THE year has not started well for India. Dangerous new flashpoints have emerged in a country suppurating along old fault lines and smarting from the relentless blows to its enterprise of building a modern republic after the Hindu supremacist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) took power in 2014 with Narendra Modi at the helm. India emerges as a country at odds with itself — violent and backward-looking while seeking economic superpower status. History hangs like a toxic cloud over the nation that was once a beacon of modernity for newly independent states.
Old memories of caste exploitation aggravated by new assertions of Hindu nationalism by the oppressors have resulted in a near civil war-like situation in Maharashtra which is among the more developed and prosperous Indian states. In Assam, millions of Muslims woke up to 2018 with a sense of panic as they found themselves excluded from a newly formed National Register of Citizens. Around 13m people, including members of the legislative assembly and of parliament, do not figure in the citizenship list. Hopefully, they will not be disenfranchised since the state, run by BJP, says it’s only a draft. Maybe. But it is reflective of the way the party keeps minorities in a perpetual sense of anxiety.
Saffronisation, the term for pushing the Hinduisation agenda of the BJP and the hydra-headed organisations of its mother ship, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), can take ludicrous turns as it attempts to rile and provoke. In Uttar Pradesh, Muslims got a different kind of New Year gift: the walls of the Haj Committee Office in Lucknow were painted saffron. One can, perhaps, laugh off the saffron wall — and the saffron buses of UP. But the convulsions in different regions signal a deeper turmoil which could leave the country even more divided than it is. The violence in Maharashtra, involving a melange of different communities and castes, is so unwarranted that it puts an end to any lingering hope that Modi will fulfil his grand electoral promise of bringing ‘vikas’ or development. Or end corruption.
Violent conflicts fanned by the BJP’s regressive agenda put development on the back-burner.
Does an economy in decline matter, or the widespread unemployment that is stoking a million anxieties? Or the desperate straits in which farmers find themselves? Not at all. The priority for the ruling party is to push its communal agenda, and to uphold the Brahminised view of culture and history that it espouses. Take Maharashtra, which is aboil with Dalit anger after upper caste Hindus flying the saffron flag attacked them at a rally which has been held from time immemorial.
Every January 1, Dalits — they are beyond the pale of the Hindu caste structure — gather at Bhima Koregaon to commemorate their victory over the Peshwa rulers two centuries ago. In 1818, a few hundred Mahars in a regiment of the East India Company had defeated the Peshwas, extremely orthodox Brahmins given to ill treating the lower castes, specially the Mahars. For Dalits, the victory is important because it is a treasured memory of their triumph against dehumanising caste oppression. Other communities have not interfered with their celebration.
This time, however, the rallies were attacked by upper caste Hindus on a variety of pretexts. One alleged cause of anger was that the Mahar victory had only helped the British consolidate power. That should hardly upset the RSS and its followers who have no pedigree in the independence struggle, having supported the British colonial power tacitly and openly. Another spark for the violence was the abstruse question of who defied Mughal emperor Aurangzeb to perform the last rites of a Maratha ruler of the time. Was it a lowly Dalit or a Maratha courtier? The memorial to the Dalit was astutely destroyed a couple of days before the rally, by whom no one knows.
This is all of piece with the new India where historical animosities are reheated for long-term political gain or immediate electoral benefit. It matters little that Rani Padmini of Chittor never existed, according to historians. But for the ruling establishment a popular film on the mythical figure comes in handy to whip up fresh hatred against Muslim rulers of the past. It exemplifies in no small measure the establishment’s misplaced priorities. At the time the official machinery was convening meetings with obscure saffron organisations who had been offended by the film, important bills such as the one criminalising triple talaq were being rushed through parliament without any consultations. And all the while, India’s GDP was slipping. The official figures, just released, put growth at 6.5 per cent for 2017-18, a four-year low as a result of muddled economic policies.
The loss in economic growth is at the end of the day — or the financial year — something Indians can and have to live with even if it impacts livelihoods and the well-being of the country’s poorest. The more grievous loss is the sense of self that Indians once had. What do we stand for? Is the nation to be defined by events in a distant past that have no current relevance? Is our global image to be etched as a brutal people given to acts of violence that compare with the worst atrocities of nations founded on religion?
For the post-independence generation that grew up in the Nehru era, when industrial progress coupled with development of arts and culture was a matter of faith, today’s India appears to be a throwback to a barbaric past. The decades when the country established its prowess in diverse areas of manufacture and space technology and set about building an inclusive society — an experiment that did not succeed fully — appear a receding memory.
The dominant image at home and abroad is of a violent, mediaeval society, of a people who take to the sword at every opportunity. You see them everywhere. Angry young men with saffron flags, their faces frozen in a rictus of hate. Girls, some as young as five, as members of the Durga Vahini whose only creed is minority hatred. Lynch mobs using whips and guns on unsuspecting people. Women and little girls in their festival finery taking to the streets in West Bengal with swords held aloft in defiance of court orders. There is after all, a secular government to be unseated in the state.
The French Revolution was marked by the Great Fear, a brief period of panic and rioting before iberté, egalité, fraternité were embedded as enduring values. Here, the fear shows no sign of a let-up. For the goals are entirely different.
The writer is a journalist based in New Delhi.
Published in Dawn, January 8th, 2018