A half-way house
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A half-way house

Let's not pat ourselves on the back over the near-calm reaction to the Ayodhya verdict. India still remains dangerously segregated in the mind. Rajdeep Sardesai writes.

india Updated: Mar 06, 2011 12:58 IST

It has been my considered view that December 6, 1992, would not have happened in the age of 24-hour news television. Through the forest of microphones and broadcast vans that would have swarmed the disputed site in Ayodhya, it would have been impossible for either the Uttar Pradesh government or the Centre to deny knowledge of what was happening on ground zero.

In 1992, there was just Doordarshan to provide a filtered version of the news with the first grainy visuals of the demolition being sent hours later by the BBC. Is it any wonder that there was ample scope for both misinformation and mischief which triggered off the first wave of riots?

Today, there are more than 120 news channels. The frenzied competition among channels has been brilliantly caricatured in Peepli Live, but ironically, the manic nature of the medium may well have acted as a round-the-clock watchdog when the Ayodhya judgement was delivered last week, thereby ensuring that there was no place for any potential trouble-maker to hide.

That a majority of news channels consciously shied away from projecting extremist voices is also a sign that amid the madness of the news whirl, there is still some space for restraint and responsible journalism.

The electronic media revolution is just one of the many changes that have taken place in the last 18 years, ensuring that September 30, 2010, was never going to be a repeat of the horror of the winter of 1992. The biggest transformation, of course, has been in India's emergence as an economic force.

In 1992, economy was growing at 2.2 per cent; today it hovers around the 9 per cent mark. In 1992, our forex reserves were $2.2 billion, now they are as high as $287 billion. The sensex was around 2,000 then, now it has crossed the 20,000 mark.

With economic muscle have come rising aspirations. In 1992, per capita income was pegged at around Rs 1.8 lakh per annum; it is now almost triple at Rs 5.16 lakh per annum. From 70 lakh cars on India's roads then, we now have more than 1.8 crore vehicles. From 4 lakh computers then, we now have over 4 crore computers. Then, we were dependent on the telephone lineman for a connection, now India has more than 580 million mobile subscribers.

The presiding deity for new India is neither Ram nor Rahim, but Lakshmi. The biggest urge is not to build a mandir or a masjid, but to own a house. Ayodhya reminds upwardly mobile India of a past they are keen to forget: a past of political conflict and economic scarcity. New India wants no interruption in its march towards a better life, no violent eruption that will threaten their bank balance.

In their worldview, both Praveen Togadia and a Shahi Imam are dinosaur-like agents of trouble who need to be marginalised.

So far, so good. But has this 'new' India really moved on from the antagonisms of the early 90s as is being repeatedly suggested in television studio chatter?

A few weeks ago, we conducted a 'sting' operation to find the truth behind reports that Muslims find it difficult to rent a house in urban middle class localities. On hidden camera, the deep-seated prejudices that are often masked by political correctness were laid bare.

For a young Muslim to rent a house is still a challenge, remaining as he does a prisoner of stereotype. In 1992, the 'Muslim as terrorist' was dismissed as fringe element propaganda; now, a series of terror attacks at home and abroad have convinced even large sections of the silent majority that Muslims are untrustworthy.

At the same time, a victimhood complex has trapped the average Muslim into believing that the entire system is ranged against them, sparking anger and resentment within the community. Travel to any Indian city and the physical and psychological divide is increasingly apparent. You now have distinct 'Hindu' and 'Muslim' neighbourhoods, with worryingly minimal social interaction. Communal harmony and secularism have been reduced to mantras, lacking any real resonance on a divided street.

Which is why any self-congratulatory note struck by the near-total calm in the aftermath of the Ayodhya verdict needs to be tempered by the harsh reality of an India which remains dangerously segregated in the mind.

The majority community in new India doesn't want street violence, but is not averse to asserting their religious identity while endorsing the idea of a 'grand' Ram temple in Ayodhya. Likewise the minorities would like greater education and job opportunities, but they are also unwilling to 'surrender' their claim to a mosque at the disputed site.

In the circumstances, Ayodhya remains a crisis point but also presents a truly 'historic' opportunity to redefine the majority-minority equation.

Can the Sangh parivar, which resorted to extra-constitutional methods to bring down the mosque, now genuinely reach out to the minorities instead of engaging in any form of triumphalism? Can the Congress, with its votebank mentality, be a credible, non-partisan observer rather than send out conflicting signals?

And can Muslim groups get rid of the paranoia of being in a state of permanent injury? It is only when minds are freed of fear and prejudice, that India can truly claim to have moved on from Ayodhya. And then maybe unitedly construct a temple-mosque complex as a symbol of hope and reconciliation.

Post-script: A day after the Ayodhya verdict, Ram was replaced by Rajinikanth as the top headline. Forty-eight hours later, it was the glittering Commonwealth Games opening ceremony that took over. And a week later, from worshipping at the temple of Ram, all of us were worshipping at the feet of our very own cricketing divinity, V V S Laxman. Whether India moves beyond Ayodhya or not, 24-hour news TV sure does.

Rajdeep Sardesai is Editor-in-Chief, IBN 18 Network. The views expressed by the author are personal.

First Published: Oct 08, 2010 00:35 IST