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A Requiem for Our Democracy

Mathew John Mathew John
06 Feb 2023
The barbaric act of lynching is sickeningly abhorrent but what exacerbates the horror is our societal complicity in, nay patronage of such horrific bestiality.

In a moving piece titled “A Different Nation”, the respected educator and cultural activist, G. N. Devy, grieves over the demise of the India conceived by our founding fathers that held the promise of a truly egalitarian society. He harks back with nostalgia to a time when, in the little mofussil town in Maharashtra where he spent his early years, there was a comforting sense of affinity and fellowship that cut across religion, caste and language, where festivities and sorrows brought people together in solidarity. Children of the rich and the poor went to the same school, the same playground, the same clinic and library. 

Not anymore. On a recent visit to his birthplace, the residents organized a felicitation ceremony for him. His address was a walk down memory lane, recalling the fellowship and spirit of those times, but when he reminisced about Nehru and his close bond with the people, a saffron-clad man in the audience stormed out of the meeting, and within minutes, a group of RSS stormtroopers wielding lathis marched outside the venue mouthing “warlike slogans”. The saffron-clad man confronted the professor and sneered: “Nehru! Mind you!” Taken aback, the septuagenarian professor ruefully notes how much India has changed, invoking the plaintive line from Yeats: “That is no country for old men.”

Nor is it a country for Muslims, for whom the last few years have been a nightmare marked by an unending sequence of brutal killings. For many, the tears have run out from too much grieving! One cannot help endorsing Friedrich Nietzsche’s sweeping statement that man is the cruelest animal or the more pointed Schopenhauer’s observation that men are the devils of the earth. In the scale of human depravity, our morally crippled society’s routinized cruelty targeting those fittingly described as “the hunted” -- the Mohammed Akhlaqs, the Junaids, the Pehlu Khans et al -- is up there with the most horrendous exemplars of man’s inhumanity to man. The barbaric act of lynching is sickeningly abhorrent but what exacerbates the horror is our societal complicity in, nay patronage of such horrific bestiality.

Take what happened in Ghatmika village in the Bharatpur district of Rajasthan a couple of weeks ago. Two Muslims – Junaid and Nasir – were kidnapped by cow vigilantes from Haryana and burnt alive in their Bolero car, their charred remains abandoned in a forest in Haryana’s Bhiwani range. It appears that two gangs of vigilantes were involved, including a notorious Bajrang Dal goon named Mohit Yadav alias Monu Manesar. They first beat the two victims mercilessly and then sought to hand over the injured men to the Haryana police who, in a shocking display of criminal complicity, neither arrested the vigilantes for illegal assault nor provided medical aid to the victims, but directed them to the Rajasthan police. 

What transpired from the time the two men were picked up till their killing a few hours later is still quite fuzzy, but whatever has come to light tells us how hardened and degenerate we have become as a society. The spine-chilling truth is that cow vigilantes have been anointed law-enforcers by the State to persecute Muslims in the name of religion. The Haryana government is culpable for actively nurturing the dangerous vigilante culture by setting up a special cow protection task force that includes members of Gau Rakshak committees. 

Monu, the prime accused in this case, is a notorious member of the task force and a local hero whose over three lakh followers across social media have been fed with videos of torture of Muslims that would make the flesh crawl. In his support, a Maha panchayat was organized in Haryana’s Hathin, where speaker after speaker dared the Rajasthan police to arrest him. Under pressure, the Rajasthan police seems to have excluded the name of Monu from the list of the accused. In a social milieu where humanity and fellow feeling are at a premium, Muslims of the region are convinced that justice will never be done.

Cow slaughter has always been a contentious public issue, but in the past, the methods deployed to get one’s point across were largely peaceful, ranging from Vinoba Bhave’s fasts in support of a ban to squatting on railway tracks in peaceful protest. That was a more tolerant time when the country heeded what the greatest Indian, our Mahatma believed: “The Hindu religion forbids cow slaughter for the Hindus, not for the world. The religious prohibition comes from within. Any imposition from without means compulsion. Such compulsion is repugnant to religion.”

As in other respects, the present regime has turned its back on the Mahatma’s sage counsel and, instead, weaponized the “gomata” doctrinal postulation to persecute Muslims who are quotidian victims of this cow and bull(dozer) regime. In a bizarre twist to this bleak theatre of the absurd, the government issued a directive to rechristen Valentine’s Day as Hug-a-Cow Day. The fact that the cow slaughter issue is all about brute power and not religion for the ruling dispensation, was brought home recently in poll-bound Meghalaya, where the State BJP president, Ernest Mawrie publicly announced: “I eat beef and I am in the BJP. There is no problem, and nobody objects to it.” The hypocrisy is stunning but what makes it unpardonably inhuman is that Muslims are getting killed in this cynical power game.  

