FIRST THE COW jihad. Blessed are the nations where animal welfare is nothing short of civilisational ethos. Cursed are the nations where the animal instincts of man kill the ‘lesser man’ in the name of the Holy Beast. In India, even cruelties are steeped in paradoxes. A cursory look out of your car window will convince you that there are more homeless animals on the street than abandoned humans. A lazy glance through morning papers will make you shudder at the murderous madness of mercy: the gau jihadi is on a rampage, and the enemy on the run is the outcaste.
Then the intifada in Kashmir. Two images linger. First, the stone-throwing freedom fighter, young and his face partially covered. Second, the marksman of the state, in military fatigues, vigilant, and nameless. The stone romantic, to borrow from media clichés, is the angry child of alienation, brutalised by Delhi’s jackboots. The shooter is the intruder, the occupier, the idyll-breaker of paradise. They have, in our widely consumed Manichean narrative, become characters in a moral set piece. The victim and the tormentor. The martyr and the marauder. Everything is arranged so neatly in the savaged state to prick our conscience. And how cathartic it is to be pained by such a sight, letting our hearts bleed.
Third, the man himself, speaking his mind when we really want to hear him, and in a language we thought he had forgotten to use while in power. He said the cow rakshaks were anti-social elements, distancing himself—and his idea of Hindu dharma—from the vigilantes. He said an India where Dalits were hounded was not his India. He was forthright; and the words came from Hindutva’s chosen one who dared the hoodlums of the Hindu Rashtra. Then he spoke about reconciliation in the Valley, and he returned to the vision of BJP’s all-time reconciler-ruler, Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Narendra Modi, in the span of a few days, defied the stereotype of a prime minister who has no words to spare whenever the news is horrifying— and the newsmaker is invariably the aggrieved Hindu activist. Modi was the prime healer of the week.
The three instances, a subjective summary of a week’s headlines, taken together, tell the story of India’s struggles within, its passions and pathologies, its identity crises and its leadership ideals, its fears and fantasies on the eve of its 70th birthday. They, in a way we may not have desired, reveal the karmic ellipse of freedom.
It is a measure of our national confidence—and the generosity of our democracy—that freedom fighters of all variety keep the polyphony of dispute as noisy as ever. India has outlived politics’ worst instincts, its illiberal temptations and ideological excesses
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Begin with the cow jihadi. His sense of empowerment comes from a change he thinks is redemptive, culturally as well as politically. It began two years ago when Modi won the most defining argument about India after Independence, and his arrival in Delhi marked the triumph of a different kind of Indian from the one imagined by Nehru. For the original nation builder, the ideal in an India of religious and other mind-contaminating affinities was the New Man of a scientific as well as socialist temper. The golem didn’t take off. In Modi’s India, by contrast, the national project was no longer incompatible with religion—or the little traditions that mould human identities. It was not the dawn of a new nativism—the most anatomised ism in the age of home-alone right-wingers—but the beginning of a heightened cultural awareness.
It is always the periphery that feels the need to flex its muscles whenever old hierarchies collapse. The so-called cultural Right—this sena or that sena—are the armed protectors of Hindu India, which is not exactly the India that has elected Modi. The Prime Minister was not there when the action heroes of ‘endangered’ Hinduism were the most vocal defenders of the nation. India’s most popular politician—and his popularity is only matched by his integrity—could have made a huge difference in the national mood had he chosen to speak when the country needed his reassuring words. Nobody else had a mandate as massive as he had. Still, he did not bother. His harsh words against the vigilantes restore the faith of those who for a while wondered whether the change was for the worse.
Now come to Kashmir and it is the soothing poetry of platitudes all over again. India still cannot afford to ask itself: Is there a clash between its idea of freedom and the stone-throwing revolutionary’s idea of azaadi? Or: Is reconciliation feasible between scripture-driven hatred and Constitutional responsibility? A territorial relationship becomes a debilitating anxiety where there is no emotional covenant between the fighter and the keeper, and for the streets of Kashmir, Delhi is an idea whose time has passed. Unfazed, we continue to reduce ‘the Kashmir problem’ to the expediencies of realpolitik. The call for azaadi has already been hardened by the radicalisation of the Kashmiri mind. Freedom is attainable only in paradise—the original one.
Freedom is a permanent argument in places still trapped in history. India’s independence, even in its seventieth year, is challenged by people who are still swayed by ideology or theology. It is a measure of our national confidence—and the generosity of our democracy—that freedom fighters of all variety keep the polyphony of dispute as noisy as ever. India has outlived politics’ worst instincts, its illiberal temptations and ideological excesses. In sixty-nine years of independence, our battles extended from the marketplace to the mindspace, and, thankfully, our victories have not yet made questions redundant. Change is all about keeping the argument going, even though it is still resisted by those who live outside history—and by those who live in the closed world of the Book.
It is the elegance of arguments, as in the following pages, that makes the discovery of India such an intellectual delight.