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For all to see: India's prejudices in poll season

It may be currently spurred by the BJP and its allies, but the hate speech of the election season is only a reflection of India’s deep-seated prejudices and discriminatory practices against its own citizens, writes Samar Halarnkar.

india Updated: Apr 24, 2014 12:52 IST

The election season is dragging out India’s worst prejudices and setting it on a potentially perilous trajectory

The young man’s academic choices as an undergraduate at Harvard indicate why it is one of the world’s great universities. Among his courses are statistics, the ethics of neurobiology and — after studying Japanese last year — introductory Urdu-Hindi. He can now read both languages.

After ruing my undergraduate days in India, studying commerce, accountancy and factory administration, with no leeway to learn anything unrelated, I am intrigued.

Urdu-Hindi? Taught together, in the same classroom, by the same professor?

My young friend nods. He is Indian-American but American enough to be unsurprised at such a combination. To me, the Indian, the symbolism of the Urdu-Hindi course is inescapable. Where in the subcontinent would these two languages, now — with a handful of honourable exception — firmly representative of two often-hostile religious traditions, be taught together? Except for street signs in Delhi, Indian cities with large Urdu-speaking populations cannot get themselves to put up Urdu signage. The United States with a growing Spanish-speaking population faces a Right-wing English-only pressure, but the proliferation of Spanish is obvious in public transportation, banks and other aspects of daily life.

So, is the professor an Indian or Pakistani? I wonder how Harvard, which I am visiting, has dredged up a desi who was academically proficient in both languages.

The young man smiles. “The professor is Australian, and the teaching assistant (a student himself) is German,” he said.

Well, of course.

At a time when the world needs to expand the horizons of its young people to prepare them for its changing realities, especially a tough job market, India is spending an election season bringing out the worst in itself.

Let’s see. For all the talk of development, jobs and reviving a moribund economy, the primary aide to the man who would be prime minister tells upper-class Hindu Jats that this is a time for revenge — against Muslims; although he does not use the M word, his allusion is clear. The candidate himself, rarely averse in his previous avatar to naming and taunting Muslims, stays away from divisive rhetoric in his effort to be widely acceptable but never once addresses the hate speech his people spew. Another member of the BJP, which does distance itself from his remarks but will not criticise him, says anyone who criticises candidate Narendra Modi can go to Pakistan — sparking a droll show of hands and demands for Pakistani visas.

Of course, no one really wants to go to Pakistan, given the daily dose of bombings, assassinations and the pace at which the far Right is moving to the centre and liberals are called ‘liberal extremists’. In India, the far Right has limited influence, but that is changing. Sensing their fields fertile again, the farmers of hate are starting to sow their poisonous seeds. Expect more books to be ‘voluntarily’ withdrawn by publishers or banned. Expect more people to agree with the likes of Praveen Togadia, the doctor who urges us to run Muslims out of our neighbourhoods. Use stones, rocks, tomatoes, burn tyres and spit on them, he tells us, when they come out. “They have to come out, right?” he says.

A significant number of people agree with the doctor. You can read it on social media, you can sense it in conversations, you can see it in the inability of another young friend — a pilot, a Muslim and patriot — to rent a flat in Ahmedabad, home to the sprawling apartheid-like ghetto of Juhapura. Despite being caught on tape, Togadia alleges, what else, “a conspiracy”, that term beloved of anyone in India who has no plausible defence.

Over at the Congress, whose cynical secularism of convenience, reign of corruption and misgovernance refertilised the fields of hate, the conspiracy defence is routine. The party’s star campaigner, Priyanka Vadra, dismisses her husband’s questionable land deals as “meaningless talk” by the BJP. A Congress candidate vows to cut Modi to pieces; it is evident that meaningless, divisive talk is the prime feature of this election. At the Samajwadi Party, there is talk of Muslim soldiers winning the peaks of Kargil.

It may be currently spurred by the BJP and its allies, but the hate speech of the election season is only a reflection of India’s deep-seated — and possibly spreading — prejudices and discriminatory practices against its own citizens. The relative calm of the last decade has been fraying with the economic downturn. The hurtful campaigns are snapping those threads, and the danger is they will be hard to reattach. That the poison has always flowed through us is evident in the latest sting op, the Cobrapost revelation that a politicised and communalised police force aided the Congress pogrom against Sikhs in 1984, similar to biased police action against Muslims in Mumbai, 1992, and Gujarat, 2002.

Both the big parties tell us this is an election about the future, about the millions of young people voting for the first time, about jobs, development and national glory. Yet, they will not discuss the details of these challenges. From no manifesto or speech can I glean how India will add 12 million jobs every year, supply 24/7 electricity, revive manufacturing, build warehouses, cold-chains and modernise agriculture, revive a crumbling healthcare system that allows 250 million people to slip into poverty if they face a single health crisis and stop the great slide in education, where more than half of Class 5 students at state-run schools struggle to read a Class 2 text.

Human Rights Watch (HRW), an international NGO, tells us this week, through an exhaustive set of interviews, how easily instead modern India adopts educational apartheid. Some teachers force the children of Dalit, Muslim and other marginalised people to sit separately from upper-caste Hindus and clean their school toilets, says an HRW report. That might explain the significantly higher drop-out rate among these communities. It might also explain why we cannot easily overcome the prejudices that the hate-mongers have so easily dragged out — and why we cannot hope to produce Urdu-Hindi professors.

Samar Halarnkar is a Bangalore-based journalist

The views expressed by the author are personal