The idea that “conspiracy theories” can explain politics is often rubbished, but now, after the recent revelations by Washington Post that a plot was allegedly hatched to compromise the laptop of jailed activist Rona Wilson, it has become imperative to see how conspiracies have been systematically used by the current regime.
If people reject conspiracies, become more discerning of rumours and fake news, and more introspective about their prejudices—which is what makes them easy prey to rumours—it could have an important political and social impact. This is not just true in general but in the particular context of electoral outcomes as well.
Socially speaking, the recent controversies surrounding the Red Fort episode and the violence allegedly engineered within the farm protests have already made farmers realise how conspiracies are hatched. The senior and older members of the farm protests have already reacted in an introspective manner. They have realised the “blunder” of having voted for the Bharatiya Janata Party after having fallen victim to their prejudices against Muslims. They can now recount how they came to accept false and fake news about Muslims.
Further, these farmers have come to realise that even if an individual or a section of any caste or religion engages in nefarious or unwelcome actions, one cannot equate those as the act of an entire community. They thus acknowledge that it makes little sense to hate any community. Therefore, even if one assumes that a section of the farmers went berserk on Republic Day, to blame the entire farming community and call them “hooligans”, “lumpen”, and “violent” does not make sense or is a largely motivated effort.
A Jat farmer from Haryana and a middle-class Hindu from Delhi can now relate to how mass violence is mostly organised and rarely, if ever, spontaneous. This is why the reports that tell us that riots in Northeast Delhi were organised by “outsiders”, and that Hindus and Muslims who live in the affected localities were not a part of it, make more sense now. And how are conspiracies hatched? It happens much like the Red Fort incident and how the laptops of activists were “compromised”.
There is a need to now explain and create a sensible narrative about how conspiracies become narratives that favour the ruling dispensation. It began with Jawaharlal Nehru University, when masked persons raided the hostels raising slogans. What followed this incident is a narrative wherein a so-called ‘tukde-tukde gang’ was lambasted, but it is not as if any credible investigation took place into the incident.
There was violence on the JNU campus, but those who were at its receiving end were blamed for organising this violence. This is very much like those activists who are against polarisation being accused of rioting in Delhi last year. Similarly, Muslims end up being victims of organised violence but in the popular narratives they are also characterised as aggressors.
Most of these narratives go unchallenged because it is difficult to prove that there was a conspiracy at their roots in the first place. There is also the issue that many people believe these conspiracy theories because of pre-existing prejudices that guide their vision.
Still, the farmers’ protest, and now the revelations by a US forensic firm about malware being “planted” in Wilson’s computer, have made it difficult to reject that conspiracies are indeed being hatched to create narratives. It was difficult to create a consensus on this when the victim was an “otherised” Muslim, but when the victims happen to belong to the majority community, or to those groups who actively peddled these prejudices and narratives, then it becomes more and more apparent that a well-designed strategy is being used against anyone who opposes the current regime.
After a point, it does not even matter if you are a Hindu or a Muslim, or if you are an “upper” caste intellectual or a social activist or a dalit. Conspiracies simply become a part of well-entrenched machinery. You, therefore, have diverse citizens representing varied causes and ideas from Varavara Rao and Sudha Bharadwaj to Anand Teltumbde incarcerated alongside.
After the farmer protests, it has become increasingly clear that the velocity of narratives and the ability of rumours to travel is shrinking. The shelf-life of hysteria and hardwired emotions is reducing. Even hysteria, hate, and prejudiced emotions require the bare minimum of self-belief to seem credible. Even those who wish to get organised behind such conspiratorial narratives will need to tell themselves that what they are doing is morally right and in the larger interest of the nation.
When the façade that all of this is true begins to fall, it becomes difficult to sustain conspiracy as a mode of governance.
It is a different matter that the current regime might continue to peddle and promote these techniques, knowing full well that they are not being believed—as, for instance, has happened with the sedition charges filed against senior journalists and many other such incidents. Here it might be a case of not creating a narrative, but fear of the fact that this regime is brazen and reckless.
This regime fosters conspiracy, not as a secret enterprise but as an open strategy. This seems to be the case for those who have been accused in the Bhima Koregaon case. However, for fear to settle down, it requires a veil of uncertainty and a feeling of moral indecisiveness. Brazen methods, of the kind that are being deployed, are difficult to sustain for long. They begin to invite opposition with a sense of self-righteousness, as the farmers are doing, with ease and not anxiety.
Further, the appeal for the current regime seems to be shrinking. So, it is attempting to create a narrative and a kind of politics that appeals to its core supporters. These kinds of brazen techniques of conspiracy and fear do not appeal to those who staunchly vouch for the politics of the current regime but belong to larger socially-differentiated groups.
On the contrary, lawlessness can create a sense of disdain and disgust among them unless they continue to imagine that these methods would only be reserved for those whom they politically differ with and socially despise. Such methods feed on this kind of predatory imagination, that targets the “other”, but it also often comes full circle. That is precisely what has happened with the high-handed techniques used against the farmers and now with those accused in the Bhima-Koregaon case.
The same methods that are used for Kashmiris and Muslims were used against the farmers in the colonies of Delhi. The way the internet was shut down—so that the Kashmiris cannot voice their protest—is how the borders of Delhi were shut down. In turn, they have reminded the country: ‘we are farmers, not terrorists’.
The author is an associate professor at the Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delh. The views are personal.