Not just for Muslims, this is no country for the poor and the vulnerable. Around the time of the Bharatpur communal savagery, another horrifying incident was playing out in Madauli village in Kanpur where a woman and her 21-year-old daughter set themselves ablaze in the presence of district administration officials who bulldozed their home built on land that had belonged to the family for decades. They are the latest victims of invidious anti-encroachment drives that selectively target the powerless, whereas the worst offenders – the middle class and the wealthy – encroach with impunity and are untouched. Check out our high-end DDA colonies to recognize that those with the means can get away with anything!

In Delhi, the recent anti-encroachment drive by the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) in the sprawling Mehrauli area in South Delhi is uprooting lives to spruce up the area ahead of next month’s G20 meeting scheduled to be held at the Mehrauli Archeological Park. It is another devastating assault on our most vulnerable citizens, who must be made invisible, as their squalid impoverished state might offend the sensibilities of our G20 guests. Mass poverty exists but must not be seen. While the better off residents, like those in Silver Oak Society, managed to get a stay order against the flailing, destructive blades of the bulldozers, the shanties and small shops have been razed to the ground – another execrable example of the asymmetry of justice in our benighted land.

A lot more has changed. This is no longer the country of Mahatma Gandhi, Nehru, Ambedkar and Sardar Patel – inspirational leaders who lived (and died) for their people. Our country’s leadership is now in the grip of pygmies who are wrapped up in their own egomania, self-serving to the core. I recently read a fascinating essay by Rajeev Bhargava, one of our leading public intellectuals, on the qualities that true leaders should possess. He identified four virtues: a) inclusivity which means taking equal care of every member of the group; b) acceptance of criticism and one’s own fallibility; c) ability to choose a support team and advisers based on competence and not on loyalty; 4) lastly, great communication skills and a way with words. Hurrah! If not the other virtues, at least the last-named – verbal eloquence -- is something that our supreme leader, the silver-tongued orator, displays every day of the week. But hold on!  According to Bhargava, lofty rhetoric that lacks sincerity, has no relation to truth and is peppered with grandiose claims and airy promises, hurts more than it heals.  The tragedy of India today is that it has been collared by an authoritarian leader, who has divided us, circumscribed our freedoms, and accentuated inequality!   

Mahatma Gandhi’s vision of democracy comprised two abiding concerns, secularism and the economic upliftment of the poor. He was emphatic that the State should have nothing to do with religion which was a purely personal matter. It was also his firm conviction that a nation should be judged by how it treats its poor and weakest members. His thinking on these issues set the template for the Preamble to our Constitution that, in ringing tones and bold capitals, announced a “SOVEREIGN, SOCIALIST, SECULAR, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC”. Our progress in creating a truly egalitarian society has at best been halting but barring the dark period of the Emergency, there has hitherto never been any doubt about the validity of our democratic aspirations as a nation.   

But then, in the last few years, our democracy has been hollowed out and emptied of meaning. Economically, we have embraced full-blown capitalism through deregulation and wholesale privatization resulting in the gap between the rich and the poor widening. In a country where 228 million of our fellow beings live below the poverty line, the top one percent of the population has cornered 40 percent of the nation’s wealth. 

The illicit State-Corporate nexus has rigged and skewed the entire system in favour of the corporate biggies through a slew of “business-friendly” handouts – unbundling and offering state enterprises for a song for privatized commercial plunder; reducing tax rates for the corporates in 2019 and again in this year’s Budget; directing State-owned banks to write off a mind-boggling Rs 11.17 lakh crores owed by corporates in the last six years. Who says we are not a plutocracy? To deflect attention from such outrageous concessions to the elite brigands, this regime has offered dole as hush payment to the vast, desperate underclass in the form of free rations, subsidized gas cylinders etc. This petty bribing – revdis -- using the taxpayer’s money, do not empower but make us parasitic, and yet it works at the hustings in the authoritarian’s favour. And the inequalities keep growing! 

We are now labelled an electoral autocracy run by an anti-plural political party that has co-opted the institutions of governance to restrict our freedoms. Socially and culturally, we are in the grip of majoritarian ethos, undergirded by the Hindutva doctrine of exclusivity which is tearing us apart. We are in a bad place!


(The writer is a former civil servant. The views are personal)  

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