Saturday, July 29, 2017

PG-13 nation

No adults please, we’re proud Indians

(Published today in Business Standard)

Another day, another state. The Opposition alliance stands shell-shocked at the altar as Nitish Kumar runs in slo-mo through tulip fields, hair streaming prettily, into the arms of his old flame the BJP. Much has been forgiven and forgotten. As @atti_cus observed on Twitter, Nitish suddenly remembered that Lalu is corrupt, and suddenly forgot that Modi is communal. With Bihar in the bag, the Opposition alliance in shreds, and a friendly President at the head of the Republic, things are looking bright and shiny for the BJP and Sangh Parivar in their relentless quest to turn India into a PG-13 country with a mean streak.

Besides cynically using soldiers on the border, besides tacitly-approved lynching, besides failing to make any economic headway, besides creating communal tinderboxes, besides trying to get everyone to accept Hindi as the national language, the thing that most irritates Indians is the way in which we are being culturally infantilised and sanitised.

Fully grown Indians are being nannied by patriarchal relics like Pahlaj Nihalani at the Central Board of Film Certification, who upholds his loopy version of family values by, for example, saving ladies from themselves. The CBFC refused to certify Lipstick Under My Burqa on the following grounds: “The story is lady oriented, their fantasy about life. There are continuous sexual scenes, abusive words, audio pornography and a bit sensitive touch about one particular section of society, hence film refused [sic to all of that].” The Film Certification Appellate Tribunal overturned the decision, and the film is currently in theatres, but my god, should the arts be at the mercy of people like Nihalani?

We’re being supervised by people like Dinanath Batra, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh educator and educational activist who advocates post-truth textbooks that re-design history in alignment with the Sangh’s views. He’s willing to junk scholarship and academic integrity wholesale, in favour of propaganda. Kids really don’t need to know too much about Nehru or Tagore. Manmohan Singh’s public apology about the 1984 anti-Sikh riots in Delhi should be removed because it was only put there to make the Congress look good—plus, it automatically makes everyone’s eyeballs swivel to where Mr Modi stands, not being contrite about the 2002 Gujarat riots. Kids don’t need to know that Hindu society didn’t treat women well, or that Mughal rulers could be benevolent, or that the destruction of the Babri Masjid helped the BJP grow. And why not tell the kids that Maharana Pratap, not emperor Akbar, won the legendary battle of Haldighati? Truth is entirely expendable in the all-consuming quest to somehow, by whatever means possible, feel proud.

We’re being administered by a central government whose opinion of Indians is that we are too poor and socially backward to deserve a fundamental right to privacy, and should instead be proud and happy to let proud and happy businesses exploit our data. This is not only the very definition of paternalism, but also at sharp and confusing odds with the same government’s insistence on our mega-global-super-greatness.

We’re being ordered, by our courts, to love and respect India—or, since that’s not enforceable, being ordered to put on ritualistic displays of such love and respect by standing for the anthem and singing patriotic songs and installing flagpoles and bits of military hardware in universities.

Confident countries that believe in themselves don’t feel the need to regulate citizens in this pathological fashion. It is the ferment of plurality, dissent, individuality, and liberty that fosters creativity, innovation, betterment, and excellence. It’s the feeling of being free, and treated fairly, that makes people feel they have a stake in their country. That feeling, of having skin in the game, is the definition of patriotism, and it is earned, not legislated.

The Sangh seems tormented by self-esteem that is not just low, but infected and seeping. How terrible this unquenchable thirst for cultural validation, a thirst so great that you’d think that the Hindu right has been a tiny muzzled minority since Independence. They now have the political and possibly even the cultural majority. Why, then, are they still hankering to be included by the despised left-leaning media? Pride typically manifests in calmly and confidently going about normal life, so why are they spending their time insisting on red-eyed, frothy-mouthed assertions of pride? If their worldview is so self-evident, why are they having to force people into their way of life? Why so much bluster?

