Three people I know and who do not know each other told me last week that they are thinking of leaving India and making a life abroad. They were all deeply disturbed by the Dadri lynching incident and the growing climate of intolerance and violence around us. They all expressed concerns about bringing up their children in a nation where hatred is normal, even a virtue. I feel their pain. I have also not stopped worrying about the future for weeks, though I’m not contemplating leaving the country. Not yet.
Many others I have spoken to in my circle of acquaintances (and let me clarify here that I’m referring mostly to educated, urban Indians in well-paid jobs) dismissed these incidents as collateral damage in electoral politics. Historians like DN Jha (link) and Aparna Vaidik (link) have shown that this is nothing new; cow protection has been an important aspect of pastoral lives but beef eating and cow slaughter have long been sensitive issues, used cleverly by politicians and monarchs to appease certain communities and demonize others. The people who were doing the shrugging seemed to regard themselves as distanced from these ground level politics, while those who felt disturbed imagined that this particular brand of politics, previously at a distance, was now poised to invade their relatively peaceful and protected lives.
Dealing with a climate of fear
Whatever situation you find yourself in, there is a palpable sense of fear that is forcing many of us to take sides. The climate of fear is urging many educated Hindus who have previously regarded their religion as a matter of private belief, separate from their public lives, to acknowledge that their sense of security stems from their ‘Hinduness’. Aware that their actions and words are being judged for how Hindu they are, this is a group that is now deliberate in what they say or do. They are sandwiched between what they are and what they want to project of themselves. They are struggling with the morality they practice and the moral code that is slowly being imposed on us.
Educated non-Hindus too, make a choice. The blending of many religions into the broader umbrella of Hindutva is an obvious strategy of the right wing forces and I truly wonder how cognizant practitioners of these faiths are of this inexorable sucking in of non-controversial faiths into the big umbrella of Hindu belief. For educated Muslims, keeping fear at bay must be a very very deliberate and difficult process. Those who are promoting this atmosphere of hatred must also take responsibility for the growing radicalization of educated Muslim youth in India, and the increased threat of terrorism that our country faces as a result.
The educated Indian is an unfair target
Then there are the die-hard liberals (and I refuse to stigmatize that word), who genuinely believe in the diversity and pluralism of India, who support the idea of choice and who are suspicious of a majoritarian view. I would call them idealists. These are the people for whom hope is an important word at this time. For they seem to be the true targets of this new brand of aggressive Hinduism we see around us. Devdutt Patnaik acknowledges this when he calls the discourse around beef-eating a “symbolic attack on the ‘educated Indian’ who did not stand up for Hinduism in the international arena” (link).
To me, this is a baffling situation. How does PM Modi expect industrialization (Make in India), technological growth (Digital India) or urban investments (Smart Cities Mission) that will catalyze India’s economic growth to happen without the contribution of the educated Indian? Is he supporting the atmosphere of fear expecting that educated Indians have no choice but to accept the hegemony of a dominant Hinduism and carry on with the productive lives they lead? Does he not realize that an atmosphere of fear, violence and suspicion works counter to one of productivity, innovation and entrepreneurship?
No place for fear and parochialism in India’s transformation
For in becoming educated and urban (by default it would seem), it is true that we (and I speak collectively here, as a nation and a community) move a teeny weeny bit out of the stronghold of family, religion, clan and caste. In becoming educated and living in a place of multiple and varied influences (ergo, the city), we do begin to acknowledge and even appreciate the tastes, the expressions of those unlike us. We develop some tolerance, we learn to prioritize actions that take us forward over those and re-negotiate the older codes of religion, caste or clan so they can serve us better. It is in this process of self-discovery and prioritization, in the journey between what we were and what we want to be, that we take risks and contribute the most to the world around us.
At this time, India’s economic objectives seem to be hinged around the expectation the above journey will be one of hope and success. The atmosphere of fear I wrote about above, is a bid to re-focus the core of our identities away from our education and expanding minds inward to a place of fear, bigotry and parochialism. The atmosphere of fear is putting in jeopardy everything that our nation has worked very hard for, including the eradication of poverty and child malnutrition and the provision of decent living standards for all Indians. As Kalpana Sharma points out (link), it’s not just religious minorities but women too, who are becoming targets of a deeply vicious misogynistic moral code. Do we want our young people to become the skilled workforce (ref: Skill India Initiative) that will help India leverage its demographic dividend, or would we rather they lynch a beef eater or strip a woman who dared defy convention? What kind of economic growth will a nation of fighting, insular people achieve?
