Even more disturbing than the vigilante violence India has seen in the past month is how ugly and polarised some of the responses to it have been. You would have imagined that irrespective of political affiliation and ideology, a basic humanism and sense of fair play would have brought people together.
Instead, ifs and buts have qualified the expression of public revulsion at vandalism and, worse, murder. Most disappointing are those who have responded with silence, as if the debate about what sort of country we want to be is too inconvenient and other-worldly for them.
Where is India Inc, for instance, when ‘India Ink’ threatens to blot our democracy with its stains of intolerance? In Mumbai, where big business clinks glasses to toast the arrival of the new, post-liberalisation India, primordial mobs are able to exercise a hooligan’s veto over whether Pakistanis should be allowed to host a concert or play a game of cricket.
Is this the India our industrialists believe the world can’t afford to ignore? How many of them —notable exceptions aside — have taken a position against medieval hate-politics steering India’s financial capital? Or is tax reform and land acquisition the only thing that can get industry animated?
And what about our film stars? They have the clout and influence to shape public opinion. Yet, even when those in their own fraternity — Pakistani actors like Fawad Khan, performers like Adnan Sami — could be the next target of the Shiv Sena, our actors are studiously silent for the most part.
Once again, there are a few who have bucked the trend — Farhan Akhtar was among the first to take a position on the lynching of Mohammad Ikhlaq in Dadri — but largely, while our stars otherwise seek the legitimacy of causes like planting trees or washing hands or saving the girl child (all worthy, but non-threatening campaigns) catch them speaking up on anything that could be considered remotely ‘political’.
This is in sharp contrast to the West, for instance, where George Clooney, Matt Damon or Meryl Streep are voluble on everything from Sudan to Iraq, or, closer home, the immigration policy. One of the legendary stars of the film industry once told me that he never took a position on events outside the world of cinema because political groups like the Shiv Sena had the power to disrupt his next release if it didn’t like what he said.
I remember how shabbily my friend Shah Rukh Khan was treated for daring to argue that Pakistani players should be allowed to play in the Indian Premier League. After he was hounded by the Sena for expressing an opinion — one that was obviously deconstructed by hate-mongers in a different way because he is Muslim — he still had the courage to stand by it. What he said to me back then in 2010 holds even truer for today’s India.
“...Because if we’re going to be like this all our lives, all this talk about India going forward, economically, is completely nonsense. If we are going to talk about regionalism every second, if you’re going to talk religion every two minutes, if you’re going to talk about Khans and Kumars and Khannas every 30 seconds, all this is nonsense. I think nobody should talk about India shining and India becoming bright,” said the actor, apoplectic, but also hurt, that even his patriotism had been questioned. I so wish he — and others like him — would show some of the same articulate anger again.
What’s truly strange is those who perpetrate vandalism have perfect social acceptability in the drawing rooms of Mumbai — such is the nature of political power — and those of us who question it are subjected to the ‘nationalism’ test.
As I often like to say to the young Aditya Thackeray, there’s no point in your campaigning for a nightlife in Mumbai. That’s hardly the test of modernity. The hallmark of a progressive society is not how many bars a city has and how late they stay open but whether it can talk about books and ideas without censorship, intimidation or street violence.
While all the voices that have risen in dignified protest still give me hope that our democracy will eventually find its balance, some of the comments I’ve encountered in the past few weeks are utterly depressing. Journalists in particular have been confronted with hatred on social media forums like Twitter for the outrage we have expressed at murderous mobs that use beef politics as their weapon of assassination.
Just like the 1984 and 2002 riots became competitive battlefields for the BJP and the Congress, so too now we are told that that our condemnation is meaningless because we did not show the same angst over the Karnataka killing of Prashant Poojary, a Bajrang Dal activist who campaigned for the shutting down of a slaughter house.
Naturally, there can be no justification for Poojary’s killing or any other kind of violence. So, how do those crusading for an end to what they claim is the selectiveness of our outrage explain their own unacceptable ambivalence in a month when cow vigilantes have killed three innocent Indians?
Or is it that because Ikhlaq, Noman and Zahid (the three men killed in UP, Himachal Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir) are Muslim that their killings do not deserve unqualified shame? These three men were not connected with any political group or ideology. They were targeted simply on the basis of falsehood and hatred and — let’s face it — because of their religion.
You have to wonder about the future of India when elected legislators and parliamentarians who justify ink attacks and even qualify their criticism of murder still get invited to the glittering parties of Mumbai while those who are the victims of violence are treated as if they were the accused.
You have to worry about a country which privileges cow slaughter over man slaughter. Incredible India, is it?
(Barkha Dutt is consulting editor, NDTV, and founding member, Ideas Collective. The views expressed are personal)