The demolition of Babri Masjid in North India, on December 6 1992, led to dreadful riots all over India and particularly in Mumbai. It was shocking to me that many educated, middle-class people tried to justify the riots, despite the fact that innocent people were dying. I had been reading the classic work "Escape from Freedom" by the German psychoanalyst Erich Fromm, who attempted to trace the psychological roots of middle-class support for the Nazi agenda in Germany. This analysis greatly influenced my article and I tried to draw some analogies between Fromm's theories and my own observations of people in urban middle-class India.
A couple of major newspapers refused to publish this article. Some colleagues misinterpreted it completely and then said it was "naive". One Mumbai newspaper ("Metropolis") eventually published it in March 1993 -- but this paper has folded up since then. I also received some hate-mail about the article after it was put up on my website.
I feel this article is very relevant today (June 2002) after the horrible riots in Gujarat over the last three months. Please feel free to distribute it in full on any website or newsgroup, with due attribution.
Sunil Mukhi, June 2002
India's Escape From Freedom
Mumbai, January 1993
The cultural and political aspects of the recent communal situation in the country have been examined at great length. However, it tends to be overlooked that these factors (along with others) first of all shape certain general psychological patterns in society, and it is the psychological makeup of people which is manifested in the way they react to external events.
Post-demolition, there has been a sudden, rather than gradual, shift in the views of much of the urban Hindu middle-class. A curious pattern of thinking has emerged, suggesting that somehow Muslims ``deserved it''. They are held guilty, as a whole, of a massive collection of crimes, plots and treacherous acts. The factual background becomes irrelevant, and it is increasingly difficult to reason with one's acquaintances on very basic questions, even when many of the ``facts'' they produce can easily be falsified.
The psychological dimension of this apparently illogical behaviour on the part of the middle class is not as mysterious as it seems. Similar patterns were discerned and studied during the rise of Nazism in Germany earlier this century. We must turn to such studies to illuminate the origins of this behaviour.
A remarkable book was written about Fascism in 1941. Titled ``Escape From Freedom'', it is an attempt by psychoanalyst Erich Fromm to examine the psychological basis for the success of Fascist philosophy. Parts of this book read like a commentary on what has been happening in Bombay (and elsewhere in this country) in the last few months, and suggest an explanation for the sudden shift in middle-class perceptions that we have been witnessing.
Fromm's basic thesis is that sometimes human beings find it impossible to live with freedom. This is not an intrinsic defect of human nature. Rather, it occurs when human beings become politically free, but are unable to decide what they should do with this freedom. Being liberated from external constraints can lead to a feeling of intense loneliness and isolation, unless one is able to channel one's energies into a socially fulfilling and purposeful life. The inability to do this (which may be related to economic, political and cultural forces in the environment) creates a feeling of insignificance, insecurity and self-doubt.
The result is a kind of desperation, which makes people seek to escape from their freedom by merging themselves with a monolithic, authoritarian structure. This solves their problem in a perverse and temporary way: not by providing the means for them to pursue a meaningful and positive life, but by taking away the freedom which apparently caused their emotional distress.
On the subject of Nazism, the specific questions which Fromm wished to examine were the psychological aspects of this ideology which made it so attractive to a class of people, and the character of the people who became its followers.
One of his first observations was that Nazism's ``spirit of blind obedience to a leader and of hatred against racial and political minorities, its craving for conquest and domination, its exaltation of the German people and the `Nordic race' had a tremendous emotional appeal'' for certain classes of people. This made them ``ardent believers in and fighters for the Nazi cause''. The characteristics of this class which made them so susceptible to this philosophy are described as ``their love of the strong, hatred of the weak, their pettiness, hostility, thriftiness with feelings as well as with money ... Their outlook on life was narrow, ... their whole life was based on the principle of scarcity -- economically as well as psychologically''.
Many of these characteristics can be observed within our own society. One important feature is hatred of the weak. Whether we like to admit it or not, ours is a society where it is acceptable to kick lame dogs, jeer at the crippled, and beat up poor pickpockets. As for rich thieves in the world of business, these command our utmost respect, and some are national heroes. The principle of scarcity is another feature: we seem to believe that the total wealth in this country will forever be limited, so we have to grab what we can now. Our collective psychology is unwilling to absorb the opposite idea, that unlimited material progress for society as a whole is a possibility.