This is an appeal to all educated Indians. Let us not be silent and accept the blame for something we are not ashamed of. Why should we be ashamed of focusing our energies on studying, learning skills and deploying them for the betterment of ourselves and our country? Certainly not! We need to recognize the terrible impacts this atmosphere of fear and hatred will have on ourselves, our children and our nation. We need to petition the government to contain this. If we do not speak out and take action, we will have no choice but to toe the line, or leave the country.
I am utterly and completely convinced that liberal thought is the only way forward for the human civilization. And yet, when I see the growing power of radical elements around me and how their simplistic solutions have enticed so many intelligent, educated people, I wonder if human beings are simply bent on self-destruction, as a race!
A few ideas from this weekend’s editorial pieces struck me as interesting in this context. The Hindustan Times carried a set of articles on radicalization in India and it did not make for pretty reading. Educated people are turning on this path of blood boiling hate and cold-blooded planning of destruction. Whatever they may be, Islamic jihad or Hindu terror, they are making the world less safe with each passing day.
This idea of radicalisation of society is scary indeed and seems to be happening in the entire subcontinental context. I have not had a lot of time to read up on what’s been happening in Bangladesh and Taslima Nasrin’s piece “Why I support Shahbag” came at the right time. To offer a background, protestors in huge numbers were out on the streets in Bangladesh to demand the death penalty for a 1971 war criminal called Abdul Kader Mollah. Mollah, like many war criminals, is an Islamist. Protestors fear that Mollah, who is currently serving a life sentence, will be freed if the Jamaat-e-Islami came to power. And hence the demand for the death sentence. In a nation that is being rapidly Islamicised, the Shahbagh protests stand out in their demand for banning an Islamist organisation like the Jamaat.
This is happening at a time when liberal voices are being ruthlessly suppressed in Bangladesh and atheist bloggers have even been killed for their views. By labelling the protestors at Shahbagh as ‘atheist’, Nasrin writes, Islamists are trying to make pious Muslims who are part of the protest uncomfortable. Protestors are caught between believing in the legitimacy of their demands and proving themselves to be believers! The paragraph below from this piece resonates strongly with me in the context of what is happening around us in India. You could replace Bangladesh with India and Islam with Hinduism and this would still hold true!
“It is very alarming that the word ‘atheist’ is being considered as a filthy, obscene word in Bangladesh, and the liberal people refrain from doing anything in support of the freedom of expression of atheists. They must know that Islam should not be exempt from the critical scrutiny that applies to other religions as well; in their mind, they must understand that Islam has to go through an enlightenment process similar to what other world religions have already gone through, by questioning the inhuman, unequal, unscientific and irrational aspects of religion.”
Which brings me to one the strongest arguments I have against the Hindutva sort of religious extremism. If we are so critical of another religion’s extremist tendencies, then we really ought to evaluate why we are heading in the same direction. I sincerely hope we are not, though the chain of hate mails below even the slightest criticism of Hindutva extremist thinking is worrying indeed.
As for me, I am as close to being an atheist as anyone can be, without actually taking the plunge. To me, the concept of God and religion is a cultural one and the world is richer for its varied cultures, isn’t it? I find it unbelievable that we fight so much over something so abstract, but in reality the fights are about the deepest aspect of human greed-access to wealth and resources- and religion seems to hold the key to power and identity, which in turn are channels to achieve material goals.
From a politics of exclusion to a society of inclusion and diversity: Can we move in the right direction?
It is hard to miss the irony in calling Bal Thackeray as nationalist and paying him last respects with “full state honors” considering his politics was divisive, which is what attacking immigrants from within India as outsiders certainly is. Many on twitter and even Markandey Katju have elucidated the essential conflict between Thackeray’s propagation of the idea of ‘bhoomiputra’ or sone of the soil, and what the Indian state is founded on- a belief that everyone born in India, anywhere, is a citizen in equal right. We Indian do not know it, but we are incredibly lucky to live in a nation where moving from one city to another, from State to another, is rather easy. In fact, mobility has increased considerably over the decades alongside rapid urbanization in India. In India’s cities, most social interactions begin with an elucidation of how diverse, multilingual, multicultural we are as individuals. Our exposure to cultures within the nation that are other than the one we are born into endows upon us a certain sheen of understanding and sophistication that most of us wear with pride. Our diversity enriches us, helps us bridge gaps and find common ground, even bailing us out in adverse circumstances at work and otherwise. Or at least, that has been my experience.
