Monday, 2 May 2016

We are a ‘sensitive’ nation. Or are we?

The times of today are the times of the offended. Judging by what we see on social media, where all of us write through a large number of platforms available to us, I suppose you could say ours is a ‘sensitive’ society. Given, though, that there is so much that happens in the country daily with the potential to offend, hurt, disgust or enrage us, what we choose to make the most noise about is a sign of where our priorities lie.

An offhand analysis would suggest that our greatest allegiance is to symbols and appearances, whether or not we understand what they mean. Artificial constructs of a happy, cheery, country whose problems aren’t really to be dwelt on.

No attribute of India, perhaps, is misappropriated as much as diversity. In our collective imagination, diversity exists for all practical purposes as little more than a colourful tapestry of rituals, clothes, traditions, facial features and cuisines. What our understanding of diversity does not include is that such physical diversity often extends to points of view. Points of view where what is sacred to one people is anathema to another, and the whole point of sharing this country is that we work on the most harmonious ways to live together.

Instead, all we do is co-opt this diversity for our tourism and cricket adverts, or to show that all of India, divided on countless lines, at least drinks the same soft drink and prefers the same motorcycle. Incredible, isn’t it, the splendour of our India? All hunky-dory until we question the ‘unquestionable’.
The teacher who taught me as a kid, and therefore whose teachings I cannot question, gave me a certain idea of India that is set in stone. To question it makes me an ingrate, and I am duty bound to ‘give it’ to those who do not see the country and its symbols in the way I do.

This collective business of ‘giving it’ to the anti-nationals, ‘nailing it’ with memes and counter-memes has built for us an atmosphere of fear and created a prison of the mind. Weapons are abandoned in a university bus with a threat to the lives of two student activists. Whether or not the threat is carried out (may heaven forbid the latter), where does it leave our universities, where to dissent and debate is indispensable towards building a stronger democracy?

In a classic display of the crude, reprehensible masculinity which really is the root of a lot of social conflict, a fringe politician with a penchant for polarizing the electorate on religious lines says he will not say “Bharat Mata ki Jai” even if a knife his held to his throat. It bears mention that no knife, even a metaphorical one, was held to his throat at that point. Look at the hate it has precipitated in the past few weeks, and how it has subsumed all other issues of debate. Then we have an FMCG entrepreneur and yoga instructor posing as a spiritual guru, who says he would behead those who do not say Bharat Mata ki Jai. This same person, mind you, abandoned a rally of his followers in disguise at the first threat of police action.

Go back to February, and you will remember the headlines being dominated by a “journalist” who started the #PakstandswithJNU hashtag, anticipating Hafiz Saeed’s need for the same. A decorated police officer and the country’s Home Minister accepted this as “evidence”.

What all this noise cloaks is the real problems that successive governments leave unaddressed, both the one led by the puppet PM whose personal integrity was a cover for the slimy dealings of his subordinates, and the one led by the incumbent mild-mannered, self-effacing man of iron who got his name pinstriped all over a suit.

When we do talk of ‘real’ problems, we talk of the ones our idea of India resonates with. The liquor baron who fled the law with billions in unpaid debts. The money stashed offshore by people of political and cultural eminence. Somehow, we miss out on the fact that over a million children die every year from causes that are easily preventable, and that a few litres of rainwater is all that lie between a farmer and the noose he has kept in a corner. All this while a minister finds it beneath himself to travel 40 km by road, preferring to use a chopper whose landing site costs 10,000 litres of water to prepare.

We fixate, instead on the demons who cheer the loss of our cricket team, to the point of wanting them injured or worse. We think that the army, deftly handled by civilian governments to function as their tool, is an otherworldly institution above reproach. We forget in our ire against the “invader” that if India truly must be governed by those who are its ‘original’ residents, first choice would go to the Dalits and the tribals. No one else.

We build a narrative where the soldier dying in the cold, the PM sleeping only while travelling, the emotional pull of what we were taught as children, is over and above all other considerations. We the beneficiaries of a benevolent state, unwilling to see that the comforts we live with, have come at the cost of the worst violations committed on fellow citizens. In condoning the worst we can do as humans as long as we don’t see it, our sensitivity and imagined compassion does not put our leaders in the dock. It implicates us most of all.

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