Independence Day: Things We’ve Lost In The Fire
The world is divided into binaries. Right is right, left is wrong, and there is nothing in between.
In a speech in Parliament in 2002 on Ayodhya, while appealing to Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee to remove Murli Manohar Joshi, S Jaipal Reddy said Joshi confused “history with mythology, philosophy with theology and astronomy with astrology”. He quotes this in his wonderful new book Ten Ideologies: The Great Asymmetry between Agrarianism and Industrialism (Orient Black Swan) while adding that in the same speech he noted with some irony that he admired LK Advani’s gift for articulating “medieval ideology in a modern idiom”.
Reddy may well have been speaking in 2018, except perhaps, as he notes now, the idiom is not particularly modern, even if everything from internet to plastic surgery was invented in ancient India.
Seventy-one years after Independence, what have we really won, and what have we really lost? Lynchings, hate speeches, demonisation of the other, a public life where self-promotion is valued over quiet performance, love jihad is preferred to love and guess what, the trains are still not running on time.
Let’s list the things we’ve lost and the ways we’ve lost them:
#1. The in-between space: The world is divided into binaries. Right is right, left is wrong, and there is nothing in between. The media is the enemy of the people, the citizen with rights and duties is a constantly distracted consumer, the responsible government is a provider of psychedelic programmes, lit up in enough neon to blind people to the facts. And the vast middle space, where once a reasonable people lived, thinking, debating, discussing, has been laid waste, taken over by vicious online trolls, television’s nattering nabobs and politics’ pompous men and women with an unshakeable belief in their own infallibility.
#2. Respect for the other: In a free market ironically we live with greater shortages than ever – not just of pure air, clean water and unpolluted soil but also of meaningful jobs, emotional connections and sustained relationships. In such a situation, the stranger in Tripura becomes the child lifter of WhatsApp rumours, the neighbour of Muzaffarnagar becomes the potential terrorist, and the citizen of Assam becomes a Bangladeshi who needs to be deported. Caste, clan, region, religion, we’re back to a seemingly medieval time when false equivalences are made between the Mughals of history and the Muslims of today – if Aurangzeb destroyed temples, somehow the Muslims of contemporary India should pay for it, if Alauddin Khilji dared to desire Rani Padmini, a woman who may or may not have existed, it is enough to take vicious revenge for the imaginary love jihad.
#3. The art of conversation: Talk is everywhere. On Mann ki Baat, on television debates, in rousing speeches, in cheeky tweets, in viral videos. Everyone is speaking more than ever before. They are also making little sense. The monologue has replaced the dialogue, the Vedic spirit of inquiry has been converted into the fine at of submitting your routine questions on email, with the hope and prayer that they will be answered. As Paul Simon wrote in the song “Sounds of Silence”:
People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening
People writing songs that voices never share
No one dared
Disturb the sound of silence.
#4. The intellect: Perhaps it is because we live in the age of WhatsApp forwards and politicians with questionable degrees, education has been downgraded from a must-acquire through toil and sweat to what sociologist Maitrayee Chaudhuri calls the “pre-fab economy”. In this economy, everyone can become anything, from a bottle blonde to a global statesman. All one has to do is “shop the look”. In her new book, Refashioning India. Gender, Media, and a Transformed Public Discourse, Chaudhuri writes that this instant access to information has led to unequal knowledge. So while there is equal access to consume the visuals of economic progress, the resources to achieve them have become accentuated with disparity. Or as Aisi Taisi Democracy likes to joke, in comedy that is quickly being outpaced by the reality of life, being a pada-likha leaves you open to suspicion, whether you are Umar Khalid or Kanhaiya Kumar. And the University of Google can democratise disinformation and ignorance, allowing people to believe that Bhagat Singh a Communist was the first incipient BJP nationalist, and Veer Savarkar, the apologist, was the ultimate freedom fighter. These false equivalences also allow, notes Chaudhuri, Prime Minister Narendra Modi to refer to Mahatma Gandhi’s closeness to Birlas-Bajajs when justifying his own relationship with industrialists.
#5. The greatest casualty of our times? Truth. In the algorithm economy, everyone lives in their own private echo chambers. We read what reinforces our beliefs, we hear what reiterates our prejudices, and we interact with those in our gated communities who look like us, eat what we eat, pray like us, live like us. Such an environment is fertile ground for conspiracy theories which see the majority playing victim again and again. In such an environment, identity becomes the new battleground. Where the National Register of Citizens can be used to exclude in Assam, another Constitutional provision reinterpretation can be used to include in Kashmir. As the country becomes captive to an increasingly straightjacketed version of Hinduism, the notion of who is an Indian becomes increasingly open to redefining and refining, a political tool to divide and conquer, to create us and them of a peaceable people.
Kaveree Bamzai is a senior journalist.