Migration has been a favorite subject of study for me, for the longest time. In my view, societies within a geographical frame of reference can be categorized as those who are against immigrants and those who welcome them. Of course, the response varies from immigrants from different social classes, economic classes, caste, religion, etc. But essentially, immigrants are resented because they are perceived to impinge on resources that are scarce. And residents feel they have a higher claim on these resources (jobs, water, land, infrastructure, etc) than those coming in from the outside. Yet, migrants come in to fill specific needs that the city/region is unable to meet with the existing resources. Unless there is opportunity, migrants would not come in. Governments and private investment create an economic climate that attracts migrants; and measures to keep migrants out through artificial means (not allowing land/residency rights like in China, quotas for jobs) are simply illogical in a nation like India where the Constitution confers equal rights on all citizens irrespective of state of origin.
We are therefore obliged to develop an inclusive approach to people from diverse backgrounds. A rational approach to the conservation, allocation and management of resources is a better way to deal with the issues that are arising than using violence to exclude some and favor others.
Of course, the matter of identity is one that is emotionally charged. To manage the sense of identity in a globalizing world where mobility and migration are only going to increase, is a serious challenge. This, more than others, is an intensely political issue and political parties worldwide have always been quick to step into this space and play with people’s minds and hearts. It is very easy to succumb to the psyche of fear and believe that our best way forward is to protect ourselves and ‘our own’, while pushing ‘others’ away. However, our lives are too intertwined to be able to define who is who- who is ‘apna’ and who is ‘paraiah’. Those definitions change with age, exposure, circumstance, sometimes even from day to day.
Of late, I have been gripped by the fear that India is imploding, that we are disintegrating into a chaotic state where we will no longer be able to make sense of our world. That we are moving into a psyche of fear and paranoia, a state of mind to which communalism, regionalism, casteism and any kind of similar ‘ism’ appears like a safe refuge from the ‘other’.
I want to desperately fight for the last breaths of fresh, rational, liberal air. I want to believe that the democratic tools that we are lucky to be entitled to can give us a way out of the chaos. I want to know if India’s liberal voices can become more politically engaged and move beyond intellectual debate, which is very important indeed. But we do need to do more. We need to make the tone of discussion and engagement calmer, move away from the shrill shrieking finger-pointing circus that politics and media have become and address real issues, make sense of the chaos for ourselves and motivate people around to do so as well. That is the only way forward that makes sense to me at this point.
Thursdays are set aside for the weekly trek to SPA. I spend about 4 hours there, two of which are dedicated to a group of students exploring the role of an architect while working in the low-income housing space. The next two hours are spent interacting with 5 students doing individual dissertations in subjects ranging from hospital design to vernacular materials. It’s a tough ride for the kids, to be expected to think in a structured, critical way and to express themselves clearly in language that is not the first language for most of them! They do rise to the challenge though, in their own topsy turvy way.
The discussion today though, veered to another aspect of student life, especially in a professional college. As the youngsters poured out their hearts, it struck me that little has changed. I distinctly remember asking our faculty in our final couple of years of college about why they felt the need to burden us with so much workload that we are incapable of quality work. These kids asked me the exact same question today! Back then, we also asked our profs if they didn’t think unstructured time was also important to the creative process and to the business of learning, in general. I don’t remember getting any reasonable answers. The gist of the response was that pressure is the only tried and tested way to make kids work. Full stop.
At the time, I thought that is ridiculous. Having experience the American system of college education, and despite being on the ‘other’ side now, I know it as ridiculous. Students perform very well when given some choice, some flexibility and encouraged to exert their opinions. But they do need excellent resources, exposure, role models, inspiration….which is hard for our stuck-in-a-mould institutions to muster. So, even though I do get rather frustrated by the lackadaisical attitude of some of my students, I do believe a more liberal system will sieve the meritorious from the average, the curious from the idle, and teach kids to take responsibility as opposed to the current system that is, from what I see, rather top-down!