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Time to Expose The Bigots in Our Living Rooms

The government has stoked a fire of hatred, which it has no control over.

About seven years ago when I used to work at a national news daily, editors would be required to routinely visit the homes of long-time subscribers and find out what readers liked or disliked about their newspaper.

The conversations would usually start with a middle-aged male pointing out how he wants to see more “serious” news on the front page, how the quality of journalism is suffering, and how “news” is being displaced by sensational stories and provocative pictures. After a few rounds of questions, however, he would invariably reveal, of his own accord, that the first thing he does when he picks up the paper is to turn to the city supplement, which is full of Bollywood gossip and cut-outs of scantily-clad models.

I’m reminded of this because I increasingly find that the most passionate supporters of the Narendra Modi-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government are a lot like the readers we would stumble upon on those visits: dishonest.

One of the hardest and most disheartening realities of India today is how hate, violence and bigotry have become normalised.

On the face of it, Modi’s diehard supporters, or bhakts as they have come to be labelled, will say that they respect the prime minister because he stands for development and is against corruption. He works long hours and has practically sacrificed his personal life so that he can dedicate himself to serving the people of India. But if you ask them to elaborate further, or attempt to interject by pointing out the upheavals the country has witnessed in the last five years and how democratic institutions have been destroyed, they start to regurgitate the same WhatsApp truths: how the Congress was no better; if not Modi who; five years are too little; Muslims have no place in this country; and scholars, artists and students are “anti-nationals”, hell-bent on destroying the image of the country.

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A few weeks ago, I was at a friend’s place for dinner when the conversation veered towards what’s in store in the upcoming 2019 Lok Sabha elections. In the past few years, I have learnt not to speak about Indian politics at polite gatherings, especially over meals. Nothing leaves me with as much regret, hurt and dyspepsia as the sight of well educated, privileged and otherwise reasonable people revealing themselves to be bigots.

On this occasion, at the dinner table, the senior-most member of the family loudly proclaimed that he was praying for Modi to return as prime minister. When I asked why, I was met with a glare, and asked why not.

He then began a long spiel about how promising Modi has been for the economy, how the state of some highways have improved, and why we basically need a strongman to lead the country, before finally uttering the line I was hoping not to hear from someone I’ve known for years, “…and those Mohammedans, after all, need to be put in place”.

So accustomed have we gotten to the bigoted and the vengeful, it’s no longer uncommon to find opinions and events around us that justify and even celebrate murder.

One of the hardest and most disheartening realities of India today is how hate, violence and bigotry have become normalised. A cab driver on my way back from work recently was trying to convince that the Mughals ruled India for 2,000 years, during which Hindu women were brutalised on a daily basis. How for 70 years Nehru had hidden these facts from us because Congress likes to appease Muslims, and had it not been for this government, we would still be in the dark.

I have heard educated people say out aloud today, even if it’s the truth, I won’t believe it.

Today, the more we come across instances of mob violence, the more it seems as though people have somehow become de-sensitised to the enormity of the current crisis. Activist and writer Harsh Mander, in a recent interview, stressed, “India’s passing through one of the most difficult times since the assassination of Mahatma”.

In fact, so accustomed have we gotten to the bigoted and the vengeful, it’s no longer uncommon to find opinions and events around us that justify and even celebrate murder. So much so that this year in Aligarh, Uttar Pradesh, the Hindu Mahasabha re-enacted the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi and garlanded his killer.

Hindu Mahasabha
(Photo: Twitter/@zoo_bear)

In an editorial of a recently launched newspaper, the question posed to the columnist for an essay was – “Can we eject Islam from our history?” To give it a veneer of ‘balance’, editorial space was also granted to counter this claim of “whether Islam should be a part of the modern Indian identity”.

According to reports, in the last five years, there have been at least 121 incidents of mob violence that have affected more than 290 people and claimed at least 46 lives — all in the name of the cow. The majority of the victims in these incidents have been Muslims. There is an agenda of majoritarianism sweeping across the country. Vast sections of society are afraid to express their thoughts or are living in fear, not sure whether their home for generations will remain a place where they can live (and eat) in peace in the years to come.

“Genocide is, after all, an exercise in community-building”.

Today, it’s become possible for one to incite a mob to lynch someone and even win sympathy for it. Students can be charged with sedition — the outdated, colonial legislation — and news channels, which have been guilty of propagating a culture of hate and bigotry, will have actually a role to play in it.

When journalist Gauri Lankesh was murdered on the night of September 5, 2017, a bitter war broke out on social media: Members of the right-wing felt that they were being “unfairly” linked to the crime. Today it’s clear as day that Hindu fundamentalists were behind her killing. Somewhere in the din, it was also lost on the weak, the cowardly and the hateful that pumping four bullets in a body can’t and won’t silence dissent. Instead, it immortalises it.

journalists

In books that detail accounts of mass executions, ethnic cleansing, and pogroms, it has always intrigued me how easily ordinary people turn overnight into cold-blooded murderers. How easily your friendly next-door neighbour, who you’ve known for years, can lead the mob to your doorstep, or be the first one to drag you out and set you on fire. How easy it is to suspend the make-believe world of law and order and let the gutters fill with blood. As Philip Gourevitch writes in We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families about the Rwandan civil war, “Genocide is, after all, an exercise in community-building”. Today, riots have been replaced by lynching – “genocide on a drip”, as they say.

Today, the least we can do, as a people, is to not get consumed by this fire of hate.

The government has stoked a fire of hatred, which it has no control over. In Twilight Falls on Liberalism, historian Rudrangshu Mukherjee traces an arc from Stalin’s Soviet Union and Hitler’s Germany to contemporary India and tries to explain why liberal values are under attack. He writes: “Modi, in spite of being the prime minister of India, does not condemn because he does not believe such acts deserve to be condemned… He believes in Hindutva, in making India a Hindu Rashtra and in making sections of the Indian population into second class citizens or, if possible, in eliminating them. If all this requires doses of violence so be it: it will make Hindu India a strong state.”

Today, the least we can do, as a people, is to not get consumed by this fire of hate. We can start by identifying and calling out the bigots amidst us, who are in our living rooms and bedrooms. We need to remind ourselves that the very idea of India that our forefathers fought for will crumble and burn into a heap of ash if it cannot be a nation that supports the faith and beliefs of all.

At a time when people have stopped believing in the truth, when venomous propaganda is masquerading as news, and opportunists are riding a wave of intolerance by inciting communal hatred, the last five years of “achhe din” are a stirring reminder that we’ve seen better days.

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