May a good source be with you.

Enough Is Enough. We Need To Call ‘Time Out’ On Hatred.

We need leaders who understand the difference between political rivalry and pathological hatred

To send a message to a minority community, an eight-year-old was brutally gang-raped and murdered in Kathua, Jammu and Kashmir, because she was seen as a ‘soft target’. Worse, some lawyers and ruling party politicians tried to prevent the police from filing a case against the perpetrators because of the victim’s religion. And a newly minted Deputy CM of the state called the crime a “small matter”.

An elected representative belonging to the ruling party in Uttar Pradesh (UP) allegedly raped a girl from Unnao and she was forced to draw attention to the crime by attempting suicide outside the Chief Minister’s residence. Her father was beaten up, arrested and later died in police custody. It took a national outcry and a High Court order before the MLA was arrested.

As Kathua and Unnao join the long list of names that stand for the worst in our society, muting the TV or mumbling ‘what have we become?’ just doesn’t seem to help any more.

Maybe it’s time for a long, shrill whistle to call a ‘time out’.

Let’s pause a bit before we slide any further into this abyss of hate, and reflect on who we want to be as a people, and a polity.

For starters, let’s ask ourselves if we believe that we’re all committed to defending our democracy? If we do, then we need to remind ourselves that the Preamble of the Constitution starts with the words “We, the People”, and not “We, the Hindus, Upper Castes, or Powerful Men”.

It’s time to see each other as human beings, and not as enemies at the business end of prickly, partisan worldview. This incessant ghettoisation and ‘othering’ that’s become part of our conversations is a dangerously toxic recipe that’s taking us miles away from the shared beliefs and values ingrained in the country’s ‘holy book’.

We just can’t continue to be a society so divested of compassion and empathy that it takes the politicisation of the rape and murder of a little girl to remind us of our moral compass. Surely, it’s time to hold ourselves to a higher standard of decency in our words and actions?

But people and social equilibriums don’t exist in a vacuum. We also need to evaluate what we want from the democratic institutions that represent us. When a Parliament session ends without finding its ‘Goldilocks’ moment because the level of noise in the House was never ‘just right’ for debates on a No-Confidence Motion, or the unemployment crisis, then we’re just sleepwalking into a future where dissent and opposition are no longer going to be a part of our democracy.

We seem to have forgotten about a time when India, a newly independent nation, set up crucial democratic institutions in the midst of so much residual anger, and distrust.

To this day the Constituent Assembly debates remain some of the best examples of how men and women with conflicting ideological and political perspectives worked together to give shape to our civic identity. The memory of our founding fathers will be best served when we’re next faced with fundamental differences between parties, but the doors for discussion are kept wide open. When Treasury Benches constantly persuade and communicate with the Opposition, and both sides remember that partisan interests will collide, and, when they do, the larger interests of the people must not be lost in the bargain.

Which brings us to the question that has probably received the least attention so far—what kind of people do we want at the helm of our democracy? What are some of the non-negotiables that we should be looking for in our representatives and those that hold influential positions in political parties?

For starters, politics must rediscover civility. Going forward, we need leaders who understand the difference between political rivalry and pathological hatred. Leaders who respect opponents as loyal citizens, and understand that realpolitik cannot be a licence for casually questioning another’s patriotism. There can be no space for dehumanizing metaphors identifying political opponents as pests, reptiles or dogs.

Political leaders know that their words shape society. So when a leading TV channel’s report confirms what we’ve known anecdotally, and tells us that there’s been a phenomenal spike in hate speech by political leaders and representatives over the past few years, then we must examine how society has altered during this period of time too. The fact is that, be it Kathua, Unnao, Junaid Khan or Mohammad Akhlaq, each of these are in some way bywords for the high price we’re paying for the constant flow of vicious speeches and ‘dog whistles’. Instead of purveyors of words and silences that convey coded messages and encourage hate, patriarchy and feudalism, the least we should demand is leaders who unambiguously stand for each and every citizen of the country.

One year short of the next general election is a good time to call a ‘time out’, and talk about the real issues that must shape our democracy in the future.

 

Barkha Deva is Associate Director at the Rajiv Gandhi Institute for Contemporary Studies. These are her personal views. She tweets at @barkhad.

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