(Illustration: Saurabh Singh)
“Every civilisation sees itself as the centre of the world and writes its history as the central drama of human history.” – Samuel P Huntington
India since the very beginning has been a loose confederate of states of a diverse group of people. For thousands of years we have spoken different languages, eaten different food and worn different attire. While Hinduism (or Sanatan Dharma) has always been the dominant religion, Indians have largely been tolerant and syncretic. Besides, Hinduism and its offshoots, Jainism, Buddhism and Sikhism, have retained the essence of the Vedic philosophy. Unfortunately, the ancient caste system ossified over centuries and even today it remains a major social malaise. A thousand years ago Islam made it its entry through a series of invaders. However, it was only after the Mughals captured power that Islam came into focus and became the state religion though the number of Hindus always hovered around 80 per cent of the population. The British after a few clumsy attempts at proselytising concentrated on tapping the immense wealth of the country. Always dominated by a large Hindu majority, India saw uneasy clashes between communities for several centuries. In spite of a religion-based partition in 1947, a substantial number of Muslims stayed back in India. In post-Independence India Nehru with his Fabian fascination with the left brought in use the word ‘secular’ in its present context. This was done cleverly by not unsettling the rituals and practices of Hindus but by pandering to minorities totemically. This chasm which seemed shrouded in a very north Indian notion of ‘Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb’ (the syncretic culture of the Ganga-Yamuna plains) is split open now that a pro-Hindu party is in power. This reassertion of majority in a society is a global phenomenon today. No amount of romanticism is going to wish it away.
Post-Independence India was still struggling with food shortages and abject poverty but was fired by an idealism and leftism. The economy chose the Soviet way where everything was state-owned or controlled. A cultural resurgence was led by left-leaning intellectuals and artistes. While instances of religious and social excesses, especially in the hinterland, were ignored or dealt with cosmetically Urban India became what I call ‘workplace-tolerant’. Citizens worked together without infringing others’ personal faith. Worship, rituals and religious totems remained segregated. A few festivals like Diwali, Holi, Bihu, Ganesh Chaturthi, Durga Pooja, Christmas and Eid saw some intermingling of faiths but otherwise everyone went their way. The seeds of a Hindu backlash were sown during Partition itself as millions of Hindu and Sikh refugees streamed into India. The fifties were a frugal decade where sheer survival in new India amidst a tottering economy was itself a battle. Also, even in the fifties’ heady socialist ethnocentricity (remember the linguistic division of states) was more important than religion and caste, still dominant across religions. A chimera of tolerance kept the uneasy calm with communal clashes at regular intervals. Victimisation of Dalits and tribals in spite of various governmental assurances remains a social problem. Lack of media and communication kept these instances obscure unless there was a major flare-up. This uneasy calm was broken by repeated communal clashes. In the absence of media focus and lack of information the anger and pain of communities subsided in a few days and people carried on with their already tough lives. Newspapers were a largely urban phenomenon and radio (and later TV too) were state-controlled and sanitised. Communication was primitive with telephone being a luxury. This state of information ennui continued till the end of 20th century and the rise of the internet.
In the last decade emergence of digital media as a major source of information has altered not only interpersonal communication but the global information order. Millions holding tiny mobile phones and connected to one another through the internet has democratised information but also created a thousand news sources, real or imagined. A networked society, where in spite of haphazard regulation, we largely have complete freedom to express and share information, beliefs and thought with millions. Instantly. This unique phenomenon comes with huge benefits for humankind but also harbours some dangerous trends. Most people are lazy or just unable to handle such a large amount of information. We have created a universe of media which conjures up a miasma of half-truths, misinformation and distorted facts which hangs over the real world. Traditional media in most cases relies on this unsubstantiated information to reinforce a standpoint. In today’s digital world of manipulated images, sounds and words no one can assume a holier than thou position. Trolling is an art practised on all sides and surprisingly 90 per cent of the population is impervious to this digital bunk. The only minority today are the unbiased freethinkers. All others carry an agenda.
What we are witnessing today is merely a clash of ideologies. There has been a transfer of power from the left to the right. The BJP, for decades a pariah, is in power since 2014. In a democracy where the first past the post wins, the BJP is the largest party with the numerical majority. This change in power equation is unpalatable to many. ‘Liberals’ are absolutely entitled to their views and airing those on every platform. What I object to is when those who do not subscribe to their views are called out as evil and vile. Why do I have to be in one camp or the other? Life is not only black and white but also grey, brown, green or saffron. As some have a right to condemn a political philosophy, others have a right to support it. Or even be indifferent to the politics of faith.
