India Today: A Land of Paradox
(Secular Perspective September 16-30, 2019)
“First 100 days (of the government’s second term) has been of “development, trust and big changes” in the country”, recently stated Prime Minister Narendra Modi (Indian Express, 2019). The veracity of this statement is much debated and invokes a divided response. India is at crossroads of sorts. There is a pervading sense of insecurity, fear and anxiety on one hand and strong nationalist fervour, a new found confidence and pride in owing to a “strong decision making” of the political regime on the other. There is a sense of triumph as seen most starkly in the abrogation of article 370 in Kashmir. This sense of victory is ironical given the inhuman shut down the State faces for over a month now, with heart wrenching reports of youth being killed by pellets and children as young as 11 years old being detained by the army (Dreze, Krishnan, Vimal, & Mollah, 2019). The state is cut off from the rest of the country due to communication blockade and Kashmiris all over the country are in turmoil and fear given the inability to establish contact with their families. Kashmiris residing in other parts of India are falling prey to hatred like singer Aadil Gurezi who was asked to vacate his rented apartment in Mumbai and yet Indians are celebrating (Wani, 2019).
Similarly 1.9 million residents in Assam are facing the frightening prospect of becoming stateless after being excluded from the final list of National Register of Citizenships (NRC), a process flawed at multiple levels, declared on 31st August, 2019. The government is planning to build 10 more concentration camp type detention centres in Assam even as the inmates continue to die in the existing detention centres in Assam and suicides are committed by those who are left out of the NRC or fear exclusion (Naqvi, 2019). The 1.9 million includes many Hindus and indigenous people from Assam apart from the Muslims. Thus, this exorbitantly expensive exercise pleased nobody and especially the BJP given that its support base is amongst this 1.9 million. In order to appease the Hindus which are also left out of the list as others, the BJP is pushing for the Citizenship Amendment Bill which makes it easy for Hindu migrants from other countries to get Indian citizenship.
While citizenship and civil liberties are in a state of flux in India, the country is plagued with an economic slowdown which is marked with almost collapse of automobile sector, agriculture and the overall rural economy. Though the many factors including the attitudes of the millennials are blamed for the economic slowdown, economic analysts state that demonetization has had the largest bearing on the economy. It destroyed the small scale industry and other sectors compounding the menace of joblessness and unemployment. Youth are unemployed on a large scale since there are no jobs. Recently RBI agreed to the government INR 1,76 lakh crores for this fiscal year without spelling out in details how such a large amount of money will be spent (Economic Times, 2019).
What can one make of the above situation today? Such aggressive decisions of the government are flying in the face of prudence and wisdom laced with restraint. Restraint is portrayed as pusillanimity. Constitutional restraint is misjudged for lack of courage or indecision. The ramifications of reckless actions will fully unfold in the future and one can only hope for the sake of the country that history judges these actions kindly. But for now, India is fast moving towards a state where the liberal democratic institutions are crumbling. The constitutional safeguards very systematically yet brashly dismantled by the regime. Law and order inspire no respect or fear as is evident in cases of mob lynching where no culprits are brought to justice. Constitutional morality is no more the foundation or ruling principle but is steadily replaced by populism and majoritarianism. Majoritarianism where compassion and respect for diversity or individual rights is not a virtue. This majoritarianism thrives on brute force and prejudices/ hatred which result from social engineering of the dominant. This reflects in normalization and internalization of hatred against certain social groups like women, Dalits and Muslims. After all how many of us are roused when one more news of mob lynching breaks out? Isn’t it soon forgotten and dismissed by our conscience as just another unfortunate routinized incident? The brash decisions are lauded and toxic masculinity feted. Actions like abrogation of article 370 and pitch for one common language for the whole country marks the deliberate decimation of constitutional federalism. Bills are not referred to select committees including members of opposition for more discussion and debate and due procedures have become a thing of the past in the face of brute majority of the BJP in the Parliament. This in many ways is mocking at the check and balances that constitution so eruditely put in place. This authoritarian and consolidation of power is undoing of any democracy.
Worrisome as it is, should this trend of authoritarianism and majoritarianism spell the end of light in the proverbial tunnel? Is the cause of democracy in India lost? The answer is a resounding no! Though at this point there is a precious little that can be done towards advocacy by everyone at the macro level, there are interventions and learning to be undertaken at the micro-level to engage with the situation positively.
The consolidation of regime is coming on heels of strong polarization of society along religious lines and identity politics. The discourse of hatred, hierarchy and exclusion actively being promoted is eroding the otherwise harmonious ethos of the country which allowed so many diverse communities to co-exist for centuries. And this is the lived reality for most even today. For instance, both, Hindu as well as Muslim residents of Nagaon in Assam approached the local authorities to preserve Puranigudam Minar inside Puranigudam Masjid which was sought to be demolished for expansion of a highway. Because of the solidarity and resolve to save his minar which the locals believe is a symbol of harmony in Nagaon, it was successfully shifted undamaged to a location 70 feet away from the original site (Timsina). Or the example of Mohammad Mehmood, 77, an electrician from Muzaffarnagar who lights the tents of the famed Juna Akara where the sadhus stay during the Kumbh mela. Mehmood says lighting up the tent is a source of spiritual contentment for him and he learns a lot from the Sadhus. In fact he is given space to offer his namaz at the Kumbh site where he eats with the Sadhus.
