Tuesday, April 20, 2021
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LOSING THE MIDDLE GROUND

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The most popular cliché about India is that it is a land of extremes. That generally refers to the rural-urban rich-poor chasm but in the wake of the Uri attack, it has come to signify something quite different. The rise of pseudo-patriotism, fuelled by take-no-prisoners TV news anchors and right-wing adherents has created a sharp societal divide based on the premise of “Either you are with us or you are against us.”

The trigger, literally, has been the positions taken on the surgical strikes undertaken by the Indian army with those questioning the action or calling for restraint or talks being branded as traitors. The result has been a shrinking of the middle ground, the space occupied by those with a neutral view.

The dangers of degenerating into an “either or” society is a loss of all the attributes that make for credible democracies—freedom of speech, of choice and the ability to make informed choices. The arrival of Donald Trump as presidential pretender has polarized American society like never before and the space for reasoned debate and conversation has vanished. In India, despite Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s caution against chest-thumping, heated rhetoric and liberal use of the phrase “anti-national” have resulted in shrink-wrapping the middle ground. A recent article in Pakistan’s leading newspaper Dawn put it more bluntly: “Both states are being too casual about weaponizing society and public opinion against the other country. The media is catering to that market.”

The dangers of degenerating into an “either or” society is a loss of all the attributes of a credible democracy, including freedom of speech and of choices

Significantly, the “either or” situation always follows a crisis or military ambition. After the 9/11 tragedy in America, President George Bush famously used this phrase, declaring that “every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” Benito Mussolini declared in speeches across fascist Italy: “O con noi o contro di noi”—You’re either with us or against us. More recently, Turkish President Recap Erdogan, after the suicide bomb explosion in Istanbul on January 12, 2016, said: “Pick a side. You are either on the side of the Turkish government, or you’re on the side of the terrorists.”

It’s a worrying development since it infects everything, connected or not. Bollywood stars are being shamed for saying Pakistani actors are not terrorists. The non-combatants who are calling for restraint and a resumption of talks are being branded as “pseudo-liberals” as if it were some repulsive, contagious disease. It’s the age of the polar opposites where moderate opinions are banned, even un-Indian in a sense. Plurality is what defines any democracy and makes it better. Elbowing out the secular view and the independent voice is the antithesis of what a democracy stands for.

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