Sleepless in the age of Modi

Updated: Dec 30, 2019, 07:33 IST | Ajaz Ashraf | Mumbai

From putting life on surveillance mode to imagining names missing from the National Register of Citizens - straw poll reveals the depth of political anxiety among those opposing the current dispensation

The anxious, today, have survived for five years and have a minimum of another four to preserve their sanity. It is a rush from one contentious issue to another, straining nerves. Pic/AFP
The anxious, today, have survived for five years and have a minimum of another four to preserve their sanity. It is a rush from one contentious issue to another, straining nerves. Pic/AFP

Ajaz AshrafThe symptoms of anxiety surfaced in her when the debate over citizenship began to swirl around the country, gathering momentum every passing day and yet not turning into an apocalypse. She is beset with sleeplessness and pain in the upper abdomen. Restlessness has sucked out the marrow of her wellness. She refrains from talking to those who she suspects will disagree with her, to better manage her anxiety, which thrives on her doubts about the Republic's future.

American psychologists will diagnose her as suffering from political anxiety, a medical condition they noticed among their patients when Donald Trump was elected President. His utter contempt for liberal values and minority groups has had Americans worrying whether their life was to change beyond recognition. The American Psychological Association, in a 2018 survey, found that 62 per cent Americans saw the political climate as a source of stress, up from 56 per cent in 2016.

The woman, a doctor, was among the 22 people I called last week, to inquire whether they suffered from anxiety arising from the country slipping its moorings to stray into stormy waters. I was astonished at my findings — as many as 18 confessed to suffering from political anxiety.

My 22 respondents comprised only two Muslims, who said their perennial optimism has started to segue into political anxiety. Except for one person, I was aware of their opposition to Hindutva. I consciously chose them after reading that Democrats heavily outnumber Republicans among Americans reporting political anxiety. Trump is to Democrats what Prime Minister Narendra Modi is to India's Liberal-Left-Centrist groups. All these 22 people are either friends or acquaintances, although some of them I have never met, occasionally calling them to elicit their views.

I was surprised at the depth of their political anxiety. An Ambedkarite activist, based in Uttar Pradesh, said fear is his constant companion because of the BJP's belligerence. Even in the intimate family cocoon, his is, at times, a mere physical presence. His only respite is to meet apolitical school friends and reminisce about the innocent years. A prominent Supreme Court lawyer said he is the only member of his family who is in India. But he has been mulling whether he should shift his children out of the social milieu bristling with hate.

A senior journalist confessed to checking her Twitter feed before turning off the lights at 1 am, only to wake up an hour later to check whether someone has posted an acerbic remark against Modi or Home Minister Amit Shah. Another spoke of her inexorable foreboding about the changing basis of our nationhood. A friend said she was unable to stop her imagination one night last week from churning out images such as her name missing from the National Register of Citizens or being stuck in a queue of people clutching documents to establish their identity.

A journalist said he was in a dark hole for six months in 2014, apprehensive of what might happen to the nation as Modi began his first innings. His woes were compounded by his bosses, who killed stories critical of Modi. He quit, but his anxiety resurfaced as the row over citizenship spilled out on the streets.

Another respondent, in his twenties, said his social life is in a perpetual surveillance mode, as he tries to discern who among his friends has embraced Hindutva. A few have, but not a pothead buddy who, however, is petrified of a bum trip, because of the vitiated political climate, every time he lights up. If the going is good, he compulsively takes to battling Hindutva trolls. The war has spilled into family WhatsApp groups, with daughters, more often than sons, taking on their fathers for supporting Modi, and members exiting the virtual family nests.

A think-tank executive said his anxiety is linked to the government taking decisions without thinking through consequences. People get his goat at social gatherings because they take positions, not engage in discussions. The middle ground has shrunk in India, which is cleft between good-bad, right-wrong. Nobody wishes to revise their opinion, even when furnished with contrary information, because it is construed as a sign of weakness.

A friend says his current political anxiety is similar to his experience during the Mandal-Mandir years. Remember the spate of self-immolations, the Babri Masjid demolition and hundreds perishing in riots? The senior journalist countered saying the state did not then repress or kill students protesting against reservation, a positive policy. The Hindutva brigade did not possess state power and the anxiety had lasted for just three years, 1990-1993.

The anxious, today, have survived for five years and have a minimum of another four to preserve their sanity. It is a rush from one contentious issue to another, straining nerves. The cause of insomnia was never before stray cattle, said a landowner, which ravaged his mustard field in Uttar Pradesh, the Republic's heart, which pumps blood that's slowly turning saffron in colour.

The writer is a senior journalist

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