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The rise of the far-right in India and mental health ‘left’ in the lurch

The rise of the far-right in India and mental health ‘left’ in the lurch

By Malu Mohan
on May 23, 2024

Globally, there are reports of rising uncertainty, stress, and anxiety, in response to increasing conservatism, discrimination, political unrest and violence. The World Health Organization defines mental health as “a state of well-being in which the individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community”. While seemingly aspirational, this definition clearly recognizes that mental health is not merely the absence of clinically diagnosed mental illnesses. Drawing from ongoing critical debates in the field, we situate mental health as the “psychological preconditions necessary (but not sufficient) for the conception of a good life, including well-being.” Further, these psychological preconditions are to some extent determined by prevalent political ideologies, discourses and subsequent state policies. In this piece, we argue that the weakening of democracy in India, accompanied by rampant communal polarization, has a bearing on the psychological preconditions required for positive mental health of citizens. While focusing on India, obviously, this is increasingly a global story.

But first the mental health backdrop in nowadays’ India. The alarming suicide rate and high prevalence of common mental disorders like depressive disorders, neurotic and stress-related disorders, addictions and others portray a grim picture of the mental health of Indians. A recent global mental health survey by Sapien Labs in 2023 reports that 30.4 per cent of internet-enabled Indians are distressed or struggling with their mental health (compared to 27.1 per cent globally). The situation is even worse for younger people and women. The COVID-19 pandemic and the measures adopted to contain it played a significant role in recent years in this respect. Nevertheless, the expectation that once the lockdowns lifted and the threat of COVID-19 subsided the collective mental health of people would begin a recovery towards its pre-pandemic levels, didn’t materialize. And not just in India by the way: data across 64 countries show that the effects of diminished global mental wellbeing have become a new normal. Other potential determinants  include early exposure to phones and social media, and unemployment

Whatever the causes, the dire mental health situation contradicts the incumbent government’s glorified perception of India as a nation on the path to emerging as a global leader – ‘the Vishwaguru’. Interestingly, the V-Dem Institute’s Democracy Report 2024 pointed out that India has remained an electoral autocracy since 2018, indicating a weakening of democracy. We think that the deteriorating political climate could be an additional factor contributing to the dire mental health situation in India (and more generally in other countries that are also experiencing a weakening of democracy, rise of far right, increasing communal polarization etc.)

The link between state repression and the mental health of citizens has been discussed in multiple contexts of majoritarian/totalitarian/fascist political regimes since the Second World War. On the one hand, there are citizens ‘othered’ and villainized by these regimes, who bear the brunt of mental health challenges in the form of constant anxiety, uncertainty, post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health conditions. In addition, people who attempt to resist through individual or collective political action, as well as people who remain apparently ‘silent’ in the face of such regimes also often suffer from mental health implications. But the writings have also underscored the economic, political, and psychosocial circumstances which predispose certain individuals and groups to be ‘victims of’ totalitarian ideologies, conquering them into uncritical subordination and destroying collective altruistic behaviour. The Nazi regime was a clear case in point.

History now seems to be repeating itself in India. The far-right ideology has been recruiting citizens from the Hindu community (the majority), among others by exploiting their socio-economic and political vulnerabilities (cfr. the inequality, poverty and employment crisis). Speaking of which, recent reports have indicated that after ten years of a far-right government, income inequality and unemployment in India are higher than ever. The false narratives designed by their demagogues have lured vulnerable citizens and turned quite a few of them into perpetrators of gross violations against the ‘other’, namely the Muslims. The groundwork laid for decades by the far-right (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)), and the victory of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a political wing of RSS, in the past two national elections, has tapped into the insecurities of citizens from the majority community, making them easy prey to the personality cult of one supreme leader. Systematic distortion of history and facts has been jeopardizing autonomous decision making of many (and as you know, India is far from alone in this). This can in turn lead to an impaired sense of personal responsibility and tendency to dehumanize the minority community. Vulnerable citizens are encouraged to “act out” on their basal urges. Some of them even end up committing violent acts like lynching. Although these responses may not amount to clinical mental disorders, history suggests that such normalization of hatred and violence dehumanizes the perpetrators themselves and can have far reaching psychological consequences

Meanwhile, multiple reports and anecdotal evidence from India document the alarming mental health implications of communal polarization and targeted hatred of its minority communities, particularly the Muslims. The insecurity and sense of institutional betrayal have a bearing on their everyday lives and interactions, further confining them to ghettos and over-reliance on their religious identity to feel protected. Sadly, higher levels of anxiety, fear and hyper-vigilance are the new normal for many of them.

As already mentioned above, politically conscious individuals/groups who try to counter the state repression are also known to experience mental health effects, in addition to risking incarceration and violence. For instance, ‘political depression’, defined as feelings of intense helplessness, anxiety, guilt and grief in response to distressing socio-political events, has been reported among the student activists from India during the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act protests in December 2019.

On a more positive note, political activism through collectivisation/solidarity can also be a coping strategy for many, which might help overcome feelings of guilt/helplessness to some extent. Other individuals who appear disinterested in politics also justify their ‘indifference’ as a coping strategy (indicating some kind of cynicism) to find  ‘peace’ amidst turmoil.

Against this backdrop, we hypothesize that the rising mental health concerns (including addictions) in recent years could partially be explained by how citizens mentally “process” the political unrest they experience, especially in the wake of weakening democracy. As we are witnessing a steep rise in fundamentalism across the globe, unfortunately including our own country, the research community must approach mental health also through a political lens and resort to social epidemiological inquiries for answers.

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