In this, his first book, K S Komireddi takes on the challenge of exposing the Hindu right wing’s egregious ubiquitousness, of bringing home prejudices of and concessions to hitherto ‘untouchable’ Leftist pundits, and of treading lightly on the morass of historic missteps that is the lasting legacy of Nehru-Gandhi dynasts.
Does he succeed? For someone who, as a pre-teen, studied at a madrassa in Hyderabad, then at lonely boarding schools in India and England, all the while holding fast to the ideals and ideas that defined India, Komireddi is history-bound to succeed. Yet, the only thing holding him back from a satisfactory denouement is the length of his book. At 186 pages, there is insufficient space to argue the finer points of the mammoth task of critiquing India’s political transformation without it turning into a myopic polemic.
There is a benign echo-chamber-like quality to his writing when he says that under Modi, India has undergone the most total metamorphosis. An excerpt: “Hindu chauvinism, ennobled as a healthy form of self-assertion, has become so untameably wild that it cannot be challenged on terms other than its own. Hindu rage that once manifested itself in localised violence has metastasised into a pan-national cancer….Democratic institutions have been repurposed to abet Hindu nationalism. The military has been politicised, the judiciary plunged into the most existential threat to its independence since 1975. Kashmir has never more resembled a colonial possession. And an incipient yearning for disaffiliation has crystallised in peninsular India.”
With the words ‘malevolent’ and ‘republic’ strung together tenuously in its title, the book starts off with chapters named ‘Erosion’, ‘Surrender’, ‘Decadence’ and ‘Dissolution’ and attempts to hold together its stirring content with others named ‘Cult’, ‘Chaos’, ‘Terror’, ‘Vanity’, ‘Seizure’ and Disunion’. There is criticism of Jawaharlal Nehru: “The principled anti-imperialist and acolyte of Mahatma Gandhi, who never tired of dispensing prelections about peace to foreign leaders, had few misgivings about utilising disproportionate force against people he claimed as his own. In Kerala…he engineered the overthrow of a democratically-elected Communist government. In Kashmir…he presided over an anti-democratic farce. In Nagaland…he authorised the bombing of Christians who had had the temerity to demand from India what India had sought from the British. The Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act…embodied Nehru’s ruthless resolve to preserve the Indian union at any expense.”
Indira Gandhi comes in for sustained censure: “It was India’s forsaken multitudes…who resuscitated the republic. But Indira’s dictatorship had by then ravaged the conventions by which politics was conducted in India. Self-restraint, constitutionalism, institutional autonomy, deliberative governance: everything that made Indian democracy more than an exercise in balloting was left severely bruised.” But Komireddi is unbiased enough to record Indira’s commitment to secularism, at the expense of her personal safety. He writes, “Perhaps the only redeeming quality in Indira’s political career was her unwavering adherence to the most important component of Congress ideology: secularism….She personally ordered the reinstatement of a pair of Sikh officers relieved from her protection squad because their faith came to be seen as a disqualifying factor for proximity to the prime minister. ‘Aren’t we secular?’ she asked the aides responsible for their transfer. The two Sikhs, returned to their sensitive posting on the prime minister’s personal instructions, riddled Indira with bullets on the morning of 31 October 1984. They were avenging, they said, her decision to send the army into the Golden Temple, Sikhism’s most sacred site.”
Apart from Nehru and Indira, we read about the ruthlessness of Sanjay Gandhi in effecting forced sterilisation of Indian men; we find out that in stark contrast to his public image, Rajiv Gandhi reduced to tears Tanguturi Anjaiah, the Dalit chief minister of Andhra Pradesh, when the latter went to receive him at the airport. Even as Anjaiah shed tears, Rajiv called him a ‘buffoon’ and drove away. There is the gripping account of P V Narasimha Rao’s political journey, his commitment to ‘masterly inactivity’ and his wretched end, with stray dogs tearing at the remains of his partially cremated body.
Komireddi gives pause for thought in most of the book, but he touches a raw nerve with his candid appraisal of ‘secularism’ in India. Not for him the sacred cow treatment of secularism and seculars. “It was the mission of ‘secular’ historians and public intellectuals of India to locate mundane causes for carnage by religious zealots. And when those reasons could not be found, they papered over the gruesome deeds of the invaders with nice-nellyisms and emphasised their good traits….Imperialism was destructive only when Europeans did it. When Asians did it, it was a cultural exchange program.” The author argues that this sanitisation of the past did not stand up to close scrutiny and instead became the fertile soil which spawned the bumper harvest of Hindu supremacism. He writes, “Had India been honest about its past..it might have dessicated the appeal of Hindu supremacism. It might have reconciled Indians to their harrowing past, provoked a mature detachment from it and denied Hindu nationalists the opportunity to weaponise history. To come to terms with the past, to move on from it, we must first acknowledge and accept it. A thousand years of Indian history were obfuscated. The reasons were lofty; the consequences of the well-meaning distortions, alas, baleful.”
And then there is Modi and all the baggage he lugs around that, deservedly, comes in for the most strident criticism by the author. Writing about the transformation that India has gone through in the five years of Modi being in power, Komireddi writes, “Five years later, we have more than a glimpse of the New India he has spawned. It is a reflection of its progenitor: culturally arid, intellectually vacant, emotionally bruised, vain, bitter, boastful, permanently aggrieved and implacably malevolent.” In the end, the author warns that Modi’s politics of vengeance is just a ring of the doorbell away. He cites examples of resistance offered by myriad persons to drive home the urgency of the situation India is faced with. From Ehsan Jafri to Aamir Khan and Gauri Lankesh, from Ramachandra Guha and Naseeruddin Shah to Manmohan Singh and B H Loya, the list is long and distressing. “Unless the republic is reclaimed, the time will come when all of us will be one incorrect meal, one interfaith romance, one unfortunate misstep away from being extinguished. The mobs that slaughtered ‘bad’ Muslims will come for Hindus who are not ‘good’.”