Across the country from Dadri to Faridabad, Moodbidri to Udhampur, there’s a deep sense of unease at events spiralling out of control. Writers feel it, sociologists believe it and the president is concerned enough to have to publicly address it repeatedly in the course of a month.
The BJP would have you believe that the anxiety is ‘manufactured’, that crimes in the states are a law and order problem for which it can’t be responsible, and that breaking the rules is even embedded in the genetic DNA of North Indians, to paraphrase minister of state for home Kiren Rijiju.
Perhaps we’ve come to expect no better from our political class. We are barely surprised when senior ministers insist that Muslims abstain from eating beef in India. We don’t question the silence from opposition parties, including the Congress, that refuse to state unequivocally that citizens have a fundamental right to life, and this must include the diet they choose.
But what do we say to the Ugly Indian, who lurks in the anonymity of lynch mobs on the streets and troll brigades on social media? To the mob that threatens to flay an Australian tourist for sporting a tattoo of a goddess on his shin or the men who settle scores by setting a house on fire, burning to death two children inside?
In an environment of abuse and intimidation where politicians and citizens echo each other, which comes first: Are lynch mobs emboldened by a sense of impunity because ‘their’ government is in power? Or are irresponsible politicians determined to keep their communal vote-banks stoked?
Certainly the Ugly Indian was not born at the stroke of the midnight hour on May 16, 2014, when citizens voted Narendra Modi’s BJP to power.
We have seen the Ugly Indian in ‘honour’ killings and the culling of female foetuses; in the overwhelming support for capital punishment and the demand for lowering the juvenile age of justice to assuage blood lust; in our persisting caste discrimination and the daily assaults on women; in the rage on our roads and the rise of ‘vegetarian-only’ housing societies; in routine child abuse and endemic cruelty to animals (yes, even the venerated cow); in our abuse of people with different ideologies on social media (knickeratis versus sickulars) and our indifference to communal killings.
If citizens get the government they deserve, then governments often give citizens cues on how to behave, on what sort of behaviour will or will not be tolerated, on the lines that can or cannot be crossed.
And this is why Modi cannot absolve himself of responsibility.
There is an imbalance between what the prime minister says on development as he launches laudable missions like Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan and what he doesn’t say about intolerance and abuse — very often from his own party. What a difference it would have made had he sacked Sadhvi Niranjan Jyoti for her Ramzaada speech instead of asking for forgiveness because of her ‘social background’. What a difference it would have made had he stepped in to nip the nonsense about love jihad.
Instead we have lurched from one crisis to another, from church attacks to now beef politics. And what was once blithely dismissed as fringe is now uncomfortably mainstream.
Perhaps Modi is driven by the compulsions of electoral politics, keeping a canny eye on his core support base, the aggrieved Hindu who believes minorities must know their place. But his failure to rein in extreme elements within his party and his allies, reluctance to reassure increasingly fearful minorities and inability to provide moral leadership have empowered lynch mobs. The Ugly Indian sees no reason to hide behind a placid mask.
Tolerance is the best we strive for when in fact tolerance is a compromise for what should really be our quest: Acceptance. Acceptance of the other — whether it’s a point of view, a different gender, another caste, another occupation, a different economic scale, a God with another name.
Can we confront the Ugly Indian? Can we search within and exorcise him?
(Twitter:@namitabhandare .The views expressed are personal)