The Sangh stayed largely aloof from the freedom struggle. It may be that its own preferences are for structure and instruction over freedom. Its version of freedom may be the freedom to be culturally restrictive. But you can boss around fully grown adults for only so long before they turn around and start giving you lip.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Being liberal in #NewIndia

Don’t let the right wing yank your chain.

(Published on July 15, 2017 in Business Standard)

There was a moment, in the aftermath of the terrorist attack on Amarnath yatris in Jammu & Kashmir, when it seemed as if social harmony in India might be in serious trouble. But of course, it was just one more piece of kindling tucked into what is already a raging conflagration.

On Twitter the next day, the right was aquiver with rage—but over liberals, not over the attack. It spent its time accusing people of not condemning the incident, as if individuals have the same duties as political spokespeople. Political PR channels thought the most trenchant question was: Where is the award wapsi gang?

You’d think that liberals would recognise this kind of baiting as designed to distract, and ignore it. But liberals are widely painted as hypocrites, and the charge of hypocrisy sparks a reflexive indignation in those good liberals who hold to principle, not party. It makes people who don’t need to prove a thing, spend their time proving things.

So liberals lined up for inspection by denouncing the attack not just from the heart, but scrupulously, as if lives lost are not clearly saddening. The heartfelt #NotInMyName campaign against lynch mobs, which attracted significant crowds, coverage, and right wing ire at their spontaneous protest in June, came out again to protest the attack in J&K. Good for them, but I would like to think that they didn’t do so under pressure to stave off the charge of hypocrisy. A terrorist attack is not in anyone’s name.

Amid the rubble and smoke on social media, too few people focused on the only consequential issue: investigating and questioning the security failure.

Well, dear liberals, that’s a mug’s game. Why are we allowing ourselves to become entirely reactive, squashed into tiny-minded terms set by people whose first and last recourse is whataboutery?

The liberal heart—by and large, let me not presume to speak for all—sticks up for things like non-violence, peace, diversity, freedom, and inclusiveness. It’s kind of a given that we don’t want anybody to be beaten up, murdered, or exiled, to be terrified, to live as second-class citizens, to perpetrate or be subjected to violence, to be discriminated against, to be oppressed by poverty, unemployment, illiteracy and illness. It’s a given that we see freedom, rationality, and constitutional rights as a good.

Why, then, are we constantly giving in to the pressure to display these beliefs constantly in any way other than living them by refraining from violence and hate? There is no need to jump when some anonymous troll snaps his or her fingers. We should feel free to engage out of choice, or to not engage at all. We should stop worrying that our beliefs will be worth less if we stop polishing them up for people who spit on them anyway. Liberal politics is live and let live, though comment is free. How you live serves as a much better track record than your timeline.

It is Hindutva, by definition, that seeks to exclude, dominate, censor, and interfere in private citizens’ lives. It is Hindutva that demands homogeneity, conservatism, obedience, deference to authority, censorship, and patriotic one-upmanship, in the name of aggressive nationalism. It is Hindutva that wants to drag us into the public square, and place on us the burden of proving that we belong. That politics—which bows to the state without respecting the Constitution—is too busy tending to its psychic wounds by justifying violence, to feel compelled to condemn violence. Hindutva’s political leaders, who do have a public duty to be seen and heard, say nothing, or make hateful statements—yet somehow, it is liberals who feel pushed on to the back foot.

Time spent being defensive about what we do not do, rather than on simply doing what we do, is time straight down the cosmic toilet. A healthy liberal society spends its waking time working, playing, keeping house, loving, innovating, expressing itself, learning, staying healthy, respecting rights and the law, holding power accountable, and meeting its friends. It does not spend its time trying to persuade heckling strangers that it isn’t murdering Hindus, or getting paid by Italians, or working for ISIS. It just lives and lets live. 