Each one has the right to follow, reject or remain indifferent to various ideologies. It is natural then for the media and others to be coloured by their personal biases. Like some people are constantly chestbeating their patriotism, others are in a perpetual doom and gloom mode. However, this ‘one interpretation suits all’ doesn’t work in the real world. Social media communities are vast but a simple scrutiny reveals a disproportionately large percentage of activity is confined to a mere 1 per cent of the total population. Most purveyors of information happily jump to conclusion to suit their thinking. This tendency to call out individuals and groups of differing views is untenable. Cause célèbre does not justify celebrity witchhunt. By no means social media or even traditional media can claim to speak the truth. Almost all TV anchors and print journalists are prejudiced one way or the other. Which is fine. The problem is when they become judgemental about others who do not toe their line. Ditto for other media icons. Social change when amplified by media usually reinforces our own preconceived notions, fears and phobias. Now the convenience and reach of social media makes it a tinder box of half-baked news often igniting public outrage. The voice of sanity is lost in the cacophony of hashtags and handles. Sharing of images often out of context or juxtaposed in a partisan manner is incendiary. The less said about fake news the better.
Without taking sides I can recount several instances in post-Independence India where governments have faced similar accusations. In the fifties several tall leaders including BR Ambedkar, C Rajagopalachari, Purshottam Das Tandon, Acharya Kripalani, Syama Prasad Mookerjee and Ram Manohar Lohia, leaders who had been a part of the freedom movement, not only criticised Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru but moved away to form their own political parties with contrarian manifestos. People moved on in spite of recurring social unrest, economic crisis and even wars. Subsequently the Congress of Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi and even Sonia Gandhi had many stalwart dissenters. Emergency in 1975 of course is too widely remembered for its tyranny and treachery. Even the much touted Janata Government which brought disparate parties together soon fell amidst a crisis of dissension. Even the Left splintered. Does a change in ideology of a democratic political party mean that democracy is under threat? No. One may not agree with the policy and programmes of a particular government but that does not mean there is doom and gloom everywhere. Sifting political sands are a hallmark of our polity. Every governments have at different times faced dissent, protests and strikes. It is part of a legitimate democratic process. Unfortunately, seldom has a ruling dispensation taken to such incidents gracefully. When an always-on omnipresent media amplifies negativity much faster it only singes society. Today the noise and chatter of media has added to the heat and dust of electoral politics. Rhetoric and partisan commentary on social media is biased. Reportage only reinforces stereotypes.
It may feel as if what is happening today has never happened before but that is hardly true. Let’s look at the recent spate of student protests. There have been similar protests many times in the past. One can recall the anti-Hindi riots in Tamil Nadu in 1965, the Gujarat Nav Nirman Movement of 1974, the student movements such as the JP movement in 1974-75, the Assam student movements of 1979-85, the Mandal agitation in 1990s, the anti-reservation protests of 2006 and the JNU agitation in 2016. It is well known how political parties have entrenched themselves in student politics in India. Often students are used as pawns by these parties to further their own agendas. Has anything changed this time except that there is a BJP-led Government in at the Centre for over five years with a distinct political image? If people do not approve of its policies it will be booted out at the hustings. They will not go because a section of the country’s 1.3 billion people is uncomfortable. Omnipresent media and mobile phone-driven social messaging spreads more hate than information. Unlike what some intellectuals would like to believe this hate is generated across political spectrum. All political parties and their supporters are guilty of this. Every protest for or against any cause is exploited by politicians. While there are many making incendiary statements, both Central and state governments are ham-handed in dealing with dissent and protests. Similarly, all protestors and agitators are not as innocent and victimised as they claim.
India is a unique country. The very nature of our existence is pluralist. The most ardent of nationalists are aware one cannot wish away 200 million Muslims away. Similarly, those who talk of fascism have to understand this is a new age and old definitions and dogmas are no longer valid. A country of India’s size is not going to turn totalitarian in a year or even a decade. We are in the midst of a massive socioeconomic and geopolitical upheaval in the 21st century. Nations and the world are witnessing the rise of nationalism, jingoism and parochialism. Economic change accelerated by technology, demographics and ecology is redefining the way the world will live, work and flourish in the decades to come. Our ability to adapt and overcome these challenges is what will matter. 21st century revolutions and wars will be different from what we have seen in the last century. People who do not keep pace with change will just fall by the wayside of progress. Cruel? Maybe. Real? For sure.
The fundamental truth is that we are witnessing a clash of ideologies. We should not use cultural pluralism as a pretext for relativism. As the writer Joel Belz puts it ,’tolerance’ gives you room to say ‘I think you’re wrong, but I’ll defend your right to be wrong’ but your truth is not the only truth. The problem is that a vast number of Indians are talking past others. While extremists are confusing religion with nationalism, liberals are not willing to accept the fact their value system is not the only correct one. Without going into the merits of which is the better one can only hope peace and progress will prevail. India must eradicate poverty, misery and suffering of millions of its citizens without fear or favour. Our public space and polity must be cleansed. Hardened positions are not conducive to a dialogue leave alone development. Most importantly India must progress despite the fear and doom and gloom which some seem to spreading these days. India has survived, even thrived through centuries of political and social change and we will continue to do so. Our heritage is not so fragile that it will break and there is no need to be xenophobic. Social media chatter cannot and should not decide a nation’s destiny. TV studios may presume that they drive public discourse but unfortunately, they merely provide a nightly dose of argumentative entertainment.
It’s time to relook at questions and search for answers within in 21st century India.