Sexuality Policy Watch

Who’s Modi to discipline us?

Originally published on DailyIO on 09/08/2015. Available at:

Shiv Visvanathan
Shiv Visvanathan



Narendra Modi’s economic and technological policies might have limited impact despite the presence of stellar experts like Arvind Panagriya, Raghuram Rajan and Arvind Subramanian. If the first year of his regime has created anything it is not a regulation of the economy but a “civics of morality” or even of a preferred style of citizenship.

In fact, when, on “xyz”, his regime decided to ban 857 pornographic sites, later revoked, it was clear one was witnessing the making of a repressive society as a complement to his politics of majoritarianism. The banning of pornographic sites is located within his wider dreams of a new surveillance society. We are witnessing the unfolding of something systematic and conceptual. It involves a connection between security, safety, sustainability, sexuality and sedition. The regime is trying to create the civics of a new man.


Like all regimes, the inauguration of this civics was a positive act. It began with an emphasis on cleanliness and punctuality. It is not cleanliness one objects to. It is the definition of dirt. As anthropologist Mary Douglas put it, “Dirt is matter out of place.” This regime has extended the definition of “dirt” to dissent, sedition, sustainability, sexuality. Projects on yoga, cleaning the Ganga, cleaning offices and streets are a front to engineer a more repressive society through a wider system of surveillance.

For the regime, a certain form of patriotism defines the centrality of citizenship — jingoistic nationalism that does not allow for dissent. Security becomes the key word in the glossary and sedition is dirt. Civil society groups which object to development in defence of marginal ways become the first targets. Sustainability becomes subsumed under security and safety. It is the security of the state rather than the sustainability of society that is critical.

The relation between body and the body politic is critical here. What needs to be controlled is nature and forms of bodily behaviour. In fact, sexuality as liberty is treated as licence. The control begins by vigilante acts on Valentine’s Day — policing people and attacking freedom in parks and beaches. A beach hoarding at Manipal says it all: “Be educated, do not hold hands.” The message is clear: consumption of goods is fine but the body is not part of the spectacle.

The regime’s attitude to rape reflects this. It is the victim who, through displays of the body, tempts the male.

Vigilantism and surveillance become ways of controlling the body and the regime’s attempt to control pornography is part of this. Its unease about gender, sexuality, and any defined form of deviancy is clear. This unease needs to repress the body because “sexuality”, like “sedition”, threatens the body politic. In fact, the equations are clear. Nature is a resource that has to be disciplined and therefore destruction of nature is part of the regime’s economy.


Disciplining nature and disciplining the body are coterminous. When a Baba Ramdev claims homosexuality is sickness, the regime’s idea of pathology and deviancy become clearer. Bodily cleansing is only an extension of ethnic cleansing and this makes the logic of majoritarianism clear. It is part of the new safety net. Controlling the body demands controlling the mind. One needs to control history because history can be as badly behaved as sexuality. The right kind of history is important for such a regime. Culture is subject to censorship because history and art follow the fate of the body and nature. Repression and censorship become the order of the day. What the government is creating is a set of partial panopticons to control nature, the body, the syllabus, history, art and culture. A form of cultural policing has become the basis of the new regulatory economy.

The corporates are allowed to get away with their ecological degradation through corporate social responsibility (CSR) but an ordinary citizen watching pornography can be in deep trouble. There is a return to patriarchy and paternalism here which is worrying, though the logic is clear: The minority, the marginal and the dissenter are now the target of a majoritarian morality which has the beginnings of a programme.


What marks all this is an absence of debate. The regime, like certain TV channels, thinks inquisition is the only form of conversation. There is little debate and humour. A democracy without laughter is a frightening prospect. A joke threatens the regime. It verges on sedition, or pornography.

Yet the regime should know two basic facts. No information revolution is complete without the epidemic of pornography. It is part of the informal economy of sexuality. Second, erasing pornography may force it underground. Overt porn may be sickening, but it might be less threatening than covert porn. Ban is not always the best answer to a problem. We use censorship and bans too often in the new regulatory society. Any book which shows the seeds of controversy is withdrawn without discussion.

Liberty needs tolerance, plurality, humour and debate and the current regime seems to be short on all four. It is as if its human development indicators have no place for these properties. This, I think, is the real sadness of the regime. It is creating a repressive society through a disciplinary and surveillance apparatus to ready itself for the new modes of development. What one desperately needs is a return to the noise and disorder of democracy.


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