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An Authoritarian’s Old Tricks of Trade

The makers of our constitution knew that in spite of the democratic structure democratic republics descend into oligarchy as demagogues install themselves as tyrants. They contemplated the history of other democracies and their own past and established a system of checks and balances. We may be tempted to think that the checks and balances provided in our Constitution would protect us from such threats. However, as history has shown rulers circumvent the law for their own benefit, or usurp power to establish tyranny. History does not just tell; it also instructs. Now may be a good time to learn from other people’s mistakes.


George Orwell in his essay Politics and the English language says, “The half−conscious belief that language is a natural growth and not an instrument which we shape for our own purposes…if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation, even among people who should and do know better.” From Hitler to Britishers in India, language has been used as a tool to reject legitimate opposition. Today, in India, anyone who dares to say a word against the Modi government is immediately labelled an ‘anti-national’, while the word ‘liberal’ is used as a cuss word. The people who make treacherous use of patriotic vocabulary to taint a dissident forget that the state and nation are two different entities.


Image credits:
“Aadhaar is a national security threat.”

Authoritarianism is not simply an all-power state. Authoritarians blur the lines between public and private space. Back in 2017, a nine-bench judge of the Supreme Court in a historic judgement ruled privacy a fundamental right following a decision over the contentious Aadhaar Card scheme. In 2019, again we debate the Personal Data Protection Bill and the draft Intermediary (amendment) Rules 2018, which give arbitrary power to the government over our data that is prone to misuse. Again, the attempt to pierce the privacy of individuals is not something new and as we lose our privacy, we become devoid of control over not just what we read but also how we act.


The institutions-court, a law, the constitution, newspaper are there to protect us. The assumption that these institutions will protect themselves in the face of threats is misguided. These institutions enable rulers to come to power but the same rulers can destroy or alter the very same institutions. The ongoing youth-led, cross- section protests against the triumvirate CAA-NRC-NPR subvert the present government’s idea of a homogenous society or a ‘Hindu Rashtra’.


Victor Klemperer observed that truth dies in four modes. First is the presentation of lies as if they were facts. The Prime Minister consistently resorts to lies and distorts history in his speeches, conveniently faltering dates, and sequences of events. The second mode is shamanistic incantation.  The Modi-Shah duo have systematically used nicknames such as ‘Tukde-Tukde Gang’ and even ‘Chowkidaar’ to transform individuals into stereotypes. The third mode is use of

contradiction. The recent biggest contradiction has been Modi and Shah’s statements on CAA-NRC. The final mode is people-worship or misplaced faith. This misplaced faith is on display when Venkaiah Naidu before taking the post of Vice-President said, “Modi is God’s gift to India”. Or when a reporter asks, “The GDP is falling. Do you still support BJP?” and the Pavlovian response, stemming from a morass of indifference is, “Modi humare bhagwaan hai” (Modi is our God), no space is left for truth.


Image credits: Haaretz
Boycott of Jewish business in Nazi Germany.

In 1993, when the Nazi Party came to power the Nazis organised a boycott of Jewish shops by marking one as ‘Jewish’ the other as ‘Aryan’. The present government since it came to power sought out rewriting history by renaming streets, cities and other places. The Ministry of External Affairs, printed new passports with the lotus symbol on the pretext of enhanced security feature to identify fake passports. While, it is true that lotus is a national symbol, it cannot be forgotten that it is also the election symbol of Bhartiya Janata Party.

Authoritarians’ rejected reason in the face of myth, made self-deifying claims, propagated symbols of hate, attacked institutions, exploited free speech and the privacy of individuals to establish themselves as tyrants. The antidote was and is to establish a private life, believe in truth, remove the symbols of hate, protect the institutions that protect us, pay attention to the use of certain words and phrases.

Maryam Ahmed
Department of English, Jamia Millia Islamia

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Written by Maryam Ahmed

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