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The Cost of Indifference

Archbp Thomas Menamparampil Archbp Thomas Menamparampil
30 Aug 2021
Weekly Magazine In India

It was when Britain triumphantly won World War II that she lost India. Winston Churchill, who had fought fiercely to retain the Indian Empire and keep Britain’s world leadership, predicted that India would soon revert to the social chaos in which East India Company found her; that power would  “go into the hands of rascals, rogues and freebooters”. Some surviving colonial officer of that era could ask: ‘Was he not right after all, though it took 75 years to reach that point’?  This may be taking things too far, but today it is much harder to dismiss Churchill’s pessimistic prophesy than it was a few years ago. And the negative trend seems to be firmly set. I am referring to the criminalization of politics about which the Supreme Court has been most vocal recently. 

What is worrying is the ‘INDIFFERENCE of the electorate with regard to the choice of candidates with criminal record and the villainous use of money during elations. Fund-raising, through fair means or foul, is an inseparable part of the game. Perceptive historians who discuss the Bengal famine of 1750-1755 that caused 10 million deaths, while being highly critical of British insensitivity, do not spare Indian businessmen who had the habit of hiding and hoarding, diverting food material and making profit in times of crisis. These instincts have not died out. They have moved to the centre of Indian politics today. But the electorate is “INDIFFERENT”. These are themes that need to be studied more at depth if we seek to save democracy. 

Emotions Set Ablaze, Crime Follows

The prevailing political ethos seems to allow the choice of any tough go-getter, who gets the political goals of a party through. It may include bending the law slightly, violating the rights of individuals or communities when found useful, or making police or judicial systems a little more pliant. The game had been going on for quite a while, and it is true of all parties to varying degrees. The tragedy today is that it has made a turn for the worse, creating contexts where people spread hatred without any qualms of conscience, demonize rivals, and eliminate opponents. The worst aspect of it is that such things meet with approval at the highest levels of parties. Think tanks that promote such criminal conduct remain “invisible”, but the vigilantism that comes after is very “visible”. Emotions are set ablaze…and crime follows. 

Criminal cases against MLAs and MPs, which were already very high, have risen 17% in two years.  During the early days of East India Company, people used to speak of ‘robber barons’. There seems to be a reincarnation of this species, political activists who go to any length to grab power and pelf. Defections and party-shifting make the headlines, but the public remains INDIFFERENT. When we hear that BJP’s income rose last year by 50% to 3,623 crores, people do not believe that everything has been innocent and transparent. If there have been allegations against the Temple authorities at Ayodhya about unaccountable transactions, their political partners may have gone one step further. And cash easily goes with crime. 

A Pattern is Promoted

When some Trinamool workers, who had been wounded in a political scuffle in Tripura, were brought to Kolkata, Mamata Banerjee sounded too hasty in attributing the nasty incident to Amit Shah. But she was not wrong if you look at the issue contextually. She could not forget Shah’s fierce threats during Assam and Bengal elections, calling Muslim immigrants “termites”, who would be picked up and thrown “into the Bay of Bengal”. Such warnings reach the ends of the subcontinent and echo back in unexpected ways.  For example, six BJP activists were arrested in Delhi for hate slogans like ‘death to Muslims’.  Similarly, Surendra Jain thundered in UP: Hindus must not move out of Muslim zones, but fight back, “palayan nahi parakram”. People translate such instructions into action. An old Muslim was beaten up in Kanpur to the utter delight of an excited crowd! The ‘joy’ of beating as seen in social media was truly shocking!  

Yogi Adityanath with his “Go Tough” policies has emerged as another role model for many leaders: divisive statements, anti-love jihad campaigns, suppression of CAA-protests, anti-conversion strategies, questionable population control policies, encounter killings.

Under his guidance, vigilantism and violence chase each other. Rahul Jain says, Human Rights activists in Assam are worried about the 15 people eliminated in encounter killings during the first three months of the present regime. Imposition of social order through what is called “Encounter Killings” is inhuman. A trigger-happy culture will only undermine our civilization. Suppression draws a response, and the eliminated ‘rebels’ get speedily replaced. Afghanistan shows the negative consequence of an excessive use of force.  It is the helpless who die, the rebellious only redouble their determination. A free “license to kill” is not a helpful weapon.  

When a recent clash on the Assam-Mizoram border carried away the lives of six policemen, it was again Amit Shah who was accused of “sowing hatred and distrust’, this time by Rahul Gandhi. The difference between the two states is that Mizoram accepts the 1875 demarcation of borders made in consultation with the tribal chiefs, not the 1933 one by which Assam stands. Dialogue certainly is the only way to resolve differences. The reputed American political scientist Francis Fukuyama of Stanford University frankly admitted that in dealing with tribal communities even the developed nations have a lot to learn; Afghanistan provides new lessons. 

Is It Worth Learning Lessons the Hard Way?

When Amit Shah promised in haste that the Northeast would be free of all protests by 2024, was he meaning that what was done to Kashmir would be done to the Northeast, if his party performed well in the 2024 elections? It is dreadful if persons in such positions of responsibility would not learn from the negative experiences of entire nations. 

Unfortunately, that seems to be what is happening. A Cow Protection Bill was passed in the Assam Assembly. This is happening in a region where there are countless tribes for whom beef is an essential item of food. People see it merely as a measure to humiliate Muslims. The public pose is as though all Hindus abstain from beef. Social scientists in the field present another set of data, even in states like Uttarakhand, including Haridwar. 

