Public dissent and debate are robustly expressed in India
The fractures around the fault-lines of ‘majority’ and ‘minority’ in India have again threatened to surface after the release of the 2011 religious census results. The timing of the official announcement was conjectured by some observers to covertly try to influence and polarise the Bihar elections. Majoritarian sentiment was agitated because the share of the Hindus in India’s population fell a few decimal points below 80%, ignoring that the Muslim population growth slowed more than that of the Hindus.
Minority sentiment was also wounded a few weeks earlier, when one man was hanged in a jail in Nagpur. I noticed a young Muslim colleague in office uncharacteristically troubled after Memon’s execution. “I have no problem if a terrorist is punished,” he explained. “But when government at its highest levels, the Supreme Court and President, all conspire to hurriedly hang a man on his birthday, I realise that however much I love my country, I am still in the end only one of its minority.”
He went on: “I feel the way I did when, as a boy watching a cricket match with friends on our television, Pakistan won over India; and my friends said I must be very happy. I feel as I do when my mother agitatedly calls me each time my beard grows slightly long, begging me to shave, otherwise I may be ‘picked up’. I feel as when I find myself instinctively avoiding moving out of home after 10, with the same vague fear of being ‘picked up’.”
I reached my hand into his, and replied, “I too felt anguished when Yakub, jailed for 21 years without one day’s parole, was denied the two weeks he sought before his hanging to make peace with God and settle affairs with his family.
“But with one thing I don’t agree. I’m convinced that you’re not part of a minority in India. The battle in our country never has been, is not, never will be between Hindus and Muslims. It’s between those who misuse religion to divide people and incite hate, and those who believe this country belongs equally to people of every faith. Both you and I belong to the second group, supporting tolerance and harmony. I’m convinced this group is the country’s majority.”
My long-held conviction that the majority of Indians are secular was severely tested with shrill strident public discourse of disharmony surrounding Memon’s hanging. Triumphalism overpowered television studios, newspaper columns as well as the internet. Sandipan Sharma chronicled the proliferation of hashtags like #Have a blast, #Happy Birthday Yakub, #Go Yakub, #See you in hell, labelled fittingly by Pratap Bhanu Mehta as “the postmodern equivalent of a medieval lynch mob”.
But these were not the only voices. Their belligerence could not bully into silence nuanced, thoughtful assertions of resistance, despite dissenters being branded anti-national terrorist apologists. And the majority of these opinions — of human rights lawyers and social commentators, but also numerous young people on social media — were not just of people of Muslim identity, but of people of every religion and community, united against both bigotry and the partisanship of the establishment.
In a quick scan of the deluge of alternative outpourings in social media, I found, first, disquiet with the divisive character of the public discourse. One post read: ‘You keep shouting “hang, hang, hang” but you’re really saying “kill, kill, kill”. Am I the only one feeling terrorised?’
Many lamented the unequal justice of our public institutions. One post confessed that ‘the thought of this man’s hanging still keeps me from sleeping at night. His interviews, his conduct as gathered from people who knew him spoke of an educated, remorseful man who … deserved much better. That the provokers of this whole bloody affair have yet to be brought to justice pains me too deeply for words'.
Another despatch read ‘India is becoming more and more communal’ … ‘If the law is equal for everyone, the people who were involved in the riots of ’93 should be given the death penalty before. Also 1984…’
Arun Ferreira and Vernon Gonsalves observed: ‘Over the last 22 years, none of those who conspired, planned and led the (Mumbai) riots were even investigated; no one who participated in the attacks has been punished…; and Bal Thackeray, who the Srikrishna Commission identified as the “veteran general” who led the riots, was given a state funeral. On the other hand, in relation to the blasts, hundreds of suspects were investigated, many remained in jail while a fifteen year trial was conducted, a hundred persons were convicted and are serving their sentences and Yakub Memon, who even the prosecution did not claim to be among the chief conspirators, has been executed’.
Some internet postings raise grave doubts about the fairness of our paramount public institutions. One charged that ‘the highest office receiving a petition did not have the guts to decide Memon’s fate on its own merits’, echoing Krishnadas Rajagopal’s penetrating questions in the Hindu about the unprecedented situation in which the president gave a personal hearing to the home minister and decided against Memon’s clemency petition less than eight hours before the man’s hanging, and the Supreme Court sat before dawn to deny him the 14 days he sought before his hanging.
Arun Ferreira, who shared for 16 months the same death row, recalls that Memon ‘displayed an unbelievably solid faith in the judiciary’. One post poignantly observed: ‘What the hangman offers is only a crude approximation of the cherished ideal that justice is’.
The noisy diversity and frequent shrillness of opinion around Memon’s execution do illuminate many deep fissures in India’s social fabric. And yet the discussions — in courtrooms, television studios, newspaper opinion columns, too little in Parliament, but most vibrantly in the popular democratic space of social media — also reflect that, with all their failings and the powerful stresses to which these are subject currently, public dissent and debate, as well as the defence of the secular, continue to robustly assert themselves in India today.
Harsh Mander is convenor, Aman Biradari. He is the author of Looking Away: Inequality, Prejudice and Indifference in New India. The author's views expressed are personal.