What exactly is a Maoist? Or a Naxalite? Or an Activist? Or an Anti-national? Or an Urban Naxal? (Is there a Village Naxal?) Obviously there is something bad about them, though we don’t know what. In the old days of binary values, if you were a communist you were bad; if you were anti-communist you were good. Now communism and Marx don’t matter. Note that the Communist Party of India (Maoist) was banned in 2004 while the Communist Party of India (Marxist) was considered so harmless that it was left to stew in its own juice.
It wasn’t so when the war against Hitler ended and Churchill’s Britain and Roosevelt’s America reluctantly teamed up with Stalin’s Soviet Union to share the spoils of war. In no time Stalin and Communism were seen as enemies of democracy. A hate wave rose in America. The result was the Cold War that plagued the world for four tense decades, from the 1950s to the end of the 1980s. Movies were made on the Cold War, books written. In the midst of the turmoil, America came under the spell of a mighty force called McCarthyism.
In a speech in the early 1950s, Joseph McCarthy, a Republican Senator, said that he had a list of 250 card-carrying communists working for the State Department. Pandemonium broke out, fear gripped the thinking class, and Senator McCarthy became the most powerful politician in America.
He turned out to be a cruel manipulator. Forming the so-called House Un-American Activities Committee, he led a witch-hunt. Anyone could be called before his Committee and asked: “Are you, or have you ever been, a member of the Communist Party?” Many careers were destroyed. People like Charlie Chaplin ran away from America. The nightmare ended after an army lawyer took on McCarthy and gave him a verbal assault that was devastating. The Senate itself finally passed a resolution censuring him. A shocked McCarthy was plunged into depression and took refuge in alcoholism. He died unlamented in 1957.
McCarthyism’s seven-year reign of terror was built on a simple premise: Attack those who did not toe what was projected as the line of patriotism. Does that sound familiar to us in India these days? Somebody provides a definition of nationalism and those who disagree are branded anti-national. A non-political institution like the Airports Authority of India feels obliged to cancel its invitation to classical singer T M Krishna in Delhi. Krishna finally performed before a large audience. But who tried to stop him? And why?
Girish Karnad, India’s greatest living playwright, appeared at a function wearing a placard hanging from his neck with the legend, “Me Too, Urban Naxal”. What prompted this gentle, thinking citizen to show such a defiant gesture? Was he defying a shadow or the substance? That is the other side of Indian McCarthyism. The powers that spread fear, and provoke the fearless to react, are invisible and unheard. They are too clever, or cowardly, to set up an Un-Indian Activities Committee openly and put non-partisan citizens on trial.
Karnad was one of those who decided to call the bluff. A shadow named Vivek Agnihotri, a filmmaker, had asked patriots to make a list of those who were defending Urban Naxals critical of the current government in Delhi. Some 50,000 people mocked him by enlisting themselves as Urban Naxals. One named Amrita Madhukalya said it in words that went out like pistol shots: “I think. I debate. I question. I dissent. I criticise. I empathise. I protest. I probe. I exist. #MeToo Urban Naxal.”
There is still no sign that the invisible members of the invisible Un-Indian Activities Committee will get the message. They ignore some, target some, punish some. Arundhati Roy keeps making statements like “in the India of today, to belong to a minority is a crime.” At another level, Dabholkar and Pansare and Kalburgi were silenced though all they did was think, debate, question, empathise, probe.
While hearing a petition in the Dabholkar and Pansare cases, the division bench of the Bombay High Court said: “We are witnessing a tragic phase in the country today. Citizens already feel that they cannot voice their concerns or opinions fearlessly. Are we going to see a day when everyone will need police protection to move around or to speak freely?”
In a 1952 judgment related to McCarthyism, US Supreme Court Justice Douglas Williams said: “Our weakness grows when we become intolerant of opposing ideas and depart from our standards of civil liberties.” Voices of sanity abound. Of what avail?