Friday, October 28, 2016

The god-awful state of secularism

When it’s the thought that counts, but not in a good way

(Published on October 22, 2016 in Business Standard)

What’s left of our rationality took another tooth-loosening blow in Mathura the other day. One morning, according to newspaper reports, several dozen Vishwa Hindu Parishad, Bajrang Dal, and other Hindutva activists showed up at the Bindu Seva Sansthan Ashram, and made round eyes and scary teeth at its leader, Swami Balendu, because the Swami had organised a meeting of—wait for it—atheists. The activists felt that the godless have no business meeting in their extremely goddy town.

So far, it’s your garden variety, lunatic fringe problem. What really matters is that the police officials who accompanied the activists backed them up, saying that the Swami and his godless guests were on their own in case of a law and order problem. It is not clear, from the reports, whether or not there followed a moment of silence during which everyone looked at their feet and wondered what, then, the police is for, exactly. Going with the flow, the Mathura administration withdrew the permission they had previously granted for the meeting. Atheists were harassed and warned not to write about all this on social media. Needless to say, the meeting was cancelled.

That marks a new low in the tedious god-bothering that is spreading like a nasty fungus across the land. Zealous religion has always made a nuisance of itself—people shutting down art exhibitions, burning books, breaking things, roughing up other people, rioting and so on—but now we’re manufacturing stupidity at a dizzying rate. Back in the good old days, it took paintings of nude gods to enrage the sanctimonious. Now, disavowing religion is enough. Rationality is enough.

That’s because if there isn’t a god to dictate your life to you via a priest/prophet/rabbi/some other amanuensis, you might actually start using your brain and coming up with thoughts of your own, thereby disempowering those who like to control your politics.

And this is political—it has nothing to do with spirituality, that private, individual thing that requires no external validation or agreement. When administrative mechanisms—like the police—align with a majoritarian religious agenda, facilitating social veto and citing law and order problems as a reason to not maintain law and order, we are well on the way to losing our collective marbles. And to being a horribly pious, violent, fearful, brainless, boring country.

The Samajwadi Party’s pathetic law and order track record in Uttar Pradesh is a fabulous self goal, since it allows thuggish elements—including, but not limited to, the Sangh Parivar—to take swift advantage of the power and developmental vacuum, currently with an eye on the 2017 polls. But then, the attack on rationality is not limited to one state’s poor law enforcement. It’s coming directly from the Centre.

Religion has always been treated with kid gloves in India, thanks to the Congress’s weakness for its vote-gathering potential. But it is being weaponised by the Sangh, and loaded on to the super-efficient delivery mechanisms of nationalism, education, and government dictat. The Sangh doesn’t understand the first thing about freedom—the freedom to question, to express yourself, to worship or not, to ridicule, to debate. It hates independent rational thought, because its very specific vision of India is one in which everyone is emotionally blackmailed into remaining cooperatively in their ordained place in the power pyramid, in return for having more money in their wallets.

Street muscle and mixed messaging is therefore very efficiently ripping secularism out of the Constitution. Some things, we are being told, are beyond question—including the list of such things. Hinduism. Nationalism. The armed forces. Power. Rich people. Money. The national interest. Development. The national honour. All of these newly sacralised things were vigorously questioned by the same people, when they were not in power.

So it’s wildly funny to watch the Sangh invoke the Constitution to demand a uniform civil code on the grounds of equality. I happen to agree with the idea of a UCC, but only as long as it rips religion out of politics. Keep the state out of the house of worship, the bedroom, the hospital, the funeral, the wedding, and the family, except to ensure individual rights and law and order; let people opt in to religion or nationalism or the family structure if they wish to, and ensure that the state backs up their guaranteed individual rights if they wish not to. Lift the inviolability of ‘family’ law and expose it to the scrutiny of the Constitution. Strike down triple talaq as well as the laws on cow slaughter; abolish Muslim polygamy as well as tax breaks to the Hindu joint family. Uphold the right to worship anything, and the right not to worship anything. Be truly equal.

But that’s as fanciful as the idea of god, because in Sanghese, equal means ‘some more than others’.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Patriot games

In which cynicism preys on sentiment, and everyone loses.

