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Home > English > NEWS AND ANALYSIS > Indian Mass Psychology

Indian Mass Psychology

Tuesday 30 July 2019, by Sumanta Banerjee

The variety of post-mortem reports coming out from the analysis of the Lok Sabha election (held in April/May this year) results is quite confusing. Each contradicts the other. Some psephologists are silent, others are bragging about how their predictions have come out to be true.

Instead of examining the electoral verdict in terms of the political debate during the campaign (which was marked by a polarization of issues like demonetization, GST, farmers’ suicides on the one hand, and religious majoritarianism and nationalist patriotic issues like the Balakot strike on the other), let me try to look at it from a different angle – mass psychology. This is an area that was examined by a German psychologist more than eighty years ago during the rise of Nazism in his country – but whose observations sound eerily relevant in today’s India. Wilhelm Reich wrote and published his Mass Psychology of Fascism’ in 1933, the year Hitler emerged as the Chancellor of the Reichstag. It came out in three editions, the third in 1942, and was translated into English by Theodore P. Wolfe in 1946. Since then, several studies have been carried out by sociologists and psychologists trying to identify the origins and characteristics of fascist behaviour, a phenomenon which continues to emerge both in the West, the Middle East and South Asia. (Re: Lawrence W. Britt’s essay: Fascism Anyone?’ in Free Inquiry Magazine’, 2003, and Jason Stanley’s book, How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them’, 2018).

Contrary to the prevailing political theory that fascism was instigated among the masses and implanted into their psyche by external reactionary political organizations, Reich came to the conclusion (based on his “medical experiences with individuals from all kinds of social strata”, …) that the seeds of fascism were already embedded in parts of the popular mind. According to him: “fascism’ is only the politically organized expression of the average human character structure.” Explaining this character structure in his contemporary German society, he added: “ …in this characterological sense, `fascism’ is the basic attitude of man in authoritarian society with its machine civilization and its mechanistic- mystical view of life.”

It is important to note the two words: “average” and “authoritarian society” that Reich uses in his book. The term ‘average’ describes a mental mood and behavioural pattern that is mediocre (not in a pejorative sense), which is centred on the pursuit of goals that are of immediate self-interest to individuals, as distinct from the other state of mind and practice from a few amongst them who go beyond their self-interests to involve themselves with wider social and political issues. These two different perceptions and practices run parallel - but on a field which is not level playing. As Reich points out, in an authoritarian society’, the basic emotional attitude of man is shaped by its `machine civilization and its mechanistic-mystical view of life.’

Let me quote a few lines from Reich’s book, with my comments in brackets drawing attention to their relevance for understanding the present Indian mass psychology.

Quotations from Reich’s `Mass Psychology of Fascism.’

“It is the mechanistic-mystical character of man in our times which creates fascist parties, and not vice versa.” (In India today don’t we find among our people a combination of the mechanistic’ character of a media-driven pursuit of material prosperity on the one hand, with the mystical’ pursuit of religious salvation through gurus, mullahs, pastors and other charlatans?) “… the economic and ideological situations of the masses are not necessarily congruent…the economic situation does not express itself directly and immediately in political consciousness.” (Haven’t we seen this incongruence in the voting pattern of our electorate, who despite being economically hurt by demonetization and other measures, still preferred the political choice of voting for BJP?).

“Fascist mentality is the mentality of the subjugated little man’ who craves authority and rebels against it at the same time. It is not by accident that all fascist dictators stem from the milieu of the little reactionary man… this little man has only too well learned the way of the big man and now gives it back, enlarged and distorted…” (Reich then describes how the German little man’ of his days elected Hitler, the “little top sergeant” in the then German army as his representative in the Reichstag. To quote Reich, Hitler outdid the “imperialist general (the Kaiser) in everything: in martial music, in goose-stepping, in giving orders and obeying them, in the deadly fear of thinking, in diplomacy, strategy and tactics, in uniformed strutting and in medals. In all these things, a Kaiser Wilhelm appears as a poor bungler compared with Hitler. When a proletarian general covers his chest with medals, on both sides, and from the shoulders to the belt, he demonstrates the little man trying to outdo the real “great general.” (Aren’t these words apt for describing the speeches, gestures and actions of the ‘proletarian chaiwala’ who has outdone the dynastic generals of New Delhi, and the regional satraps elsewhere?)

The Indian `mass psychology’-a witches’ cauldron?

The above descriptions, although made more than seventy years ago, and that also in a different historical context in Germany, sound like anticipatory echoes of what is happening in India today. But while sharing the common characteristics of mass psychology of fascism,’ as defined by Reich, its Indian version has distinct features that are rooted to a variety of sources - both traditional and modern, embedded in the various levels of a hierarchical and discriminatory socio-religious order, which had been reinforced by a political establishment in post-Independence India.

