For two weeks, Kashmir, India’s sole Muslim-majority state, has existed in a surreal state of nonexistence. Since a presidential decree abolished the state, revoked its autonomy and partitioned it into two federally administered territories, the Internet has been shut down, cellular networks have been disabled, and even landlines went dead. Public assembly is banned, and citizens are under curfew. A soldier has been stationed outside every house in some villages. Eight million people have been cut off from the world — and from one another. Pharmacies are running out of medicine, households are low on food, and hospitals are clogging up with injured protesters. Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, insists that all this is for the good of the Kashmiris. India’s grip on Kashmir has seldom been stronger. Its hold on Kashmiris, however, has never been more threadbare.
Modi’s sudden takeover in Kashmir is the fulfillment of a long ideological yearning to make a predominantly Muslim population surrender to his vision of a homogeneous Hindu nation. It is also a way of conveying to the rest of India — a union of dizzyingly diverse states — that no one is exempt from the Hindu-power paradise he wants to build on the subcontinent. Kashmir is both a warning and a template: Any state that deviates from this vision can be brought under Delhi’s thumb in the name of “unity.”
Those who believe that such a day will never come — that India’s democratic institutions and minority protections will assert themselves — also never thought that someone like Modi would one day lead the country. Modi once seemed destined to disappear into history as a fanatical curio. As the newly appointed chief minister of Gujarat, he presided over the worst communal bloodletting in India’s recent history in 2002, when 1,000 Muslims, by a conservative estimate, were slaughtered by sword-wielding Hindus in his state over several weeks. Some accused Modi of abetting the mobs; others said he turned a blind eye to them. The carnage made Modi a pariah: Liberal Indians likened him to Hitler, the United States denied him a visa, and Britain and the European Union boycotted him.
But Modi expanded and solidified his appeal among India’s Hindus, a religious majority whose resentment at being invaded and ruled for centuries by Muslims had been papered over for decades with platitudes from India’s secular elites. He used three powerful tools to propel his ascent. The first was
- sadism, the hint that, under him, Hindu radicals could indulge a dormant bloodlust: After the killing of a Muslim man in police custody, for instance, Modi mused at a 2007 rally, “If AK-57 [sic] rifles are found at the residence of a person … should I not kill them?” (The crowd roared back: “Kill them! Kill them!”) The second was
- schadenfreude, an exultation in the torment of defenseless minorities: At an earlier rally in 2002, Modi had ruminated on the fate of the Muslims displaced by the recent Gujarat riots, asking: “What should we do? Run relief camps for them? Do we want to open baby-producing centers?” His audience erupted with laughter. “We have to teach a lesson to those who are increasing population at an alarming rate,” he said. The final affect was
- self-pity, a license for Hindus to regard themselves as the real victims. He told Parliament that India had been a slave nation for more than 1,000 years and claimed that there were forces out to kill him.
Since his 2014 election to the premiership, bigotry has been ennobled as a healthy form of self-assertion. Lynchings of Muslims — breathlessly demonized as jihadists devoted to seducing and converting Hindu women — by aggrieved Hindu mobs have become such a common sport that dozens of videos of grisly murders circulate on WhatsApp groups run by Hindu nationalists. Last summer, a minister in Modi’s cabinet garlanded eight men who had been convicted of lynching a Muslim man. In this universe, Kashmir could never remain autonomous, a place impervious to the desires of a majority happy to see its will done by violence.
Modi’s reelection this year emboldened the supporters whose rage he skillfully incited. The prime minister rarely acknowledges the murders of minorities. Rarer still are instances when he condemns them. Not once, in fact, has he memorialized, by name, Muslims slain by Hindu fundamentalists. This is not an accident. It is a small step from letting Hindu vigilantes subjugate their Muslim neighbors to subjugating them himself, using the power of the state, as he has now done in Kashmir.
Modi’s political awakening occurred in the training camps of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a right-wing paramilitary group that incubated the modern politics of Hindu nationalism. The RSS introduces young “volunteers” to the vast pantheon of supposed villains who plundered and emasculated India over the ages — the medieval Islamic invaders, the accommodationists like Mohandas Gandhi and the Congress party he led, the Muslim nationalists who mutilated India to create Pakistan and sought to abscond with Kashmir — and exhorts them to shed their Hindu impotence. The effect on Modi’s young mind was so powerful that he came to regard the RSS as his family, abandoned his wife and mother, and wandered through India as a catechist of the Hindu nationalist cause.
