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From an Historian’s Notebook: Straw Men

A slow process of acclimatisation to the realities of Hindutva has been underway for some time now. There have been bandwagon jumpers and opportunists, there
Religoin and politics
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Column recap:

Iron Rules of History
Russian Lullaby
The Uses of Exile
Putin & Bengali Cold War 
Imperialism in One Country?
Scratches on the Record
The Progressive Bookseller

The 18th Brumaire of Isaac Asimov
Identity and Vegetables


Somewhere in the depths of a book I once read, probably Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, a young German communist confronts his interlocutor, sent from Moscow with instructions: no one, he said, was willing to be realistic and to admit that the fascists had won: the battle would have to move elsewhere, because staying on in Germany to continue ‘the struggle’ was an effective way of committing suicide. What the lesson from this is for our own times is difficult to translate: after all, Koestler’s anti-communist polemic is not exactly subtle reading – Isaac Deutscher’s rather perceptive review of the genre of ‘I-used-to-be-a-communist-but-then-I-realised-my-errors’ literature was very to the point when he stated that most of those writing such books had joined the Communist Party when it was already a bureaucratic, Stalinised and authoritarian party, which had brutalised or betrayed many communists; having played along for a longish time, they were not plausible witnesses in their claim to a sudden epiphany about the real nature of really existing socialism. But somewhere in the darkness of those statements, there’s a lesson for the politics of a very different country at a very different time.

In India, the fascists have won, and they will be in power, or they will set the tone for the politics of the country, for the foreseeable future. We hear opposition figures declare their allegiance to Hinduism, apparently in order to distinguish themselves from the protagonists of Hindutva, the allegedly violent and evil version that has nothing to do with the ‘true’ Hinduism. Even as we note that we have heard this claim many times before, only with ‘Islamist’ and ‘Islam’ as the operative categories, we might want to forget that this is an admission of defeat: the explicit reference to religious denominations in politics as a necessary prelude to any political statement was not something that we’d expected to hear in our lifetimes. Meanwhile, intellectuals, academics, and others who we were used to hearing in loud and self-righteous tones, talking about a wide variety of principled positions, maintain a somewhat abject silence.

right wing

That the fascists are not very clever is a comforting half-truth that we should stop telling ourselves: they are trained enough and skilled enough in the brutalities they need to stay in power. We live in an age where we are constantly clutching at straws to construct our straw men. It’s not quite that the simple-minded political opponents that we’d like to imagine do not actually exist: they do. But when we build ourselves a convenient idiot, we don’t do ourselves any favours, because we can huff and puff and blow him down quite easily, thereby imagining that his compatriots are all like that. Mostly, this is a truism that applies regardless of political loyalties. The antinational, seditious, pro-Kashmiri-azaadi JNU jholawala and the genital-scratching, public-nuisance-committing, khaki-shorts-wearing, gaumutra-drinking Sanghi are unfortunately for both sides of the polemic not really existing creatures so much as what a German sociologist of a certain era (not the one you think) might have called ideal types. And we idolise or denigrate them at our peril.

We live in an age where we assume that predictability all the more easily because we think we can predict political allegiances from identities. After a generation or so of the ascendancy of identity politics rather than the politics of conviction, persuasion and solidarity, it is not an argument that we are used to addressing. Rather, it is the origin of the speaking voice. If the argument and the speaker are not predictably intertwined, we begin to have trouble dealing with the argument.

But political positions are a combination of things: sincerely-held views (impossible for third parties to ascertain, of course, with any accuracy, for who could be in someone else’s head?), skilful uses of idioms of legitimacy that are readily available, sophisticated justifications for irrational prejudices, or what a French sociologist called habitus, a kind of embodied socialisation that is well short of a consciously-argued or self-reflexive position.

And that is where we are in a wholly new era. If, like me, you were born in the 1970s or slightly earlier, the common-sense of today would not have been common, nor would it have made any sense, in our formative years, not least the idea that you could tell what a ‘Hindu’ thinks or ought to think from his Hinduness. Now, where after several decades of relentless propaganda, the normalisation of what we might call the RSS view of the world has reached the point that we don’t actually question whether we should be happy that ‘one of us’ made it to propagandist-in-chief; it’s no longer peculiar, because it is for some people just a career, built upon a habitus. So we just send the standard letters of congratulations and feel happy that by virtue of our own special forms of social capital we know people who are now powerful, even if we might not actually agree with their political views. This is of course the civilised position that is expected in a liberal consensus; only, there isn’t one, and the courtesy is misplaced. W.H. Auden put it rather well when he wrote in 1956:

There will be no peace.

Fight back, then, with such courage as you have

And every unchivalrous dodge you know of,

Clear in your conscience on this:

Their cause, if they had one, is nothing to them now;

They hate for hate’s sake.

A slow process of acclimatisation to the realities of Hindutva has been underway for some time now. There have been bandwagon jumpers and opportunists, there have been cruder brutes who seem to enjoy the sense of power associated with killing, maiming or raping for an allegedly higher cause. But there are also sophisticates with an education, and with the requisite RSS training (even if it has hitherto been polite to hide it if you have aspirations to intellectualism) who are willing openly to serve the saffron cause, and have been doing so for some time. They were the pioneers, in some ways: the leading jurist of the Third Reich, Carl Schmitt, made a better career under the Nazis, but he already had a career before that. It does not help us to look for the genital-scratching straw men when the shorts have been replaced by trousers and the dusty parade-grounds with the imperial splendour of the Viceroy’s Palace. Someone else can drink gomutra– different rules apply to intellectuals. This is the time, then, for many to join the saffron brigade, as their language becomes the idiom of legitimacy. Those who don’t join might well claim to have principles, but many who haven’t yet sold their souls might have not done so because there were no (or there have not yet been) buyers. One thing is for certain, though– a noisy attempt to break through an open door in order to knock down the straw man behind it is not very helpful, even if it enables you to appear briefly in the costumes of heroic resistance.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of or its editorial team members. 

Images courtesy: Pixabay

Benjamin Zachariah works at the Georg Eckert Institute for Educational Media in Braunschweig, and with the project on the contemporary history of historiography at the University of Trier. He was trained in the discipline of history in the last decade of the previous century. After an uneventful beginning to a perfectly normal academic career, he began to take an interest in the importance of history outside the circle of professional historians, and the destruction of the profession by the profession. He is interested in the writing and teaching of history and the place of history in the public domain.

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