In a freewheeling conversation with Siddharth Varadarajan, the celebrated historian discusses the place of nationalism in contemporary Indian politics, the role of the media and of the public intellectual
Siddharth Varadarajan: Is critical thinking in India somehow under threat? In posing this question, I had in mind not just overt or covert pressures from the state, or political figures or political authority, but also, in a sense, public attitudes. The growing tendency for the public to acquiesce in the state’s own intolerant attitude towards dissent, towards difference, the ease with which the middle class buys into hero worship, cult of personality, excessive valorisation of the nation; these are all very much a part of present day India.
If you look at the election of Donald Trump, or if you look at political trends in Europe, then clearly this may also be a global phenomenon. Of course, the ‘closing of the Indian mind’ has been going on for some time – I would say for longer than the tenure of the present government, you can trace it back a decade or longer. But there is a sense in which these negative trends have accentuated or sharpened over the past two and a half years. In 2015, we saw the debate over tolerance and intolerance – when artists, writers, cultural personalities mounted a critique of the government’s own toleration of violence, and its failure to act when minorities were being targeted – and the prickly way in which government ministers responded. And then in 2016, the attack seems to have shifted to the university. We saw the way events unfolded in Jawahar Lal Nehru University. I would say things have since moved on – we have a very toxic media environment where excessive jingoism seems to have become the norm and you have a situation where the executive branch of government is encroaching on virtually every countervailing institution this country has: the judiciary, parliament, the central bank, the media etc. Continue reading