Authoritarianism and lies: How the Modi regime survives on the constant reinforcement of a fictional reality
Suchitra Vijayan is a barrister, researcher and the author of Midnight’s Borders: A People’s History of Modern India. She is the Executive Director of The Polis Project and tweets at @suchitrav.
In this essay, Suchitra Vijayan reflects on how lying has emerged as a key strategy in the Narendra Modi government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. She further explores how fabricating a fictional reality has long been a strategy to establish and maintain authoritarian control.
India was ravaged by a second wave of COVID-19 earlier this year. While the official death toll is 418,000, a recent report estimates that there might have been 4.9 million excess deaths. While deaths have disappeared from headlines, the true account of loss and trauma is yet to emerge.
While Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his government continued to downplay the extent of the damage, the ground reports told a story of death and devastation. Hospitals across the country struggled as they faced severe shortages of essential life-saving medicine and there were daily reports of people dying from a lack of oxygen. Social media timelines were filled with anguish and pleas for help. Crematoria worked around the clock, graveyards ran out of space, rivers swelled with bodies and embankments became shallow graves.
The tragedy is that these deaths were foreseeable and preventable: the oxygen shortage, for example, was flagged by experts as early as November 2020. India witnessed a colossal failure of leadership and to date there has been no political accountability. This week opposition Minister KC Venugopal asked “whether a large number of Covid patients died […] due to acute shortage of oxygen in the second wave”. In response, the Minister for health and family welfare, Bharati Pawar, outsourced the responsibility to the state governments and added that no deaths were reported due to lack of oxygen.
News reports, photographs, videos, social media pleas and even dead bodies are no longer proof of reality or what the people of India collectively suffered. Instead, the regime that has legislated on what we eat, whom we love, what we desire and how we live has now come for our memory.
Lies, obfuscation, erasure and rewriting of history are not new to this regime. Blurring the lines between fact and fake news, reality and lies is fundamental to their capacity to hold on to power. This is not just the failure of governance (authoritarian regimes seldom govern), but it is the ongoing attrition to empty meaning out of how people perceive truth, time and history.
Orwell wrote that “[t]he frightening thing about totalitarianism is not that it commits ‘atrocities’ but that it attacks the concept of objective truth: it claims to control the past as well as the future.” Today this is true of India as well.
Lies work in multiple ways — first, it starts with consistently revising and rewriting history. Second, propaganda is so pervasive that it has become impossible to identify the truth and disinformation is the only available reality. For instance, Justice SS Shinde at the Bombay High Court was forced to withdraw the statements he made praising Father Stan Swamy after he died contracting COVID-19 awaiting trial. This came after the National Investigation Agency (NIA) raised objections. In an act of profound irony, the agency claimed that “there is a negative perception being created against the NIA.” . The 84-year-old Jesuit priest was the oldest person to be arrested on terror charges. He was incarcerated without evidence during the pandemic, denied care, medical treatment and refused bail despite his deteriorating health. NIA also refused to provide Father Stan Swamy with a straw to drink water as he struggled with Parkinson’s disease. Despite these glaring actions of neglect, the government continued to claim that it has acted within the due process of law. However, what is crucial here is NIA’s demand to erase even the modicum of empathy and truth that Judges could conjure from the official legal record.
Third, to borrow from Czesław Miłosz’s book The Captive Mind, authoritarian regimes divide people “into loyalists and criminals’’ with “a premium placed on every type of conformist, coward, and hireling.” Rewriting history and undoing our reality creates conditions that segregate citizens into those who support the regime with absolute loyalty and those who do not. The latter quickly became “Anti Nationals” and “Urban Naxals.” Dissent is not only unacceptable; it is criminalized. This is the reason why some of the country’s foremost scholars, writers, thinkers and activists who have fought for the dignity of the common man are now languishing in prisons on false charges and planted evidence under draconian laws.
Fourth, proof and evidence have become impotent, they can no longer procure justice. For instance, in February 2021, journalist Ismat Ara interviewed BJP’s Kapil Mishra about his hate speech and role in the Delhi violence. Mishra, with absolute confidence, initially denied being there and demanded proof. However, when Ara confronted him with the video, he quickly changed his tone and said that he was proud of what he had done. He then defended the goli maaron salon ko slogan after denying its existence and proclaimed that “if it happens like that again, I will do that again.” Despite the video going viral, Kapil Mishra remains free. If anything, playing fast and loose with truth further strengthened his appeal.
Finally, lies are about power. Not just over the people you rule over, but also over the men and women who are willing to lie on behalf of the leader. Writing about Trump, Professor Jacob Levy argued that a “leader with authoritarian tendencies would lie to make others repeat his lie both as a way to demonstrate and strengthen his power over them. Saying something […] untrue, and making your subordinates repeat it […] is a particularly startling display of power over them.”
Living with these lies also has profound ramifications for our moral universe. As citizens of India, it has robbed us of our ethical conviction and perhaps even courage. We have become a people entirely made of compromise and obfuscation. We knew intuitively what is expected of us and quickly recalibrated our beliefs. During the first COVID-19 wave, educated, privileged and vastly protected Indians indulged in pseudoscience — banging utensils, refusing to wear masks and declaring that we were “immune.” During the second wave, even as the bodies piled and people lost loved ones, family WhatsApp groups circulated series of apologias praising the Modi regime and performed everyday justifications. Even those who suffered and recovered, quickly thanked God’s grace but refused to see or hold the State and its politicians accountable. Even in grief, obedience was demanded and extracted.
The loss of truth has irreparably damaged us. The dire consequences of authoritarian regimes on various societies have been chronicled extensively since the Second World War — they remake our community, our ethical character, and our capacity for empathy. But, above all, they profoundly degrade us as individuals. When they are done with us, we will have nothing else to hold on to except the lies because we would have lost our capacity to understand our reality and fail to believe the immense tragedy we witnessed.