How fragile must a country be if it can’t withstand a few slogans? How distrustful of the law are its lawyers if they beat up students they have determined as being anti-national? How disdainful of natural justice would a police chief be if he asks students to prove their innocence? How cynical is the ruling party spokesman when he uses doctored videos on prime-time television, his poker face showing a callous disregard for reality? And are we being naive if we fail to see the pattern and continue to believe that the prime minister is seriously committed to the development agenda, but he is quaintly powerless to rein in his wayward party members?

Patriotism, Samuel Johnson had warned, was the last refuge of the scoundrel. In India, it is fast becoming the first port of call, with loud commitment to nationalism giving lumpen elements a calling card for thuggery. Nationalism is invoked at the slightest pretext—the proponent of an opposing view easily described as “anti-national". On a popular news channel, the all-knowing megaphone who prefers to call himself “the nation" asks a rhetorical question to a student and then admonishes him when the student attempts to respond. He shouts at the student because the student has actually begun to reply. Instead of letting him finish, the megaphone has already moved to the next patriotic theme—honouring a fallen soldier. How could the student he has just accused interrupt him, when he is busy interrupting the student, especially when he is honouring a martyr? Besides, all fallen soldiers are now martyrs and bravehearts, for nothing less will do. So inflated has the language become that a term reserved to recognize acts of exceptional bravery, for which there are gallantry awards, has now become commonplace. We must use it to describe anyone in uniform who dies an untimely death, regardless of circumstances. And thus we debase our language, draining it of any meaning.

Are these developments—the erection of skyscraper-sized flagpoles at universities, the frequent invocation of ‘the nation’, the attacks on intellectuals, dividing the people into ‘us’ and ‘them’—coincidental? Are they spontaneous reactions to the designs of “enemies of the nation", or inspired by a “foreign hand"? Or do they seem like the building blocks of fascism?

I hesitate to use the word fascism loosely. Words, if used carelessly, dilute their original meaning. George Orwell warned in his essay, Politics and the English Language, how important it is to be clear. And to be sure, if fascism is to mean people marching in black shirts out to conquer distant lands, then India is surely not fascist. There are courts; there is the media and the Opposition. The structures of democracy still operate with scrupulous procedural fairness—a higher court sends a case back to the lower court; a court wants students to surrender to the police, even if it is the same forces that did nothing when students were beaten up barely a week earlier, and those who beat up the students have boasted they would do it again. Rules must be followed. And procedures trump substance.

Meanwhile, the same court system which has charged Arundhati Roy with contempt over an article in which she defended a disabled academic’s bail plea, has not invoked such provisions against those who undermined its dignity within its premises. And while the drama continues in Delhi, in Chhattisgarh, a reporter of scroll.in and a team of lawyers documenting abuses against adivasi groups have been called Maoist sympathizers, intimidated, and hounded out of the state, with the authorities being complicit.

Umberto Eco, who grew up in Mussolini’s Italy, died last week. In an essay in the New York Review of Books in 1995, he had described the characteristics of ‘eternal fascism’ (or Ur-Fascism): the creation of the cult of tradition; rejection of modernism; the cult of action for its sake and distrust of intellectuals (even referring to them as degenerates or effete snobs); attacks on those who disagree, particularly the elite; and therefore attacking diversity and consensus; playing up frustrations of the middle class; giving a clear identity to those who feel deprived; describing the enemy both as too strong (and hence to be fought) and too weak (and hence to be ridiculed); calling for long-term battle with the enemies of the state; celebrating martyrs; opposing anything that undermines machismo (including homosexuality); and making selective use of populism. Eco wrote: “We must keep alert, so that the sense of these words will not be forgotten again. Ur-Fascism is still around us, sometimes in plainclothes. It would be so much easier… (if) Black Shirts paraded again… Life is not that simple. Ur-Fascism can come back under the most innocent disguises. Our duty is to uncover it and to point our finger at any of its new instances—every day, in every part of the world."

I would be glad to be proven wrong. I feel sadder that I might have to say “I told you so."

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London.

Your comments are welcome at salil@livemint.com. To read Salil Tripathi’s previous columns, go to www.livemint.com/saliltripathi

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