel “development” away from its monstrous eco-destructive form into a Swaraj and Antyodaya-informed one, might not deserve to be given up on just yet, but what is being lost is far more serious than one might understand today.

Narendra Modi’s actions resonate with Indians at many levels. He is seen as honest, selfless, a “fakir,” even, and his policies seem staunchly oriented towards empowering the poor.

Nara and Narayana of Integral Humanism

But the question to consider is this: are the masses of India going to find the dignity and happiness (or self-recognition as divine-beings, as nara-narayana, as Upadhyaya might put it), if their sense of self is so relentlessly poisoned by a toxic propaganda climate that leaves them rootless, sightless, and indeed, bereft of their soul itself? How long will freedom last if all people find on their phones is calculated calumny against their thought, their traditions, and their identity itself?

If the present state of affairs continues unchanged, we will have a situation where “Nara” is saved, somewhat, but the lofty ideal of “Narayana” is lost forever. I doubt at all that if that is what a visionary like Modiji wants, but without taking stock of what is commonly called the “narrative” battle, we are looking at a nation of unhappy and cluelessly destructive people in two generations who will remain Indian, Hindu, Muslim, Christian, whatever they are only in blindly ideological terms rather than through a rich experience of all of our culture and its eternal promise.

This is not an alarmist call about how Hindus or Hinduism are going to vanish, nor a charge of betrayal against the BJP for betraying its Hindu base. There is real concern about the future of Hindu sovereignty, for sure, and there are criticisms being made by many concerned Hindus that the BJP tends to speak for Hindus only in opposition, and then settles down to ruling as a status quo, or even wannabe-secular dispensation. I believe that this criticism is slightly less appropriate with the present government, whose members seem to embody a balance of constitutional professionalism with personal piety and respect for Hindu sensibilities.

However, there is one glaring front on which the present leadership remains profoundly stunted, and that is in helping elevate the Hindu viewpoint to a place of legitimacy in the Indian public sphere. That, they simply do not seem to know how to do. Despite all the talk of digital media and participatory democracy, the BJP suffers from a serious absence of understanding of the terrain on which a “narrative” battle is conducted. This is not a battle for votes. That, the present leadership seems very good at doing. The people are broadly with Modi, there is no doubt. But as the last few years have shown, what we might see going forward is the strange scenario where a dedicated Hindu leadership continues to rule the country, and maybe even rule it sincerely, but get used to watching on indifferently as the soul of its people gets viciously eviscerated by a superior narrative machine that permanently keeps the Hindu grievance marginalized, discredited, and disreputable.

And the problem with the toxic media and academic narrative is that it delegitimizes not only a Hindu sense of grievance, political Hinduism as it were, but even existential Hinduism. This has been the fundamental squeeze tightening around Hindus for decades now; anything short of extreme loathing against Hinduism is dismissed as Hindu extremism, and virulent anti-Hindu falsehood elevated as secular, scientific, knowledge of Hinduism.

The people have seen through that no doubt. They participate in online forums, and social media has become a vibrant place for challenging the old giants. There is a movement going on, for sure. But, as I wrote recently in The Organiser, a movement will also need to engage and win over a place for itself in the establishment as well. It cannot remain a movement forever. It will be like running on a treadmill and shouting fire instead of actually reaching the place and putting it out. This is not a good thing at all. As time passes, Hindus will be struggling more and more to simply hold on to the narrative ground, not to mention literal ground, being eroded from under them. The possibility of a Hindu place in the world alongside others, will continue to weaken. Eighty percent of Indians will always be condemned to be talked about, talked over, and left to struggle to find the dignity that is granted so easily to the grievances of others in the world today.

Hindu Activism and Career Prospects

I recently asked Hindu activists among my Facebook friends two questions; one on the promise of a Hindu awareness being awakened in the next generation, and the other on whether Hindu activism takes a toll on peoples’ health (as I have seen happen elsewhere). Several responses, interestingly enough had to do with an unexpected angle; that Hindu activism seriously harms career prospects. These are not academics! It is stunning to see that being associated with what in any other context would be called a human rights or multicultural issue gets you discredited like this. This is an example of what I mean by running on a treadmill. Unless the concerns that animate the movement also find their way into the institutions, namely media and academia, Hindus with a conscience will remain forever fearful, or forever antagonistic to others, in order to have their voice heard.