The cultural and economic factors which contributed to the growth of these psychological characteristics among the middle class in Germany were: a high rate of inflation, the decline in the social prestige of the middle class, and the shattering of old middle class morality and of the authority of the father in the family. There may not be an exact (or even approximate) parallel between India today and Germany fifty years ago, but these phrases surely display some resonance with aspects of the present-day situation.
Now we can begin to find out just why ``they deserved it''. Fromm tells us that ``The essence of the authoritarian character has been described as the simultaneous presence of sadistic and masochistic drives.'' He describes sadism as ``unrestricted power over another person, more or less mixed with destructiveness'', while masochism aims at ``dissolving oneself in an overwhelmingly strong power and participating in its strength and glory.'' Both of these have the same cause: ``the inability of the isolated individual to stand alone and his need for a symbiotic relationship that overcomes his aloneness.''
Thus, these two behaviour patterns are mutually complementary aspects of the same thing. The urge to dominate and to be dominated, to persecute the helpless and to prostrate oneself before the powerful, these are the expressions of the single psychological drive of sado-masochism. Seen in this unified way, it is obvious why the hatred of Muslims and the glorification of Lord Ram necessarily go hand-in-hand in the Fascist process. The one gives us a feeling of strength through persecution of the weak, while the other gives us the security that someone much bigger than ourselves is actually in control. The result is an illusion of power without responsibility.
Most important is the reassuring feeling of this simplified world-view. Everything fits neatly in place, and one need not bother to think for oneself or grapple with complex questions. Conversation with the communalized class reveals that it gets some superficial psychological relief by this means, from the unbearable tension (and guilt) caused by the demolition of Babri Masjid. Instead of facing this tension in a logical way, it is much easier to escape from freedom, blame the helpless and revere the strong.
Of course, not all Muslims are helpless, or innocent of blame for various things. But mainly the helpless ones have been physically and psychologically damaged in a systematic way, in the last few months. The Bombay riots caused serious casualties primarily among slum dwellers. Yet, instead of rising up and expressing its unconditional horror at this event, much of the middle class found refuge in the famous ``they deserved it''. Interestingly, the same people did not show much effective sympathy for Hindu slum dwellers affected in the riots either. Hatred of the weak is really quite secular in a way.
Of Hitler's propaganda, Fromm says ``He and the German people are always the ones who are innocent and the enemies are sadistic brutes. A great deal of this propaganda consists of deliberate, conscious lies.'' Moreover, Hitler ``accuses his enemies of the very things that he quite frankly admits to be his own aims.'' We have heard by now that Muslims are cruel people, polygamists, anti-national elements. Some of the claims being made to support this view are false and have been debunked in a number of recent articles and pamphlets. Others are so generic that they are true of some, or many, Muslims -- but they are also true of many Hindus. The fact is that many Indians are cruel people, polygamists, anti-national elements. And of course even as the sangh parivar accuses the minority community of religious intolerance, it is busy promoting the same thing as one of its avowed aims.
Fascism gains popular support by promising a world in which everyone in society finds their place -- someone below, to dominate, and someone above, to submit to. This picture is self-fulfilling. If Fascism is perceived to be winning, people whose psychology is already ripe for takeover will flock to it in large numbers. Conversely, if it is seen to be losing, people desert in equally large numbers. The demolition on December 6 was a signal that the march of Fascism in India has started in earnest and its success is inevitable. That is what acted, as if by remote control, on the minds of the middle class in Bombay, and elsewhere.
It remains to ask whether the victory of Indian Fascism is really inevitable. It is anyone's guess what will happen. But Erich Fromm made a bold prediction about the future of Nazism at a time when it was looking rather successful, and it is only appropriate to conclude by quoting his words: ``The function of an authoritarian ideology and practice can be compared to the function of neurotic symptoms. Such symptoms result from unbearable psychological conditions and at the same time offer a solution that makes life possible. Yet they are not a solution that leads to happiness or growth of personality. ... The history of mankind is the history of growing individuation, but it is also the history of growing freedom. ... The authoritarian systems cannot do away with the basic conditions that make for the quest for freedom; neither can they exterminate the quest for freedom that springs from these conditions.''