To start with, let us take a look at the psychology of the rural masses - both poor and rich - in the Hindu-Hindi heartland in central India (from where the BJP garnered the largest number of votes, contrary to the expectations of the mahagothbandhan ) , as well as parts of south and eastern India like Kerala and West Bengal, where the BJP has gained inroads. Narendra Modi has claimed that the caste arithmetic’ that the Opposition worked upon failed because of the chemistry’ that he invented to unite all castes to vote for him. He is right in the sense that he could tap on some of the basic conservative socio-religious traits and practices shared by all castes in the heartland, despite their differences in daily inter-caste relationships. For instance, the khap panchayats’ (run by patriarchs from different castes, whether upper, OBCs or Dalits) which have emerged as micro-level authorities in rural society, insist on maintaining the purity’ of their respective castes, by punishing and even lynching any member marrying outside their castes. This traditional rural custom of lynching anyone who digresses from the prevailing socio-religious norms, has been incorporated by the BJP in its action programme, where its activists now lynch Muslims, Dalits or others who sell or eat beef. Thus, the practice of lynching which we witness today has not been introduced by the BJP, but was already there embedded in the psychology of the rural masses who had always followed the dictates of their respective caste patriarchs. This violent streak against a transgressor or a dissident (from even within their own community) had always marked rural society. This aggressive psychological streak among them has been diligently cultivated by the BJP and RSS activists to divert it against Muslims who were demonized as the other’ – during the Ayodhya Ram Rath Jatra that was followed by the demolition of the Babri Masjid, when the Hindu mobs went on a spree of looting and killing of their Muslim neighbours in celebration of that act of vandalism, almost all over India.

These killings were a chilling reminder of the massacre of Sikhs, again all over India, in 1984 following Indira Gandhi’s assassination. What is fearful is that in both the cases (the mass killings of Muslims after Babri Masjid demolition, and those of Sikhs after Indira Gandhi’s assassination), the mass psychology exploded into a spontaneous mob violence all over India. The participants in the attacks cut across caste barriers. I remember in 1984, when during a fact-finding visit to a riot-affected slum across the Yamuna river near Delhi, we found that the Dalits there raided their next door Sikh families’ houses (with whom they had lived together for years) to loot away their furniture and TV sets. Ironically, these Sikh neighbours of theirs whom they targeted were also Dalits – who are denigrated by the Sikh clergy as Mazabhi Sikhs (converted from lower castes).

My other tragic experience was when I visited Gujarat in 2002, as a member of a fact-finding team to investigate into the post-Godhra massacre of Muslims. We found that the Dang tribals – a poor community – had largely participated in the massacre. On further inquiries, we found that the RSS had been working among the Dangs for several years, setting up schools to disseminate their anti-Muslim sentiments, and benefiting them with certain social welfare measures. It was easy for the RSS therefore to recruit them as killers.

Thus, it is neither the Communist cause of working class solidarity, nor the distress of the starving farmers, nor the plight of the Muslim and Dalit poor, nor the self-determination movements in Kashmir and the North-east, with which the vast sections of the Indian electorate empathize. They are confined to their own respective little enclaves of self-interest, devoid of any ideological commitment, or wider concerns. A typical illustration is the caste-based complexity in the Hindi-Hindu heartland which may have influenced to a large extent the voting pattern. Even within the OBC community there is a hierarchical order, under which a Jadav considers himself/herself superior to a Kurmi. Similarly, the Dalit community is split among Jatavs, Chamars and Balmikis and various other groups (replicating the same caste-based hierarchical order that marks Hindu society). These castes or groups which occupy the lowest ladder in their respective communities form a sub-group in the agitation of `identity politics,’ where they want to assert their rights vis-à-vis their superior caste OBC leaders, or in the case of Dalits, against those leaders from amongst them who had reached the top in the hierarchy of the political system, but had left them behind (Mayavati, being a typical example). Electoral surveys reveal that the BJP had successfully mobilized these disgruntled sections amongst the OBCs and Dalits in its favour in UP, promising to meet their demands – thus splitting the base of the OBC-oriented Samajvadi Party and the Dalit-oriented BSP.

The mass psychology described above is not confined to what is usually despised as the cow belt’. Even in Bengal, once described as the Red citadel,’ some 40% of the electorate voted for the BJP, enabling it to capture 18 Lok Sabha seats (compared to 17% of vote share and only two seats in 2014). Political observers have explained the change by pointing out that a large chunk of the Bengali electorate who had earlier voted for the Left, found to their chagrin that the CPI(M) failed to protect them from the daily depredations and extortions by the goons of the ruling Trinamul party, who established a mafia-raj under the patronage chief minister Mamata Banerjee. In the absence of an effective Left opposition, they preferred to vote for the candidates of the BJP (the party which held power at the Centre) with the expectation that they would voice their concerns in the Lok Sabha and pressurize an authoritarian chief minister to stop depredations. Thus, it was a negative verdict – aimed at punishing both the Left and the ruling Trinamul. Again, as in the Hindi `cow-belt’ where the BJP managed to split the OBC and Dalit votes by wooing the underprivileged castes among them, in the (erstwhile) ‘Red Citadel’ of Bengal, the BJP succeeded in splitting the Scheduled Caste electorate by promoting a leader of the Matua community (which constitutes a large vote bank), highlighting how they had been discriminated against by the Mamata-led government.

