The ‘banality of evil’ in modern India

Hindu nationalist politics has mapped India’s descent to majoritarianism and now full-blown fascism

Meher Azfar Rana May 25, 2024
The ‘banality of evil’ in modern India


In 1963, the German American political theorist Hannah Arendt wrote her infamous essay ‘Eichmann in Jerusalem’ discussing Adolf Eichmann, a German SS officer during Nazi rule brought to trial for his role in the Holocaust. Sparking widespread controversy, Ardent stated that there exists a dilemma between the juxtaposition of the indescribable horror of the actions and the irrefutable absurdity of the individual responsible for them. She termed this as the ‘Banality of Evil’. Her reflections compelled a shift from the scrutinisation of men in power, to the societal and systemic conditions that allow their evil to flourish. Her insights are eerily relevant in the context of contemporary India, where the sense of nationalism (tangled with jingoism) has led hate and violence to take root behaviourally and institutionally.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s BJP has been the leading political force in India since 2014. Hindu nationalist politics has mapped India’s descent to majoritarianism and now full-blown fascism. Under Modi’s leadership, the Indian government has been systematically oppressing, marginalising and inciting hatred against its 220-million Muslim minority. But it is pertinent to consider whether what should scare us is Modi and his policies or the neighbourhood that he inhibits which has chosen to normalise them. Arendt’s core argument was that totalitarian states dehumanise individuals by turning them into cogs in a bureaucratic machine. This strips away their humanity and moral agency. This de-humanisation allows ordinary people to commit atrocities. Arendt never aimed to absolve Eichmann of his crimes but instead shifted the focus on the broader system that enables his behaviour. Similarly, shifting the focus from Modi (it is imperative to note that this assertion does not equate the individual in question to Eichmann) to the system and eventually to self, begs the question of responsibility and is crucial in understanding how evil becomes banal.

Arendt’s observations about the normalisation of prejudice and violence are akin to the Hindutva ideology which redefines what it means to be human by enacting polices of hate against minorities especially Muslims, a rhetoric that is accepted by the larger Indian society.

Once codified within law, individual bigotry sanctifies repression. The Citizenship (Amendment) Act and anti-immigration crackdowns in Assam are not isolated incidents but are part of a larger erosion of democratic values in modern India under the guise of nationalism. This systemic bias is evidence of a pervasive culture of hate, where individuals can commit heinous acts without remorse. When evil becomes banal, the “right to have rights” is rendered superfluous. Subsequently, Kant’s principle of being human no longer holds a value in it of itself because certain individuals are rendered as sub-human. Ignoring Ambedkar’s exemplary constitution which safeguarded from discrimination of the majority, modern India has redefined humans or citizens, consequently undermining the universality of human rights.

This pervasive culture promulgates hates amongst ordinary citizens that commit heinous acts without remorse. Several instances can be quoted here that demonstrate the radicalisation of the Hindus majority in India, fostering an environment where fascist ideologies can thrive.

Today internalised violence against Muslims in India is not palpable as hate speech. The normalisation of anti-Muslim/anti-minority rhetoric taking the form of justified sins has caused a moral crisis in a country which lauds moral leaders like Buddha and Gandhi. In the light of this, Arendt’s insights illustrate that we must look beyond the actions of a few individuals to the indifference of ordinary people. Therefore, it is vital for Indians to be mindful of Arendt’s warning and strive to reclaim its moral conscience. It also serves as a reminder for India’s neighbours to introspect and ensure that they are not treading a similar path.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 25th, 2024.

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