In the contemporary practices of nationhood, Procrustean beds of nationalism no longer function like extraconstitutional systems in India.
Procrustes, the cruel abductor in Greek mythology, is known for his punitive bed which adjusted his undesired victims to perfect size. Tall victims had their legs cut off with sharp metal tools and those who were short in size were stretched to the length of this bed. He abducted travellers and traders and tortured them on this bed for the simple reason that they did not fit in his imagination of the human body. Stories around Procrustean tailoring of people for fixed shapes and behavior have been echoed in the imaginations of nation and nationhood today. Popular discussions about minorities, race, fugitives, women, migrant labour and gender are increasingly becoming unfriendly and intolerant. Head of the states — from Donald Trump of the US to Tayyib Erdogan of Turkey to Kim Jong-un of North Korea — express no reservations in using Procrustean logic of nationalism.
India is not different. A cursory look at the nation/nationhood narratives in India clearly shows how the Hindu far-right has been shaping their own Procrustean nation which restructures its citizens either by chopping off their social and cultural limbs or stretching them all according to their ethnic and religious identities. In their new imagination of the nation and nationhood, the far-right has begun to advance the methods of Procrustean punitive justice system against the people who are aware of their political voice and cultural choices.
Procrustean nationalists in India make beds in different shapes and sizes and they are expected to perform multiple functions according to victims who come by. The ‘beds of axing’ are aimed to take care of people with certain eating choices, intimate relations and religious sensibilities while the ‘beds of stretching’ are mostly used to adjust the digression within Hindu communities — like inter-caste marriages or conversion. Func-tions of these beds get overlapped quite frequently. Whatever the case may be, victims of this Procrus-tean nation have mostly been coming from socially marginalised classes and religious minorities, showing close similarities to such developments in Pakistan, probably the first modern Procrustean nation in South Asia.
In the contemporary practices of nationhood, Procrustean beds of nationalism no longer function like extraconstitutional systems in India. They look like lateral and approved hands of the nation. With the emergence of a new coercive middle class in the region, Procrustean tactics of nationalism seem to be justified by the state through the narratives of Hindu ‘victimhood’ and Muslim ‘appeasement.’ New patrons of these narratives and tactics include disgruntled intellectuals, academics, journalists, media houses, elite bureaucrats, industrialists and white-collar professionals, stretching wide and far. The emergent Procrustean elites in India, thus, give legitimacy to a large number of Procrustean hate crowds. These crowds could be rapidly mobilised and assembled for spectacularising fear and physical atrocities against the ‘undesirables’ — that include religious minorities and micro-gender groups. Now, such paramilitarized Procrustean vigilante groups in North India function like the state and violence occupi
es a dominant role in their idea of nation and nationalism.
For strengthening the idea of a Procrustean nation, a major section of India’s urban elites also wants to set the term for democratic institutions like judiciary and legislature by negating completely the idea of constitutional nationalism.
In their eyes, constitutional guarantees and rights hinder the growth of a masculine nation and the majoritarian nationhood. For example, Amit Shah’s recent statement about Sabarimala before the general elections — ‘Supreme court should only pronounce judgments which could be implemented’ — came from the validation of these coercive elites who do not believe in the idea of ‘justice for all’. Now, ‘justice by selection’ has become the hallmark of new masculinised nationhood discourses in India.
Similarly, the recent violence at Buland Shahr, a small town in Uttar Pradesh, gives testimony to the fearful establishment of the Procrustean populism in the garb of nationalism in India. Started off as ‘cow’-related violence, it led to the murder of Subodh Singh, the police officer who successfully charged-sheeted the culprit of a brutal lynching two years before. It is now believed that the perpetrators of his murder staged this violence and had him shot dead before burning his office where he kept the investigation files and documents.
One would imagine that charge- sheeting against nation’s ‘desirable citizens’ made him a culprit in the eyes of Procrustean populism and he deserved to be purged. Despite being a Hindu himself, the Procrustean justice prevailed in his case over constitutional assurances and bureaucratic privileges.
An interesting development has been the importance given to spectacularised violence. Perpetrators of violence use technology to live telecast their love for nation by circulating choreographed attacks such as dismembering, burning, shooting and axing. Faster in disseminating and deeper in intimidating, such live shows are now emerging as a major communicative method among Procrustean nationalists across south Asia and India leads the pack. Such regressive national imagination thus enables a situation which creates hundreds of lynch mobs who are aware of zero punitive consequences.
However, such mobs from lower middle classes hardly recognise their peril in a Procrustean nation which will eventually adjust them in the same ‘axing-cum-stretching’ bed as it happened to Procrustes himself.
(The author is assistant professor, Department of History, Delhi University)