India Gate and Gateway of India, in Delhi and Mumbai, have long been symbols of welcoming everyone that touches our land. Pretty much like the Statue of Liberty is, except that the latter is more to welcome foreigners. Out of many, one, – was the declared ideal. In some sense, our gates could mean that too. Only, it doesn’t. Not anymore. Hasn’t been for a while, but now it comes into stark relief. Someone wrote he cannot understand what historians do. He doesn’t need to, because despite his obtuseness, history is constantly being made, and thankfully for us, will continue to do so, despite his cussed incomprehension. For some years now though, they are being made ignoring the small refugees from the ruins of the Indian dream.
History is very often written in terms of inventions and events. Of reigns of kings, monumental wars, revolutions and revolutionary ideas. But history is always the story of people. Communism, industrial Revolution, Green Revolution. In fact, some people’s biographies can be the destiny of often large swathes of land and people. Sitting as we are in the 21st century, we should have been able to safely predict that history will be shaped, and written too, by a group of remarkable human beings. We all strive to do better than our forefathers. My parents aspired more for me than they had, and we do the same for our son. And for a while, we believed the millennials were doing better and we were leaving a more fair and more just world for them. We know they are more confident, less hidebound and uptight, better educated, more creative and in some essential way, unafraid. We have tried hard, along with them, to embrace this rapidly changing world. No great heroism has yet come to define them as a group, no world war, no wrenching economic catastrophe. And yet.
And yet, there is a huge cavernous gap in understanding, between an upper/middle class India that believes things are ever so much better and another alien India that thinks that is delusionary. This gap mirrors a gap more important than numbers, between what many of us believe and the subtle assumptions that creep into our consciousness whose very existence we are unwilling to accept at times. So the sophistry of margins continues.
More and more now, it seems as though India was an improbable idea. From its very inception, it has been a nation built of ever changing disparate parts. I will not even be able to offhand say the number of states we now have. Many more have been added since we were in school. And they have usually been added because of a collective legacy littered with negatives, even horrors. As a nation we have learnt about the value of life and happiness – in however limited a fashion – through death, wars and grief. Our flagrant idealism is just that – idealism in the minds of some – but then again, hell hath no fury like an idealist disenchanted. And we have thousands of them, on both sides of whichever divide you wish to create.
The foundation of the country was sound, at least in the minds of its leaders. The country was held together then by a notion that all men are created equals, though most men, truth told, consider them better than someone else. This country built of bits and pieces – some very discordant – held together like those crazy quilts we see in all folk art of the country. Maybe the people who make those have a better sense of how the country should be. This country was built on a conundrum – secularism and individual freedom. Community added to individualism, our defining ideals. But they have always been in constant conflict.
The reality, however, is quite often, very different – it has been a great national striving consisting frequently of failure. Our stories, we now hear, seem not to be about tolerance but of bigotry. Sweatshops, burning of crosses, throwing of pigs in mosques and hacking cows in front of temples, lynching of Hindus, Muslims and Christians – all by fringe elements of some manner or the other – the denial of rights to women, the rape, the mob vigilantes according ‘justice’ to gay men. Justice delayed, and sometimes flagrantly denied. Innocents incarcerated by state agencies and nothing being done to correct it, even when all evidence points otherwise. The state agencies covering their own backs to the detriment of individuals involved. It could just as well happen to you and i. What should we teach our kids as being the history of this country? That despite all the failures is somettimes spectacularly successful? Why do we have to meet enormous tragedies to better appreciate enormous blessings? Why do we have to look at Syria, Pakistan, Afghanisthan and now even Bangladesh to count our blessings and consider ourselves lucky? Nearly seventy years into our freedom, why can we not look at other more evolved countries?
Why do we need a Kargil, an Indo-China war to hold our disparate parts together? Why do we need a common enemy, by the fault-line of wars and electrified fences? Why is there always a creeping concern that without a focus of hatred and distrust – of people as Indian as anyone else – our sense of national identity would evaporate? Slow growing domestic traumas like terrorist attacks and increasing crime seems more likely to emphasize division, when the devastation leads to spontaneous but swift-changing unity.