The institutionalization of narratives is something that has to be done, and unfortunately, there is little expertise outside the institutions (which are largely hostile) to do this successfully. At least two major efforts that I know of by various organizations and leaders to engage with “narrative building” have been unsuccessful, and sometimes profoundly counterproductive, creating unnecessary baggage and exposing the movement to easy dismissal or demonization. These are all still voluntary efforts, but we are yet to see how a government nominally in power will deal with these issues. Clearly, it knows there is a constituency that expects to see changes in the discourse, at the very least, in education.

Wrong Ways to “Change the Narrative”

But how the government will deal with this remains to be seen. So far, one can note three tendencies:

One, to ignore the whole narrative front. After all, the longer the big media and academic elites continue their increasingly mendacious attacks on Hindus, the more isolated they become from the majority of Indians, who will in turn strengthen the political base of the party.

Two, to reach out to opponents on the assumption that the BJP is now the grand new party and must be inclusive and “coopt” everyone (though the “coopting” attempts seems like genuflecting and are often brashly rebuffed). This step is usually accompanied by an embarrassed silencing and distancing of sympathetic voices, as if it’s infra dig to still be seen with Hindus.

Three, to dismiss opponents as “antinationals” and “presstitutes” and push the buttons of government force wherever possible to enforce top-down, statist solutions like compulsory national anthem singing on campuses, regurgitation of supposedly patriotic content, and so on.

All three approaches are seriously immature and flawed, in my view. One cannot expect a movement to grow on resentment after coming to power; the other side’s resentment will always be stronger (it’s theory that India is now experiencing fascism sounds ever more credible in its circles, small but influential as they are), and the project can collapse in a moment. Indians are deeply aspirational at the moment, and even if the vast majority of small town working and lower middle classes oppose the elites of media and academia today, they will eventually be forced to buy into a fashionable soft Hinduphobia as a marker of upward mobility. This is for the simple reason that there are careers and paths to advancement galore in bashing Hinduism and India. There are none at all, not in media and academia at last, in defending them.

And as for top-down solutions like forcing new curricula and patriotic practices in campuses, those are all things that would breed only even more resentment, and further prove to the young that somehow all that the media elites are saying about fascism in India are coming true. A narrative battle has to be won by entering the mind of the opponent, not by trying to cap it. For that, the government has to learn from the movement that helped put it there, and engage with the establishment confidently, civilly, and on the terms set by its constituency. The establishment knows only too well that this is a huge weakness in the otherwise victorious political machine of the BJP today. It tested the waters mildly with the Maharashtra “meat ban” issue in early 2015, escalated it to strong levels with the “intolerance” protests, and all but staged a kangaroo court and lynch mob execution of anyone with the word “Hindu” in their identities a few weeks ago for the completely unrelated crime of a journalist’s murder.

The establishment is strong, not simply because it is funded by some foreign hand, as many in the Hindu movement think, but simply because it is doing its job. Journalists, professors, writers, activists, have all been studying, teaching, advocating one simple thing for two decades now, and they all believe in it completely. It does not matter at all that their theories are being proved wrong by reality. They have all the channels they need to keep their influence going forever, and the only way to change it is to either spend the serious money needed to create parallel channels in education and media, or to figure out how to defeat the establishment on grounds appropriate to a narrative battle: through debate, reason, and sheer truth-force.

The movement has enough energy to perhaps grow to this stage, but this can happen only if the leadership transforms its understanding of the narrative battlefield and stops treating the movement cynically. The movement is challenged as it is functioning without institutions and resources to fight the massive propaganda war raging against it. For the government to become an albatross on the neck of its supporters through sheer ineptitude is inexcusable, and unbecoming of the promise its leaders have offered after decades or even centuries of despair.

The World and its Story-Forces

If India is to be truly recovered, then a serious effort has to commence to rescue its story about itself. One billion people with a strong, unbroken sense of spirit and past, and a powerful universalist yearning to steer the planet off its looming ecological catastrophe should not be dummified any longer. The battle for the world-story is on, and right now, we are not even on the margins of it. As story-forces, only three narratives are holding sway right now: (1) Islam (2) the nominally secular-liberal globalization order (3) what we might broadly call MAGA, a backlash to the former drawing on but not identical to Western Christianity (China is a force, but is not a story-force as such on the same scale).

India does not have a story or force at the moment, but it has to invest in one. Otherwise, the last man in India might still get a light bulb, toilet and cell phone, but will have nothing at all in his hands or before his eyes to reflect his spiritual and cultural ambitions in. Nara cannot become Narayana without the force of a story to tell him it can be so.

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