By seizing Kashmir, Modi has mollified votaries of Hindu nationalism and established himself as the father of what they proudly call the “New India.” Kashmir was always at the top of their wish list, which also includes the construction of a temple in Ayodhya, where a mosque stood for half a millennium before Hindu nationalists razed it in 1992; the erasure of small privileges granted to minorities (such as a subsidy for the Muslim pilgrimmage to Mecca); a legal end to religious conversions by Hindus; an extra-legal suppression of interfaith romance and marriages, especially when the bride is Hindu and the groom Muslim; and, ultimately, the rewriting of the constitution to declare India a formally Hindu state.
But can India, the most heterogeneous society on Earth, survive the ascent of a majority like this? In his stirring inaugural speech to the first freely elected assembly of Kashmir in 1951, Sheikh Abdullah, the wildly popular socialist who championed Kashmir’s accession to India, laid out the choices before Kashmiris. India’s commitment to “secular democracy based upon justice, freedom and equality,” he explained, negated the “argument that the Muslims of Kashmir cannot have security in India.” India’s constitution, Abdullah said, “has amply and finally repudiated the concept of a religious state, which is a throwback to medievalism.” Abdullah denounced Pakistan, a quasi-theocracy that waged a war in 1948 to seize Kashmir, as “a feudal state” where “the appeal to religion constitutes a sentimental and a wrong approach.” But his rejection of Pakistan was also a reminder to India that secularism was the nonnegotiable condition of Kashmir’s allegiance. Kashmiris, he said, “will never accept a principle which seeks to favor the interests of one religion or social group against another.” That sentence was aimed then at Pakistan. It applies now to India.
Kashmiri separatists who once labeled India a “Hindu state” could be dismissed at the time as chauvinists, and India could credibly argue for Kashmir’s place within its polyglot fold: The religion of Kashmiris was irrelevant to their full citizenship of the Indian state. But now the separatists’ claim against India has as much substance and weight as Abdullah’s against Pakistan. The argument of “inclusive nationalism” deployed by Modi’s predecessors to persuade Kashmiri separatists to participate in elections is unavailable to him, a religious nationalist. An India that has ceased to be secular will have forever lost its argument for Kashmir. The calm currently imposed on the region conceals a deep rage that is waiting to erupt. The abuse of Kashmir justified by Modi as “integration” may, if it is not confronted and reversed, be the beginning of the end of India’s unity.
Bringing the energy and hope to stare down Trump and his movement.
Nations, like people, may change somewhat, but not in their essential characteristics. The United States is defined by space and hope. It is an optimistic country of can-do strivers. They took the risk of coming to a new land. They are suspicious of government, inclined to self-reliance. Europeans ask where you came from. Americans ask what you can do.
The Declaration of Independence posited a universal idea, that human beings are created equal, that they are endowed with certain inalienable rights, and that among these are “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Americans, then, embraced an idea, however flawed in execution, when they became a nation. Their government, whatever else it does, exists to safeguard and further that idea, in the United States and beyond.
President Trump, in the name of making American great again, has trampled on America’s essence. He is angry, a stranger to happiness, angrier still for not knowing the source of his rage. He is less interested in liberty than the cash of his autocratic cronies. As for life, he views it as a selective right, to which the white Christian male has priority access, with women, people of color and the rest of humanity trailing along behind for scraps.
Adherents to an agenda of “national conservatism” held a conference last month in Washington dedicated, as my colleague Jennifer Schuessler put it, “to wresting a coherent ideology out of the chaos of the Trumpist moment.”
Good luck with that. One of the meeting’s leading lights was Rich Lowry, the editor of National Review. Lowry’s forthcoming book is called “The Case for Nationalism.” Enough said. The endpoint of that “case” is on display at military cemeteries across Europe.
Nationalism, self-pitying and aggressive, seeks to change the present in the name of an illusory past in order to create a future vague in all respects except its glory. Trump is a self-styled nationalist. The “U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” chants at his rallies have chilling echoes.
Lowry holds that “America is not an idea” and to call it so is a “lazy cliché.” This argument denies the essence of the country — an essence palpable at every naturalization ceremony across the United States. Becoming American is a process that involves the inner absorption of the nation’s founding idea.