Some historians today bemoan the ascendancy of a kind of nationalistic apartheid where clinging to one’s background and custom is constantly undermining the concept of unity. But what is the point of this splintered whole? What is the point of a nation where one readily keeps and trusts one’s children with, maids of one religion, yet speak of hatred, one for the other? What is the point of a nation where maids sometimes hide their real names to be able to work in the families of the other community? Yes, other countries with such divisions have in fact divided into new nations with new names, but does that mean we gloat about our country and how it is impossibly interwoven in hostilities?
Is it time to finally admit that this great nation can consist only people of the one kind, and others have to either leave or be subservient? Is it time to acknowledge that people of different, even warring religions and cultures can live, if not side by side, then on either side? It amazes me when people who have lived in western countries and faced blatant racism come to India and are intolerant of some communities. How is hatred of difference of skin colour any different from hatred of a different religion? What is the point of living across barely bridgeable lines? Our country’s raison d’etre was how it managed to carve a niche of secularism, however fractured, amidst neighbours whose creation and existence was premised on religion. Our nationality speaks of our diversity, however tenuous the links that hold us together.
It is true that much of it did not affect us and so we chose to ignore them. But now, increasingly, it feels like it could happen to any of us. I could be the Talwars, I could be Akhlaque, I could be any or all of those other nameless people who are routinely getting lynched for their beliefs and individual, personal behavior and choices.
Now, there is a pernicious cognitive dissonance between those who run things and those who merely live with the results. Many of the decisions that shape our diurnal lives seem to be made by people who are now floating like enormous unmoored zeppelins, over much minutiae of ordinary existence. We seem to have long forgotten about leadership without arrogance, a bridge between power and humanity.
Economic Darwinism seems something we can’t rid the world of. Certain issues have become fixed in the amber of polar opinions. “They” is the official pronoun of the new polarity. Tolerance, that much used, and almost as much reviled, word is a vanilla pudding word, really. It stands for nothing except allowance of letting “others” live unremarked and unmolested. Pride is excessive, together with a willingness to endlessly complain about ‘them’ – whoever is new, different, unknown or currently under suspicion. But patriotism, if one wants to believe in it, should be about taking pride in this unlikely ability to throw all of us together in a country that across its length and breadth is as different as several dozen countries, and still be able to call it by one name.
It serves no purpose to lampoon the lament that our country is infused with hyperannuated regard for the sensibilities of the minorities. That is pure balderdash. Religious faith should always recede into a private, individual sphere and should never be a badge of identity. We need to be willing and able to take a strong stand against individuals and organizations that poison a community. Any community. There also is no point blaming our institutional machineries. The police officers who are seen in video clipping after video clippings are just us wearing uniforms. Whatever assumptions they make, the prejudices they carry with them are the assumptions and prejudices of their roots, neighbourhoods and society. Also, these are not necessarily the excesses of the egregious bigots, but shows the many ways in which religion and perception of difference changes everything, often is subtle unconscious ways. It is an astonishing dissonance in a nation supposedly based on equality that we have groups of people who are assumed, simply by virtue of their difference, to be less. Less trustworthy, less moral, less changeable. The unconscious communal shorthand that shapes assumptions so automatic as to be a series of psychological tics – that the Muslim man in his lungi must be a Pakistani at heart, that the smart lady in her jeans in an air-conditioned car must be a liberal, that the tattooed man in his leather jacket must be a danger to women, that the lady in her red-bordered white sari wearing sindoor, coming out of a temple must necessarily hate any Muslim on her way. The subconscious conclusions about family background to taste in music to food habits based on religion, language, sexual orientation which blunt the acceptance of individuality and originality that is the glory of being human.
But, like many improbable ideas, when India actually works, it’s a wonder. We need to ensure it does.