Such examples are significant since communal riots are triggered over routes of religious procession or playing of loudspeakers in front of place of worship or staking claim on place of worship. More disturbingly, it is observed that religious festivals are used to politically mobilize people against followers of other religions by playing objectionable songs and brandishing arms accompanied with aggressive sloganeering. Overall, all these trends result in an atmosphere of distrust, fear and intolerance. In this backdrop, Maadhi village in Bihar’s Nalanda district stands as a shining example of respect and communal harmony. There are no Muslims in Maadhi since they gradually migrated out of the village. But that didn’t stop the Hindu locals to maintain the Mosque in the village and pray in it every morning and evening along with playing the Azaan out of the pendrive. People pray in this Mosque also when they have any problem or before anything auspicious. In Govandi in Mumbai, a common Pandal is being used for the observance of Ganesh Utsav and Moharram simultaneously for three years and Navratri and Moharram simultaneous for last five years. The same microphone and loudspeakers are used by both communities in the pandal. Apart from this there are many instances of individuals helping each other across religious barriers. In Mumbai, two women, one Hindu and other Muslim, donated their kidneys to each other’s husbands.
As much as these stories inspire hope in individuals who want equality, love, compassion and peace, we can’t be complacent and wish away an equally compelling narrative which is fed by carefully cultivated and promoted hatred, prejudice and misinformation by media, educational textbooks, and political leaders, some of who are elected representatives sworn by the Constitution. This narrative backed with the state power is bringing in rapid changes in the public discourse and deepening the existing faultlines. This is reflecting in the spike of hate crimes which continue unabated and with impunity. Such crimes should ideally be punished swiftly and effectively by the state and outrage social conscience and moral of any democratic society. Unfortunately this hatred is not evoking such strong condemnation or collective protests on a large scale across social stratas. The liberals or the seculars who voice against such hatred are mercilessly trolled or abused. Exclusion and violent nationalism is the new normal.
In the context, there is an urgent need to reach out to masses, youth and individuals across sections to propose an alternative discourse which is founded on humanist values- love, respect for diversity and constitutional principles of equality, liberty and fraternity. Some grassroots and micro-level initiatives towards this are taken by civil society members and collectives in Mumbai and elsewhere in the country. Chronicling some of them might inspire others to replicate such initiates in their own areas and trigger off larger discussions, dialogue and understanding. For example, Indian Muslims for Democracy, a group in Mumbai has started dialogue, discussion and a critical reflection of the stereotypes and exclusion faced by the Muslim community and how the community can work in solidarity with other communities to uphold democratic institutions, structures and spaces. The thrust so far in this young initiative is on Akhlaqs of the community. It also circulated an appeal on the eve of Eid-ul-Adha to observe it in a responsible manner which doesn’t inconvenience the neighbors. While the group recognizes that discrimination against and demonization of the Muslim community is a reality, the group also understands that there is a need to introspect on some of the traditions and beliefs of the community that requires rethinking. Also, there is a realization that the Muslims don’t stand isolated in their discrimination and stigma, but this discourse is reflective of larger processes of undermining democratic ethos and institutions which poses a threat to all citizens who reject hegemonic ideology of hatred, nativism and jingoistic ethno-nationalism.
Working on similar lines as above, is the initiative in Mumbai called Citizens for Constitution which is the collective of Christians and other peace loving individuals. On 2nd September, 2019, they had organized a meeting in Mumbai on ‘Challenges to our Nation’. Apart from raising concern about the fear and exclusion faced by marginalized groups in an increasingly authoritarian state, the group also lamented that the Constitution and the values and safeguards enshrined in it are set aside by the government and blatant violations of Constitution robbing citizens of their rights. Some of the important points for action plan of this collective were to introduce educational courses and extracurricular activities in educational institutions to make students aware of prejudices against minorities, dalits and women, undertake campaigns in and outside educational institutions about the Constitution and Constitutional values of liberty, equality, fraternity, pluralism and secularism. Emphasis on the Constitution is significant firstly to reassert that India draws from its Constitution all the rights and structures and not from the whims of one individual or from any organization. Secondly in a democratic and plural society like India, debates and policies affecting individuals should be located in the realm of citizenship which is disjointed from religion. Religion can’t be the basis of policies of the state and freedom of religion should be practiced within the framework of the Constitution.
Similarly, there are other initiatives like Anhad’s Baatcheet which focuses on discussions on liberal traditions in India highlighting aspects of Indian culture which still lives on in practice in everyday lives of common citizens but sought to be distorted, appropriated or undermined by hegemonic narratives. Some of the themes Baatcheet has explored are Sufi and Bhakti traditions and their powerful proponents like Kabir, composite culture in India, theatre and other art forms and their place in social change. The attempt is to make people aware of syncretic religious traditions and composite culture which have evolved over hundreds of years from rich contributions from all communities. India is replete with composite culture and saint thinkers who have influenced and permeated the Indian socio-cultural landscape of India to be an integral part of Indian ethos. Thus, today it is crucial to go back to the people with this message of composite culture, composite nationalism, love, equality and acceptance to reclaim the diversity and democratic institutions in India which belongs to all irrespective of caste, religion, gender and class. In a society where hatred, fear of the “other” and exclusion are becoming the norm, Basavanna, famed saint thinker has powerful words which call for love, acceptance and inclusion. He says,
Don’t make me hear all day
‘Whose man, whose man, whose man is this
Let me hear, ‘This man is mine, mine
this man is mine.’
O lord of the meeting rivers,
make me feel I’m a son
of the house.’
Centre for Study of Society and Secularism
The Secular Perspective is the Centre’s fortnightly magazine, providing timely commentary on current events occurring in India and around the world.