The gravest thing Trump has done is to empty this idea of meaning. His has been an assault on honesty, decency, dignity, tolerance and civility. On this president’s wish list, every right is alienable. He leads a movement more than he does a nation, and so depends on fear to mobilize people. Any victorious Democratic Party candidate in 2020 has to counter that negative energy with a positive energy that lifts Americans from Trump’s web.
I watched the Democratic Party debates among presidential contenders through a single prism: Who can beat Trump? In the end, nothing else matters because another five and a half years of this will drag Americans into an abyss of moral collapse.
Yes, how far left, how moderate that candidate may be is of some significance, but can he or she bring the heat and the hope to stare Trump down and topple him is all I care about. That’s the bouncing ball all eyes should be on, with no illusions as to how vicious and devious Trump will be between now and November 2020.
With reluctance, because he is a good and honorable man of great personal courage, I do not believe that Joe Biden has the needed energy, mental agility and nimbleness. Nor do I believe that the nation of can-do strivers I described above is ready for Bernie Sanders’s “democratic socialism.” Forms of socialism work in Europe, and the word is widely misunderstood in America, but socialism and America’s essence are incompatible.
Elizabeth Warren’s couching of a campaign for radical change as “economic patriotism” is a much smarter way to go, and her energetic advocacy of ideas to redress the growing injustices in American life has been powerful. Still, I am not convinced that enough Americans are ready to move as far left as she proposes or that she passes the critical commander in chief test.
Kamala Harris does that for me. The California senator is a work in progress, with
- uneven debate performances, and policies, notably health care, that she has zigzagged toward defining. But she’s
- tough, broadly of the center,
- has a great American story, is passionate on issues including immigrants, African-Americans and women, and has
- proved she is not averse to risk. She
- has a former prosecutor’s toughness and the ability to slice through Trump’s self-important bluster.
Last month Harris said Trump was a “predator.” She continued: “The thing about predators you should know, is that they prey on the vulnerable. They prey on those who they do not believe are strong. And the thing you must importantly know, predators are cowards.”
Those were important words. It’s early days, but Trump’s biggest electoral vulnerability is to women. They have seen through his misogyny at last, and they know just where the testosterone of nationalism leads.
How do we make sense of today’s political divisions? In a wide-ranging conversation full of insight, historian Yuval Harari places our current turmoil in a broader context, against the ongoing disruption of our technology, climate, media — even our notion of what humanity is for. This is the first of a series of TED Dialogues, seeking a thoughtful response to escalating political divisiveness. Make time (just over an hour) for this fascinating discussion between Harari and TED curator Chris Anderson.
TEDTalks is a daily video podcast of the best talks and performances from the TED Conference, where the world’s leading thinkers and doers give the talk of their lives in 18 minutes (or less). Look for talks on Technology, Entertainment and Design — plus science, business, global issues, the arts and much more.
The molten core of right-wing nationalism is the furious denial of America’s unalterably multiracial, multicultural national character.
The Republican Party under Donald Trump has devolved into a populist cult of personality. But Mr. Trump won’t be president forever. Can the cult persist without its personality? Does Trumpist nationalism contain a kernel of coherent ideology that can outlast the Trump presidency?
At a recent conference in Washington, a group of conservatives did their level best to promote Trumpism without Trump (rebranded as “national conservatism”) as a cure for all that ails our frayed and faltering republic. But the exclusive Foggy Bottom confab served only to clarify that “national conservatism” is an abortive monstrosity, neither conservative nor national. Its animating principle is contempt for the actually existing United States of America, and the nation it proposes is not ours.
Bitter cultural and political division inevitably leads to calls for healing reconciliation under the banner of shared citizenship and national identity. After all, we’re all Americans, and our fortunes are bound together, like it or not.
Yet the question of who “we” are as “a people” is the central question on which we’re polarized. High-minded calls to reunite under the flag therefore tend to take a side and amount to little more than a demand for the other side’s unconditional surrender. “Agree with me, and then we won’t disagree” is more a threat than an argument.