(Published on October 8, 2016 in Business Standard)

On a recent television debate, actor Om Puri stuck up for Pakistani actors working in Bollywood, and said that nobody forces soldiers to sign up to the Army. The ensuing tide of vitriol caused him to apologise for those remarks:

“‘I am guilty and I deserve a punishment. I want to be tried by the army, I should be court-martialled. I want a constructive punishment,’ Puri said. ‘The army should teach me how to use weapons and send me on the same site where that brave man was [sic] sacrificed himself for the country. I don’t want to be forgiven. I am pleading to the nation I want to be punished.’”

It’s so over the top that it sounds like a satirical comment on the idiocy of having to apologise at all. Like: “I’ve been a bad, bad elf. Please allow me to stand in the corner in a dustbin, banging my head repeatedly against the wall, while our demigods in uniform punch me in the kidneys. Broadcast it live. Hey, do you have rusty nails, burning coals, broken glass, anything? I’d really like to crawl through that.”

But maybe Mr Puri was being genuine. Either way, the takeaway is that the most pressing national issue is to figure out whether something can be read as an insult to the nation, and then, depending on the answer, read it as an insult to the nation anyway, and throw an eye-watering tantrum until people coddle you just to shut you up—or, more malignantly, because otherwise you will blacklist, beat, or kill them. You don’t want that, because we are also a country in which law-abiding citizens are told that the police will not be held responsible if criminals do them harm.

That’s what happened to actor Nawazuddin Siddiqui, who had a role in a Ramleela in Uttar Pradesh. The Shiv Sena said a Muslim can’t act in a Hindu story, and the police said they couldn’t do anything about any consequent trouble, so the organisers asked him to pull out. Law is ceding ground to de facto power: social behaviour is increasingly being regulated by social threat or violence. The Sena must be thrilled to be spreading its communal poison beyond Maharashtra, but the BJP can take credit for softening up the territory.

After all, it’s UP—ground zero for the cow/beef vigilantism sparked by Mohammed Akhlaq’s murder last year. In Dadri this week, a man jailed in that case died of illness. His body is laid out in public, wrapped in the Indian flag. Is the message that he served the nation by murdering a Muslim—whose son serves in the Air Force? It’s a grotesque, criminal fudging of issues, cynicism preying on sentiment.

What of the people whose job it is to play watchdog, to separate truth from the smoke and mirrors? In India today, if you’ll pardon the expression, too many news anchors have abandoned that role to function like the government’s PR department. When Arnab Goswami says that questioning military action indicts one’s patriotism—that there should be no room for nuance in this black-and-white issue—he is no longer a journalist. But then news anchors have long jostled for patriotic cred, when they should have been reminding India that patriotism is not a requirement for citizenship, nor is playing along with calls for unity—however patriotism and unity are defined in that moment. And in this moment, patriotism and unity are being defined as unquestioning worship of the armed forces. Self-styled patriot anchors are leading witch hunts when they should be pointing out that the armed forces are as fallible and open to question as anyone else, and that questions are not the same as insults. Instead, they have helped popularise the term ‘martyr’ for a soldier killed in action, apparently innocent of the religious connotations of the word. A dead jihadi is a martyr. A dead Indian soldier is a professional who served the state and is publicly mourned.

That’s the stunning achievement of two and a half years of this government—a political bait-and-switch, selling a promise of economic development, and delivering a triumphalist machine that sacralises country, nationalism, majoritarianism and tradition, to achieve Hindutva goals. Secular institutions and ideas are being given non-negotiable religious weight. Religion has handcuffed rationality and put a gun to its head, and individual rights are being socially delegitimised.

When insecurity makes sweet, sweet love to mindless team spirit and overblown regard for power, the child of that union is hyper-nationalism, and it’s a spoiled brat whose parents rush to fulfil its every wish. This emotional pap is very handy at election time—you have only to look at the posters coming up in Uttar Pradesh, of the Prime Minister pictured as a warrior.

But there’s another way to fight for your country: You can just refuse to give up your brain.