Barring some low-TRP exceptions, most TV debates are now about reducing probity to a circus show; turning guests into Good, Unimpeachable, Holier-than-thou, or Evil, Lesser Evil and Ultra Evil; and about playing football every evening, two feet above the ground. These days, it’s riot season again. And back on prime time — or is it Super Prime Time now? — is that election-time classic, 2002 versus 1984, with both sides determined to prove that your riot was worse than mine.
Most arguments in these seemingly fixed matches are about courtroom justice, public perception, perceived clean chits, death tolls, and that magic wiper called "good governance". Another significant addition these days is a side-debate over whose apology was real and who has never apologised. As if leaders’ apologies will rewrite histories, or their TV-fuelled remorse will bring back young husbands and unborn children pulled out of wombs, hacked. As if a clean chit also means a clean conscience. As if they have a conscience at all.
But the word conscience must be used cautiously while talking about riots. What if it wakes up? Conscience is potentially dangerous. What if I end up telling you that I have a cousin who bought a kudaal and religiously participated in the destruction of the Babri Masjid? Ek dhakka aur do! What if you end up admitting how you are scared of all Muslims these days, and joke with me about how I look like a terrorist with that beard? What if your sister watches something on YouTube, her conscience wakes up, and she actually feels the pain that walks the streets of Widow Colony in Tilak Vihar, West Delhi? What if your Sikh friend starts talking about building a memorial to the Hindus pulled out of buses and killed across Punjab in the ‘militancy days’? What if you end up agreeing with your favourite shawl-hawker that Kashmir is practically under military rule? What if your blood boils when someone uses the name ‘Pakistan’ for the Muslim-majority locality of your town?
What if you start seeing Adolf Hitler in Narendra Modi, and an unrepented royal scion in Rahul Gandhi?
Worst of all, your conscience might tell you that no matter what term you use for such mass killings — riots, genocide, pogrom, state-sponsored terrorism — the fact is that one set of men killed another set of men, women and children on a provocation provided in the name of God.
What if those people in the mob have their conscience awakened by a TV debate, realise what they have done, and start killing themselves in remorse? What if their eyes burst in a barrage of painful tears and they want a victim’s widow to shoot them, one by one, so that God forgives their sins in later life?
Thankfully, conscience is an obedient animal, its reins pulled tight, blinkers sized extra-large, mouth restrained. Let’s just switch on the TV and watch our leaders blame their leaders. Even better, now you have the option of being a khap-admiring, red beacon-hating quasi-socialist who relishes watching the pigs wrestle.
When Arvind Kejriwal got a special investigation team (SIT) formed to reopen cases of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots, I thought about those who actually carried out the killings. Much is being said every minute about the leaders of the mob — and rightly so — but I am talking about those who poured kerosene on my friend’s father and countless others. Did some of those anonymous arsonists, rapists and murderers see the news and tremble in fear? Did they switch off the TV and get on with life, or did they smirk, even laugh?
I also wonder if those nameless men who struck the blows that broke Babri Masjid have kids; and if the kids know what their fathers have done. Is hate hereditary?
If we weren’t packs of ruthless wolves walking around like obedient dogs, we would have ended this politics of hate and our cannibalistic urge that tells us to kill our neighbours. Those of us who claim to be docile doves won’t have settled for one lesser evil or the other. Leave the parties aside; at the least, we could have felt collective shame and stopped looking for reasons and solutions within this 1984-vs-2002 debate. But, sadly, conscience is an obedient animal.