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Are we now headed towards a totalitarian society?

Given what’s happening around us these days from the restrictions on what we can eat, laws about the kind of comedy that is ‘acceptable’ and the ongoing campaign of terror against Bollywood,

it may be worth restating the difference between authoritarianism and totalitarianism.


An authoritarian society has no tolerance for dissent, no respect for democracy (even if it pays lip service to it), and wants us all to do as we are told.


   Most monarchies and dictatorships are authoritarian in nature. There are few democracies in the Middle East for example, only degrees of authoritarianism. Most countries run by military regimes (Pakistan from time to time, for example) are authoritarian in nature. Among our neighbours, Burma may be the most authoritarian.


   A totalitarian regime is authoritarian by definition. But it goes far beyond that. It doesn’t just clamp down on dissent and demand absolute obedience. It wants to control how you think and to decide what your way of life will be.


   Totalitarian regimes are usually associated with regressive ideologies. The Nazis were totalitarian. You had to believe in their bogus history (about a great Aryan race). You had to sing the praises of the Third Reich. If you were a Jew you were a non-person (and eventually, you were dead).


   In recent times, Communism has bred the worst kind of totalitarianism. In Mao Tse Tung’s China, there were no good restaurants (haute cuisine was counter-revolutionary so chefs were sent to the countryside for re-education); you had to wear the same sorts of clothes and if you deviated at all from the party line, even in your personal life, you were ‘criticised’ by your local community and suffered some form of excommunication. Stalin’s Russia was much the same. And the Taliban have created the world’s worst totalitarian society.


   Clearly, as bad as authoritarianism is, totalitarianism is worse. Now that the Chinese and the Russians have been freed of totalitarianism and made to merely suffer the restrictions of authoritarianism, they act as though the bad times are over. But of course, both countries remain rigidly authoritarian societies.


   In India, though we talk about freedom and democracy, the truth is that many of us don’t mind authoritarianism at all. We don’t like admitting it but almost till the end, the middle classes supported Indira Gandhi’s Emergency. They did not care that the opposition had been locked up, civil liberties suspended and the press censored.


   Instead you heard people talk about how inflation had been controlled, how there was less corruption and how the Emergency had imposed order on the chaos of India. When Mrs Gandhi lost the 1977 election the defeats were mainly in the North where people were angry about Sanjay Gandhi’s sterilisation programme. Mrs. Gandhi was back in under three years and the middle class never really fell out of love with her.


 "It’s easy to see what’s going on here. They want to frighten Bollywood into following their own line and to exercise control over its content."

   When people talk about today’s India and point to the suppression of extreme dissent, the targeting of opponents etc., they are surprised to find that this makes very little difference to the middle class (let alone the rich) or to the public at large. Because, and let’s be honest here, the middle class cares about democracy and freedom — but only up to a point. As long as they have a leader who they feel has made India stronger (as Mrs. Gandhi did) and imposed some discipline on the country, they are more than happy. They don’t necessarily approve of the use of the repressive power of the state against political opponents or critics. But they don’t care very much either.


   Now, however, I have a sense that we are moving into a new phase, one that is getting worryingly nearer to totalitarianism. The signs were always there. Authoritarian societies don’t care what you eat. But in India, we are unreasonably obsessed with beef-eating. Authoritarians don’t like being made fun of. But totalitarians turn it into an obsession. In Nazi Germany, Adolf Hitler had galleries dedicated to ‘exposing’ the evil designs of foreign film-makers and comedians. Likewise in China where campaigns were launched against ‘decadent’ Western art and popular culture.


   You can, perhaps, ascribe the persecution of Indian comedians to simple authoritarianism. It isn’t just the shameful treatment of Munawar Faruqui. It is now the generalised attack on anyone who is painted as being anti-Hindu. A few days ago, the comedian Kunal Kamra whose shows have attracted threats and boycotts told NDTV, “There are clear cut mentions in our Constitution on what amounts to free speech, what amounts to religious bigotry and what amounts to inciting violence. There is a court to decide. Let them decide if this is anti-Hindu.”


   Except of course, as the Munawar Faruqui case demonstrates, the Courts don’t always uphold the freedom of comedians.


   Another example is the systematically organised campaign against Bollywood. The Hindi film industry is the greatest example of India’s soft power. Over the last few years however it has been whipped into supplication by boycotts and bogus drug charges.


   As I write this, an (apparently unsuccessful) campaign against Brahmastra is trending on social media. Actor Aamir Khan, a favourite target of such campaigns, has faced a boycott of his last movie. And even Akshay Kumar, an actor of such eminence that he can discuss mangoes with the Prime Minister, has been hit by calls for boycotts of some of his films.


   You don’t really need to offend Hindus to be boycotted. The campaign against Brahmastra is unconnected to the film. The ostensible cause is that years ago, its star Ranbir Kapoor said he liked beef. The organisers of the boycotts are not people who have been offended. They are people in search of offence.


  It’s easy to see what’s going on here. They want to frighten Bollywood into following their own line and to exercise control over its content. Eventually, directors will be terrified of doing anything that offends these boycott-advocates and companies will be reluctant to hire actors who might attract controversy as brand ambassadors or endorsers.


   This goes beyond politics or mere authoritarianism. The concern is not with attacks on the regime. The intention is to impose a way of thinking on our lives, our art and our entertainment.


   Two things need to be emphasized. The first is that we are still a long way from totalitarianism. (I wouldn’t be able to write this column if we were already there.) But yes, there are signs that we are now headed in that direction.


   And two, the boycotts are not officially-sponsored. There is no proof that the government backs them. But yes, they emanate from groups sympathetic to the government and at least one minister (the late Manohar Parrikar) spoke approvingly of them.


   There is of course an easy way of halting the slide to totalitarianism and of making it clear that the regime does not approve of the thought-police. All the government has to do is to speak out against what is going on.


   But will it?



Posted On: 15 Sep 2022 11:40 AM
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