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Business News/ Opinion / Columns/  Disturbing intimations of a grim future that seems here already
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Disturbing intimations of a grim future that seems here already

Recent pledges at a Haridwar congregation were not warning signs because we’re past that stage

A file photo  of HaridwarPremium
A file photo  of Haridwar

Haridwar is the gate that leads you to gods. But the congregation held there last week turned the meaning of it on its head; the town showed a path to the gates of hell.

In his 14th century narrative poem Divine Comedy, the Italian poet Dante Alighieri refers to the “gates of hell" while describing a journey through hell and purgatory before reaching paradise. It seems an apt metaphor for the amoral abyss towards which India looks headed.

The supposedly religious conclave held last week in Haridwar was neither divine, nor comic. Nor was it a warning sign, for there have been many warning signs. In early 2020, a few leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) shouted that those they deemed traitors to the nation should be shot. A year earlier, a BJP parliamentarian had praised M.K. Gandhi’s assassin Nathuram Godse as a patriot (and the party referred her case to a disciplinary panel that did not exist). Before that, there was the rape and murder of a child in Kathua in 2018, the Dadri lynching in 2015 (and over 100 similar cases since). There was also the killing of a Muslim infotech engineer in June 2014 because somebody had said something insulting about Shivaji. Those were all warning signs.

The men and women in saffron who gathered in Haridwar promised to defend their faith by giving up their lives and taking others’ lives if necessary. Right arms raised, they vowed to turn India into a theocracy. During Christmas, church proceedings were disrupted, an effigy of Santa Claus was burned and a Jesus statue was toppled. Elsewhere, Muslims, denied permission to build a mosque, were repeatedly disrupted while trying to offer prayers in a public arena. A parliamentarian insisted on reconverting minorities to Hinduism (and then sheepishly ‘withdrew’ those remarks). And city authorities in Gujarat said neither eggs nor meat could be sold or consumed in public.

A crowd in Haridwar bayed for genocide and no one got arrested, though a Muslim comedian was picked up before he had said a word because someone thought he might say something funny about Hindu deities who must be protected by their devotees. Statements once considered outrageous are seen as normal; bigotry has gone mainstream and the fringe is at the centre.

It is time for Indians to leap out of the cauldron of hatred that’s consuming India’s inner core.

I remember a conversation with the late Alyque Padamsee, an advertising professional who was also a major figure in India’s English theatre. In the 1980s, he staged Cabaret, the 1966 musical based on Christopher Isherwood’s 1939 novel, Goodbye to Berlin, which recalls the chaotic Weimar Republic. In the last scene, two young boys dressed as Nazi officers march in and arrest the decadent hedonists. They weren’t wearing the Nazi brown; they wore saffron.

“Did you notice that?" he asked me. “It is what I fear. It is the warning." The Ayodhya movement was still a few years away, and some thought Padamsee was being a sensationalist. Perhaps he foresaw the death of an idea called India.

A few years later, A.B. Vajpayee spoke to so-called kar sevaks (volunteers) in Ayodhya, and in a speech rich with innuendo, said that the Supreme Court had permitted prayers at the site. But to pray, one needed a flat ground. Roused by his oratory, kar sevaks blew conch shells.

The next day, the ground on which the Babri Masjid stood was flattened.

Yes, there were warning signs, visible but unseen.

While Prime Minister Narendra Modi wishes Christians on Christmas and hugs the Pope, the foot-soldiers of the same movement are taking centre-stage. If Modi attempts to chastise them, he risks the wrath that his party’s politics has unleashed. (Think of Indira Gandhi of the Congress and Bhindranwale). If Modi criticizes them, he won’t please those whose votes he doesn’t need. And it’s unclear if his words can restrain a crowd that has found its mission. Like former US President Donald Trump’s followers who now boo him when he praises vaccines, they will probably do the same to any BJP leader who seeks to lower the temperature.

The past does not follow a script. The Italian author Umberto Eco had warned that when fascism returns, it would not imitate earlier forms, and it won’t necessarily be Italian (just as Nazism needn’t be German). Bigotry is not the monopoly of any civilization. In a 1995 essay, Eco identified 14 characteristics of fascism, including manufactured grievances and the convincing of the privileged that they are persecuted. He offered these as a warning to societies keen to remain free. “We must keep alert, so that the sense of these words will not be forgotten," he wrote. The Turkish writer Ece Temelkuran notes how easy it is for democracies to turn into dictatorships: create a movement, disrupt rational discourse and terrorize language, remove shame, undermine judicial and political checks and balances, define ‘model’ citizens, disregard critics, and create an alternate universe.

For years, many Hindus have seen their faith as tolerant, inclusive and non-violent. The Haridwar congregation abhors that version, seeing it as a sign of emasculation. Martha Nussbaum had warned of it in The Clash Within: Democracy, Religious Violence, and India’s Future (2007). That future is here.

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in New York. Read Salil’s previous Mint columns at www.livemint.com/saliltripathi

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Published: 29 Dec 2021, 11:06 PM IST
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