Nor do people forget curious things like how Vivekananda advised young Indians to eat beef and grow strong. Wendy Doniger narrates how Dr. Bowers invited him for a meal after his illustrious intervention at the 1893 World Parliament of Religions at Chicago. Bowers asked him, “What shall we eat?” Vivekananda’s prompt reply was, “Give me beef” (Outlook, July 17, 1897, at Doniger, Penguin, 2009, pg. 639). But the present leadership prefers to forget India’s diversity and traditional respect for each other’s habits. It prefers to ruffle feelings and reap rough weather. 

Partition Remembrance Day

People have wondered what made Narendra Modi speak of a ‘Partition Horrors Day’ on August 14. All of a sudden, the memory of two million Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs who died comes to people’s mind, and of tens of millions displaced. Reactions to the Prime Minister’s tweet differ from person to person. Rammanohar Reddy wonders, “Why open old wounds on the eve of Independence day”? Historian Irfan Habib remarks, “It is time that we forget that hate”. Others ask cynically, “Why not institute a Gujarat massacre day?” Others, “Is Modiji planning another partition?” Still others, “The Prime Minister is continuing his polarizing policies”. But the most disturbing interpretation has been that he wants to undo Partition and establish Akhand Bharat. But I would humbly suggest a charitable interpretation: Modiji really wants to heal our collective memories! 

The question is, “Will he?” What psychological impact does the revival of hurtful memories make on society? Suddenly many horrors come alive: of communal clashes at Jabalpur 1961, Ahmedabad 1969, Jamshedpur 1979, Moradabad 1980, Bhiwandi 1984, Ratha Yathra 1989, Bhagalpur 1989, Babri Masjid 1992, Mumbai 1993, Gujarat 2002. Germany remembers Holocaust, and bends her head in humility. Japan remembers Hiroshima and chooses to adopt a forgiving posture. Will India remember Partition and learn to accept Reality? Or will someone ruffle the feelings of millions and provoke rough weather? What is called for is an utmost Sense of Responsibility. 

Political Use of Religion

Chetan Bhagwat warns: when politics is seen only through religious eyes, things go out of control, e.g., when people are made to believe that Hindu Rashtra is already here, that a show of strength alone will be respected! They should learn from the recent history of Iran, Pakistan or Afghanistan. Are trends in India leading in the same direction? Are our leaders playing with the emotions of unperceptive mobs? Did our muscle-flexing at Balakot give us a bloody nose at Ladakh? Are these recent events merely coincidental or inter-related? 

For example, according to Wendy Doniger, televising the Ramayana in 1987-88 and Mahabharata in 1988-90 “was a major factor leading” to the destruction of the Masjid in 1992 (Doniger 668)…and its later consequences! Has the mishandling of Kashmir and the alienation of the Islamic world done any good to the nation…especially in the light of the latest developments in Afghanistan? We need to realize one thing: we have to hold together as a society. “Intoxication” with self-importance serves no purpose. Self-blinding does not contribute to nation-building.

New realities

There are divergent views why Joe Biden decided to pull the American forces out of Afghanistan. Not a few describe it as the first frank admission of the decline of the West, which Oswald Spengler had predicted early last century. Others argue, it is nothing less than a candid confession of US policy blunders in the Middle East during the last three decades. Others see it as America’s final escape from the wily trap that the al-Qaeda set for her on 9/11, drawing the great World Power into a series of misadventures to exhaust its energies and resources. Others still contend that the Government of America is in its final efforts to rescue itself from the grip of weapons-manufacturers who excessively influence its foreign policies. But what may finally be true is that Biden has decided to lead his country back to Realism: to let nations decide their own issues for themselves and allow the UN and other International bodies to function.  

In any case, the world indeed is changing. Who will control affairs in the emerging world? Will it be China that is all determined to set things right after the humiliation of two centuries? Will it be an Islamic order that stretches from the Saharan Maghreb to the Hindukush with allies in Central, South and Southeast Asia? Or it will be an International Network of freedom-loving nations that value a rule-based constitutional order and respect the weakest nations and communities in equal measure? 

Of one thing we are certain: Might is not the final answer.  See what happened to Ozymandias of Egypt, whose inscription Percy Bysshe Shelley introduced to the English-speaking world in his poem, where the Pharoah claims to be the king of kings and boasts, “Look on my works ye Mighty, and despair”. Then he vanishes from history.  Show of strength merely diminishes a person.

On the contrary, Ashoka said ‘I am sorry’ for the violence he had caused. He is admired in history. His ability to change his ruling style continues to amaze political thinkers to this day. The message he sent out changed half the world. India did not collapse because of his teaching on Peace, but because of the Fragmentation in Society that he had made a supreme effort to heal. His edicts called for respect and relationship between religious communities. But inter-religious contentions continued, caste divisions sharpened especially under the Guptas, and India’s fragmented society yielded to every invader. The sense of insecurity has only increased over centuries. Unfortunately, there are people today who wish to Ruffle the Spirit and rouse internal contentions that sap away our energy. 

We Can Change Our Ways

But it is possible like Ashoka to change our ways. People of good will continuously suggest doing so. During her meeting with Putin in Moscow, Angela Merkel frankly admitted, “Our differences may be deep, but we must talk”. Biden plans to hold a ‘Democracy summit’ in December, as more and more democracies are weakening worldwide; issues like human rights will be discussed. Rahul promised in Kashmir to fight against prevailing divisive policies. Gopalakrishna Gandhi, the grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, speaking to young people recently said: Respect between religious communities ought to be far more than mere tolerance. Pope Francis in his Fratelli Tutti encourages cultivating “a Penitential Memory” of negative events in history (FT 226). Even vigilantism can be made to veer in a new direction. Yes, ruffled feelings too can be healed if we learn to respect Reality. 

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