We’re young, so why do we feel so outdated?
(Published on August 13, 2016 in Business Standard)
Well here we are, another year older. A country at 70 is just a spring chicken, and most of our citizens are young. The world is constantly describing us as rising, emerging, growing, exciting, and promising. So why, then, does it so often feel as if we’re being governed by old men, wielding old ideas, for old goals?
Did you think, o people of India, that on our 70th birthday, after the tech boom and the Internet revolution and our own mission to Mars, after Sunny Leone and live-in relationships and globalisation, we would find ourselves sitting around yelling at each other about cows? Me neither. On the other hand it’s also after the 2014 election, so actually, me too.
There were two upsides to that election. First, the thin skin of modernity that we had grown under the tired UPA government was ripped right off. Now we’re staring at our ugly obsession with cows, temples, jingoism, and chauvinism, wrapped up in the see-through cling-film of ‘development’. This usefully demonstrated that a significant number of us are still rooted in cultural and political paradigms that are anti-democratic and anti-constitutional. That makes part of me want to throw up, but another part of me is grimly delighted. Only when the facts are so in your face can you stop pretending that they don’t exist, and maybe start addressing them.
Second, like the tragicomic act that is Donald Trump in the United States, we have seen our political leaders give full-throated voice to our basest, lowest instincts, widely felt but officially under wraps. The leaders making these statements are not just fringe groups and maverick affiliates, but members of Parliament, cabinet ministers, and party leaders. We’ve seen them call for murder and exile, for rape, for beheadings and incarceration, for death and chaos, for hatred and animosity. This is not new to Indian politics, but it is now official. How do you explain the fact that the Prime Minister, on Twitter, follows and felicitates some of the trolls whose job it is to repeat and amplify the ugliest of these calls? In what universe is a leader like that the hope of the nation? So now we are well acquainted with the quality of our leadership.
In the US, Trump has led the charge to say unsayable things, held to be unsayable because they are noxiously anti-human, anti-pluralist, and anti-peace. In India, the BJP has led the same kind of charge. But in India, we have another category of unsayable things. They are unsayable, inexplicably, because they promote dignity, equality, and human rights. Saying them would discredit the rotted bits of our foundations, so that we can rebuild better. Our hope for a more peaceful, equitable future depends on our saying them.
We should be saying that religion is the worst of all political tools, and that tradition is not sacrosanct by virtue of being tradition. It can and should be subject to critique and law. God-bother and cow-bother as much as you like privately, but when Haryana raises and maintains a security force devoted to cow protection, and starts to give out government identity cards to gau-rakshaks, that is akin to validating vigilantism, and privileging one religion. It is also very funny—the amount of serious time we’re spending on cows and cow poop and cow piss makes me weep with laughter.
We should be saying that this culture of which we are proud, the one that has stood for eons, the one we are showcasing to the world—this culture of ours is vile in many ways. We are vile in our racism, our obsession with caste purity and pollution, our insecurity about social position and power, and our easy comfort with all kinds of unconscionable inequalities. We are vile in our sexism, in our aggression, and in our casual cruelties. We are vile in the ostentatious, hollow piety we use to hedge against our venality, corruption and greed. We are vile in our anti-intellectualism, and the stupid, muddle-headed thinking that results. We are vile in perpetuating oppression and screaming treason at those who point it out. We are vile in our treatment of Kashmiris, of citizens in the Northeast, and of the disempowered everywhere amongst us. We are vile in our acceptance of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s rule by proxy.
Saying things like this is not the end of our relationship with what is good in us—it is the point where we can begin to nurture what is good in us, and start to be better. I can’t wait to see what the very silent Prime Minister has to say from the ramparts of the Red Fort this year.
So happy birthday, India! Maybe life begins at 70.