Apr 13, 2016

Intolerance, Liberalism, Dissent, and the Arrogance of Power

One cannot be an Indian & stay insulated from the happenings that are tearing my country apart currently. To say that this deep divisiveness is unprecedented in India’s history or wholly unexpected, is to be na├»ve or deliberately ignorant. Starting from the Partition, to the Khalistan Movement, the Mandal Commission agitation, the demolition of the Babri Masjid, to the Godhra massacre, our checkered history has more stains than stars. Nor are these incidents such that they can be easily pushed under the rug of a distant past – party workers hacking members of rival parties to death, point blank shootings of critiques of Hinduism, calls for purging Mumbai of non-marathis, destruction of entire belts of Dalit villages in Haryana, rape & abduction of Hindu girls in Assam & WB – these incidents have continued to dot the pages of our national & regional dailies. It would be a matter of individual ideology & also depend on which data one would be likely to refer to in order to argue for or against the allegation that we are becoming more intolerant under the current government.

It is no secret that Liberals & intellectuals across the country openly mourned that “the fascists have won” when the BJP won a landslide victory in 2014. Nor can one blame them entirely -- that Mr Modi is cut from a very different cloth than the previous BJP PM Mr AB Vajpayee was quite apparent to all. Modi’s pedigree as a RSS stalwart who has made his way up the ranks of the party was proudly touted in his tenure as Gujarat CM & his pre-election campaign. His past record during the Godhra riots, completely unapologetic stance in its aftermath, and aura of arrogance, didn’t win him many friends. While his promised mandate to the electorate was reforms, minimum governance, and boost to manufacturing, little or no profress has been made on either of these areas. Economists like Swaminathan Ankleshwar Aiyer today lament that Modi has shown none of the Capitalist-minded reforms that many Liberals feared. Instead, turning on the TV these days means witnessing yet another public spat between the BJP & Kejriwal/Rahul Gandhi, or listening to obnoxious & utterly shameful pronouncements from minor BJP leaders & supporters. One’s heart goes out to BJP spokespersons like Nalin Kohli or Sambit Patra who are called upon every evening on primetime TV debate to defend the callous and insensitive remarks of their party colleagues. One thing is amply clear – the quality of public discourse in India is abysmal & belongs to the gutter. One needs only to follow/participate in such debates on Twitter (I’ve recently become quite active) to discover new & colourful abuse at the hands of the trolls – largely from Right Wing supporters.

Having said all this, I think the BJP’s political ascendency under the leadership of Mr Modi was welcome and much required for our country to gain political maturity, for many of us to actually grasp a genuine understanding of such noble text-book concepts as ‘secular’ & ‘nationalism’; for India’s intellectuals to acknowledge (if they have the courage to) that their ideologies and choices are barely a representative of the country’s electorate; for the ‘other’, who we easily label as ‘bhakt’ or ‘anti-national’ or ‘presstitude’, to lend their voice to the larger question of what should India be in the 21st century, or, to determine which kind of economic theory & history (both Left & Right or only one) should be taught in the country’s leading universities. So far, our public discourse has largely been dominated by the Left & that is also not without reason – the Right has always decried any kind of intellectual engagement depending instead on a version of muscular Hindu nationalism. Today, I am glad that I have access to mainstream RW news & opinion sites such as Swarajya & DailyO. While I may not agree with some of their columnists, I am at least exposed to a factually whetted & well-articulated point of counter-view to what is the prevailing thought in my country. And to be absolutely frank, I find RW commentators such as Ashok Mallick, Swapan Dasgupta, Sanjeev Sanyal, and Tavleen Singh far more bipartisan than any of their Left colleagues (Kavita Krishnan, Arundhati Roy, Brinda Karat).

For many days now we have heard people argue about the idea of india? This is a stupid argument in the first place. My idea of India changed drastically when I undertook a fairly long road trip of north-India earlier this year. My cousin -- who runs his small insurance business in Murshidabad district of WB and struggles to ward of the muslim goons who haunt the area often rants that ‘we should throw all muslims out of the country’ -- is quite different from my husband’s uncles from Madhya Pradesh who belong to the Hindu upper caste and openly advocate banning not only beef but all kinds of meat among Hindus. How can their idea of India concur with mine? I, who am writing this sitting in a Muslim country and enjoy my steak & red wine.

At Jhargola village in Rajasthan it was difficult for us to find a single shop in the local haat which sold clean cooking oil – mustard or vegetable. The local brand sold there is so badly adulterated that one can barely see through the foggy, dense mix inside the bottle. Till about a year ago, I worked at one of India’s largest private banks whose corporate brochure proudly claimed its network of 2500 branches & 12,000 ATMs. Yet, as we toured more than 1700 kms across Delhi & Rajasthan, we must’ve passed about 7 ATMs & only 4 branches operated by SBI, Union Bank & HDFC Bank. Mind you, I am talking about small towns which stretch across the NH7, not the heartland of our villages. In Mulund, I am spoilt for choice – Kotak, HDFC, Axis, SBI, Canara – you name it and you’ll find them all with 300 metres of my house. So, how can my experience of India and hopes and expectations from it be in any way similar to the priest’s family in Chittorgarh who wanted our advice about his elder daughter pursuing a career in Commerce?

I’ve always believed that the absence of choice is the worst fate than can befall us; bringing up millions of countrymen on a single, homogenized and sanitized ideology is dangerous. The greatest nation on Earth too is not immune to such danger. Why else would it be reeling under the threat of a presidential nominee who has openly insulted minorities, women, and gays and still hopes to occupy the most powerful office in the world? When you try too hard to accommodate the ‘other’ without realizing that its definition is fluid and ever-evolving, when political correctness takes precedence over the country’s interests, and when most of the country hasn’t attained the political and social maturity to even grasp what it means to be the ‘other’, we court such dangerous phenomenon as we are seeing in the world’s two largest democracies today.

For me the saddest day was not when the BJP won the election, but every time I hear one of my urban, salaried, ‘educated’ friends & colleagues evince the desire to turn India into a China (Kanhaiya Kumar would be shot in Tiananmen Square!) and speak glowingly of Saudi’s law & order (the punishment for rape is stoning; no wonder women are safe there! Kar sakenge humare desh mein?). Blaming the BJP is the most convenient & obviously lazy thing to do. It is far more difficult to introspect and accept historical mistakes, political mishaps and vote bank appeasements.

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