Thin skin, big chip

February 29, 2020

Email

IT’S just as well that Donald Trump wears a bulletproof vest under his shirt, otherwise the Indian prime minister’s repeated bear hugs might have bruised his ribs by now.

Narendra Modi probably clings to Trump to show everybody how close he is to the American president. But the expression on the latter’s face says: ‘Get this guy off me!’

I know I’m going to get a lot of flak from Indian readers for daring to suggest that their prime minister comes across as a bit of a clown at times, but the truth has to be faced. When I wrote a piece a fortnight ago bemoaning India’s slide into violent nationalism, my inbox was flooded with indignant emails defending their country. One Indian reader had the temerity to ask what gave me the right to write about India. I replied that I considered myself free to write on any subject, and hardly needed his permission.

Over the years, it would appear that Indian skin has become thinner, and the chip Indians carry on their shoulders has got bigger. A few years ago, I met the Economist correspondent in Delhi who had come to Lahore to cover our general elections. When I asked him how covering India compared with writing about Pakistan, he replied: “When I do a negative story about India, all the Indians I know are furious; but when I am critical of Pakistan, my friends here all agree with me.”

So why are Indians so sensitive to criticism? Why can’t they take a joke at their expense? I suspect this has to do with the fact that India has been ruled by Muslims and Brits for close to 1,000 years, and won independence just over seven decades ago. This has made them averse to criticism. And the Hindutva poison being injected into the mainstream has only made matters worse.

India’s destiny is a matter of concern to the region.

Some years ago, when I wrote a column critical of Pakistan — something I frequently do — Indian readers would write admiringly that they didn’t think articles like mine were permitted in Pakistan. But as soon as I was critical of India, I would receive a flood of complaints.

These days, we are witnessing large-scale killings of Muslims by BJP thugs in the Delhi district of Maujpur. These attacks have been aided and abetted by the police. A Times of India cameraman described how he was stopped several times by RSS bullyboys who demanded to know if he was Hindu or Muslim. One hoodlum threatened to pull off his trousers to check if he had been circumcised. As I write this, over 30 people have been killed in these sectarian riots.

But before the Maujpur riots, we witnessed the Shaheen Bagh sit-in that was spearheaded by women who had never before participated in any form of political action. In an article in Mumbai’s austere Economic and Political Weekly, Irfanullah Farooqi writes:

“… At Shaheen Bagh, the script is rewritten simply because the protester is endowed with a very different vantage point of belonging. Moreover, when the spectrum has a 90-year-old woman at one end and a 20-day-old infant on the other, it is bound to offer us a new grammar of protest, a new language of resistance.”

As this protest movement grows and spreads, thinking Indians need to ask what dark hole Modi is dragging their country into. Do they really need a leader who will abandon the secular path India’s founding fathers had laid out?

Clearly, this is a matter for Indians to decide. However, as I live in the neighbourhood, India’s destiny is a matter of concern to me, whatever my Indian detractors may think. Indeed, given India’s size and power, the entire region has cause for apprehension.

It would seem that under Modi, India’s trajectory is fixed, given the huge support he is getting from his RSS/BJP/Hindutva supporters. Just as the Gujrat police were told not to intervene in the anti-Muslim pogrom unfolding before them, so, too have the Delhi police remained passive witnesses as barbaric BJP thugs beat Muslims and tore down mosques.

Mercifully, many decent Indians — Hindus and Muslims alike — are resisting the Hindutva onslaught. But given the power of the Indian state, I doubt if they will be able to succeed.

Can the world do anything to stop the carnage? I doubt it. While people in Maujpur were being killed, Donald Trump was holding talks with Modi. Instead of reprimanding him, Trump sold India $3 billion worth of arms. Other Western countries will similarly defer to India’s size and power, and avoid criticism. Had Pakistan committed similar atrocities against its minorities, all hell would have broken loose. I am not suggesting that we treat our non-Muslims well, but the large-scale mayhem we are witnessing in Delhi today is very rare.

So I will request Indian readers to please refrain from shooting off nasty emails as I plan to make good use of my ‘delete’ button.

irfan.husain@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, February 29th, 2020