Around this time nearly 25 years ago I was in the walled city of Delhi, to spend a few days researching a feature story about life in curfew after the demolition of the Babri Masjid by mobs of ultranationalist Hindus. That, as you know, happened on 6 December 1992. Within days riots had broken out across India.
Till then Muslims as a whole were not considered terrorists, or seditious, or “anti-national"—a word with which horrors begin—or worthy of broad-brush suspicion. Neither were Hindus, or those of other faiths, even the agnostic, atheist, and secular-minded. At worst Muslims and Hindus were two communities whose cynical leaders, political and religious, incited their poorest and angriest to occasionally indulge in bloodshed over structured rage: immorality plays that dated back to the days of Partition. ‘Hindu-Mussalman’ was the main event. The rest were sideshows.
In the majoritarian Indian imagination, “anti-nationals" were those who caused trouble in Kashmir Valley, in Punjab, Northeastern India, and Maoist strongholds in undivided Andhra Pradesh and undivided Bihar. And, disaffected Tamils from Sri Lanka and those who provided them shelter in India. They had assassinated a former—and, in all likelihood, future—prime minister just a year earlier.
It had even been a time of some celebration. Economic liberalization had arrived. Of course land was being acquired for projects, and brutally, with full use of law, lawmakers and law-keepers. Adivasi landholdings were continually shrinking. But it was all brushed under India’s amnesiac carpet for the greater good, following a Nehruvian pattern of appropriation with slick talk that continues to this day.
Business had come alive, and with it industriousness and job opportunities. Make in India was as much a slogan then as it is now (though the preferred imagery was of an elephant or tiger, not a lion from the wilds of Gujarat). India’s prime minister crisscrossed the world selling India: we were the next big thing. That’s a 25-year-old template, not born in May 2014.
And then it’s as if we all became terrorists, or sedition-minded, or, at the very least, anti-national, depending on one’s point of view. December 1992 and consequent reactions did that to us. That is when we began the sure transformation to if-you’re-not-with-us-you’re-against-us. From the politics of reclamation of a religion under siege, it descended to parliamentary behaviour, and, over time, to economic matters, and media discourse. There was no Facebook, Twitter or Whatsapp, but privately owned production houses were coming of age, and with it more publicly aired views, precursors to 24/7 electronic media as carriers of politics as gladiatorial entertainment.
Parliamentary proceedings and political screaming matches had begun their new-media journey. All political parties and their handmaidens were eager participants in their own steady corruption of values—and this pun is intended.
Look at us now.
Entire communities are broad-brushed with tags of ‘ultra’ sentiments — communities not of thousands, but of millions, even hundreds of millions!
Sedition is an equal opportunity employer, extending from those who would destroy others in the name of their god, or gods, to fisher-folk who protest a nuclear power plant fearing for their post-Fukushima lives and declining catches, to dehumanized Dalits, to adivasis who wish to protect their lands, to those who demand employment opportunities, even those who draw unflattering cartoons of political leaders.
To be Indian is not enough. To be patriotic is reduced to overlooking failures of security unpreparedness, and hitting the ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ buttons on unscientific television and social network polls. Heck, patriotism is even to queue at an ATM.
Today even physically disabled cinema-goers are a vulnerable group twice over because they are liable to be hectored and even hit—as the son of an army officer was in Goa—because they may be unable to stand for the national anthem. The Supreme Court’s recent order to play it before a movie is merely the sour icing on a fungoid cake. It cheapens patriotism, already cheapened by the hysteria of us-and-them nationalism.
Shrillness is no longer limited to the left-of-centre, or the activist, who often shout in order to be heard, but extends to a universal right-of-centre.
History has travelled a circle from the poor and dispossessed taking to protest, to the entitled and better-off protesting the demands of the poor and dispossessed.
Is India a more secured country? Perhaps in physical terms: more troops, more firepower. But what good is all that for an insecure nation?
Sudeep Chakravarti’s books include Clear.Hold.Build: Hard Lessons of Business and Human Rights in India, Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country and Highway 39: Journeys through a Fractured Land. This column, which focuses on conflict situations and the convergence of businesses and human rights in India and South Asia, runs on Thursdays.
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