Role of religious tradition and modern god-men in shaping the mass psyche

In the present din over election results, we tend to ignore the continuity of religious superstitions, prejudices and habits, and the hold of a new generation of god-men on mass psychology that influence the voters. For instance, the religious superstition against the entry of women of a certain age at the Sabarimala temple in Kerala (a state known for its enlightened public mind) got revived in the recent election campaign there, which influenced to a large extent the mentality of the voters , many among whom voted against the Left Front candidates in the Lok Sabha elections. In West Bengal, the erstwhile Left bastion, public demonstrations of Hindu religious rituals and practices (like Ram Navami processions with swords and aggressive slogans – never known before) by the BJP supporters, gained public support. This indicates the direction of the mass psychology of the Bengali Hindus – dangerously moving towards a revival of obscurantist Hindu religious beliefs and prejudices in an aggressive direction against Muslims, whom they target as `outsiders’.

The other major religious input in the present electoral discourse, is the role of god-men who during the last few decades had sprung up in different areas and set up ashrams offering panaceas to the villagers. They had been able to sway the mass psyche in their favour to such an extent that even when the god-man Ram Rahim was arrested on charges of raping his female devotees, his followers brought out a mass procession in protest in Delhi creating a law and order problem. Similarly, when Asharam Bapu, another god-man operating from his ashram where he was alleged to have raped his female devotees, was arrested, his followers came out on the streets in his defence.

Two interesting trends can be discerned from the above. The first is the continuation of a conservative mood of intolerance of acts of digression from traditional socio-religious rules and customs in our rural society – a mood which has taken violent forms like lynching of those engaged in inter-caste or inter-religious marriages in the rural society. The second trend reflects purely self motivated interests and aspirations which drove large sections of the rural poor to vote for the BJP mascot Modi, enamoured by his promises of social welfare measures, like medical care and delivery of cash at the doorstep of the farmer on the eve of the elections. These had a soporific effect on the rural voters who had been battered earlier by demonetization and GST. Yet, they now chose to forget the plight they faced after demonetization and the suicides committed by their farmer neighbours, and forgive the man who was responsible for all this, and elect him as a prime minister. They remained totally indifferent to the other issues – BJP’s ideology of Hindutva that divides our nation, and Modi’s record of genocide of Muslims in Gujarat in 2002.

The uphill task

The challenge before Indian secular forces – the Left, Congress and other political parties, grass roots people’s movements, civil society organizations of human rights activists, lawyers, academics – is to change this mass psyche which had been traditionally shaped to worship guru’s, accept their diktats, and carry out their orders, a psyche which Wilhelm Reich defined as the “basic attitude of man in authoritarian society.” It is manifested in its most atrocious forms in Indian society, whether in villages under khap panchayats’, or in urban metropolises under the mafia dons, or on a national scale as witnessed during the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, when the electorate paid their obeisance to a new-found political guru’.

It is going to be a long haul - to change the Indian mass psychology (shaped by traditional socio-religious beliefs in obscurantist practices, and norms of subservience to authority and from its present state of worshipping a Fuhrer-like populist authoritarian prime minister, and re-orient it towards the spirit of the Fundamental Duties’ chapter (Part IVA) of our Constitution. Two provisions under that chapter had been shunted out into the backburner during the last several decades. Clause (e) makes it obligatory for every Indian citizen to (i) “ promote harmony and the spirit of common brotherhood amongst all the people of India transcending religious, linguistic and regional or sectional diversities; to renounce practices derogatory to the dignity of women;” Equally important for our times now is clause (h) which urges Indian citizens to carry out their duty to “develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform.”

On both these counts, our politicians, irrespective of their political hues, have failed in educating our citizens in these fundamental duties that they are obliged to carry out. It is this failure that has paved the way for the election of Narendra Modi as the supreme leader. The upcoming generation of political leaders from the Left-liberal spectrum, social activists from civil society and national alliances of popular movements, will have to restore the spirit of the Constitution by sensitizing the masses towards these ‘Fundamental Duties’.

Sumanta Banerjee is a political and civil rights activist and social scientist. Email: banerjee.sumban@gmail.com

Source: https://countercurrents.org/2019/07/indian-mass-psychology