The attackers — the nature-denying feminists, ungrateful blacks, babbling immigrants, ostentatiously wedded gays — bear full responsibility for any damage wrought by populist backlash, because they incited it by demanding and claiming a measure of equal freedom. But they aren’t entitled to it, because the conservative denizens of the fruited plain are entitled first to a country that feels like home to them. That’s what America is. So the blame for polarizing mutual animosity must always fall on those who fought for, or failed to prevent, the developments that made America into something else — a country “real Americans” find hard to recognize or love.
The practical implication of the nationalist’s entitled perspective is that unifying social reconciliation requires submission to a vision of national identity flatly incompatible with the existence and political equality of America’s urban multicultural majority. That’s a recipe for civil war, not social cohesion.
Yoram Hazony, author of “The Virtue of Nationalism” and impresario of the “national conservatism” conference, argued that America’s loss of social cohesion is because of secularization and egalitarian social change that began in the 1960s. “You throw out Christianity, you throw out the Torah, you throw out God,” Mr. Hazony warned, “and within two generations people can’t tell the difference between a man and a woman. They can’t tell the difference between a foreigner and a citizen. They can’t tell the difference between this side of the border and the other side of the border.”
“The only way to save this country, to bring it back to cohesion,” he added, “is going to be to restore those traditions.”
Mr. Hazony gave no hint as to how this might be peacefully done within the scope of normal liberal-democratic politics. “It’s not simple,” he eventually conceded. Mr. Hazony notably omitted to mention, much less to condemn, the atrocious cruelty of America’s existing nationalist regime. Indeed, roaring silence around our Trumpian reality was the conference’s most consistent and telling theme.
The incoherence of an American nationalism meant to “conserve” an imaginary past was not lost on everyone at the conference.Patrick Deneen, a political theorist at Notre Dame, pointed out that American nationalism has historically been a progressive project. The nationalism of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, he noted, arose as the United States began to establish itself as an imperial power of global reach. Building nations has always been about building armies, regimenting the population and centralizing political control.
Yuval Levin, the editor of National Affairs, similarly observed that nationalist projects meant to unite the diverse tribes and cultures of large territories generally involve a program of political mythmaking and the state-backed suppression of ancestral ethnic and community identities.
Mr. Levin suggested that a genuinely conservative nationalism, in the context of a vast national territory with an immense multiethnic population, would refrain from uprooting these traditions and communities and seek instead to preserve them in a vision of the nation as “the sum of various uneven, ancient, lovable elements,” because we are “prepared for love of country by a love of home.”
But what, today, do Americans call “home”? The next logical step would be to observe that the contemporary sum of rooted, lovable American elements includes the
- black culture of Compton, the
- Mexican culture of Albuquerque, the
- Indian culture of suburban Houston, the
- Chinese culture of San Francisco, the
- Orthodox Jewish culture of Brooklyn, the
- Cuban culture of Miami and the
- “woke” progressive culture of the college town archipelago, as well as the
- conservative culture of the white small town.
But Mr. Levin, a gifted rhetorician who knew his audience, did not hazard this step.
Barack Obama claimed resounding victory in two presidential elections on the strength of a genuinely conservative conception of pluralistic American identity that embraced and celebrated America as it exists. Yet this unifying vision, from the mouth of a black president, primed the ethnonationalist backlash that put Mr. Trump in the White House.
The molten core of right-wing nationalism is the furious denial of America’s unalterably multiracial, multicultural national character. This denialism is the crux of the new nationalism’s disloyal contempt for the United States of America. The struggle to make good on the founding promise of equal freedom is the dark but hopeful thread that runs through our national story and defines our national character. It’s a noble, inspiring story, but the conservative nationalist rejects it, because it casts Robert E. Lee, and the modern defenders of his monuments, as the bad guys — the obstacles we must overcome to make our nation more fully, more truly American.
To reject pluralism and liberalizing progress is to reject the United States of America as it is, to heap contempt upon American heroes who shed blood and tears fighting for the liberty and equality of their compatriots. The nationalist’s nostalgic whitewashed fantasy vision of American national identity cannot be restored, because it never existed. What they seek to impose is fundamentally hostile to a nation forged in the defining American struggle for equal freedom, and we become who we are as we struggle against them.
Whether couched in vulgarities or professorial prose, reactionary nationalism is seditious, anti-patriotic loathing of America hiding behind a flag — our flag. We won’t allow it, because we know how to build a nation. We know how the American story goes: We fight; we take it back.