That doesn’t mean ceding vocal public space. It just means that it’s time to step back from the toxic paranoia, gas-lighting and straight up lies on social media, stop being manipulated and provoked. It’s time to take a breath, and refocus on the issues nobody wants us to focus on: unemployment, economic and agricultural crises, the destruction of our institutions, the death spiral in education, the shredding of our social fabric, the slow choking of diversity, and the rapid sacralisation of the state. 

I’m not saying we can’t get online to poke a few bears, just for fun. But we should choose to.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

A response to Swapan Dasgupta's Times of India blog

(Published on July 2, 2017 in NDTV Opinion)

Swapan Dasgupta has an extraordinary blog piece in this morning's The Times Of India. In it, he lists the philosophical and temperamental sins of liberals who, to use his word, "flaunted" Not In My Name placards at the protests organised across India on Thursday against the recent cluster of lynchings that have sickened India and the world. The violence has mostly been in the context of people transporting cattle, or people suspected of eating beef, neither of which is illegal. The victims have been mostly Dalit or Muslim.

Dasgupta frames this anti-lynching protest as an expression of aesthetic more than moral outrage. This is presumably because "aesthetic" can be dismissed as a slighter, more frivolous philosophical obsession, confined to those few rich enough to have time and space for such minor preoccupations. 

After spending half his time quite reasonably agreeing that in addition to political violence, there is, in fact, much ugliness and violence in Indian civic society, Dasgupta presents two major arguments for why protesting this ugly lawlessness, and the Prime Minister's silence, is self-defeating. 

His first argument is that the protest displayed politically-coloured "selective indignation". Dasgupta cites the protesters' silence on the lynching of Kashmiri police officer Ayub Pandith in Srinagar just a few days earlier, the inference being that liberals don't mind murderous mobs as long as they are Muslim. This is just factually incorrect. Either Dasgupta wasn't there, or he wasn't listening, because Ayub Pandith was mentioned several times on stage. And there were certainly politics there, but they were entirely personal. I'm pretty sure it's normal for people to have political opinions. It's very helpful at the ballot box.

More broadly, Dasgupta accuses the protesters of repeatedly invoking "the beef controversy", as if this constitutes needless overreach in a protest against killing people for eating or being associated with beef. He says the murder of a teenaged Muslim boy on a train in Haryana is a reflection of popular mentality, not of politics - as though no BJP leader has ever enabled and encouraged this mentality by demonising Muslims as aliens to India, as Hindu-murderers, and as a community Hindus can never live with (Exhibit A: Chief Minister of UP Adityanath, appointed by PM Modi); as though no BJP political figure has ever legitimised the murder of an innocent Muslim by draping the corpse of his murderer in the tricolour (Exhibit B: Union Culture Minister Mahesh Sharma); as though no BJP leaders have ever attended meetings where people were exhorted to kill Muslims (Exhibit C: A Sangh meeting in Agra in 2016 attended by several BJP leaders); as though there is no such thing as Hindutva-affiliated groups in Uttar Pradesh running camps to arm and train children to hate and kill Muslims.

But citizens join the dots for themselves, whether or not they are particularly political animals, and many of us don't like what we see. Politically-obligated entities like Dasgupta much prefer the fiction that all dots are isolated incidents that do not amount to a pattern. This is his political task, as an ardent supporter of the BJP, and that too is perfectly transparent to citizens.

His second argument is the "generous measure of social condescension" he witnessed - not at the protest, but on social media chatter - which indicates, to him, that liberals are more concerned about lunching than lynching (I paraphrase). He says that the protesters represent a "rootless cosmopolitanism" which attempts to use the Constitution to sanction beef-eating in the face of common decency, since "the prohibition on beef carries a large measure of social sanction." To make this argument, he has to brush aside the BJP's brazen doublespeak on beef in the Northeast and Kerala with a low-volume "some states apart", and completely ignore the inconvenient fact that if social sanction were sacrosanct, we would not have laws against sati, gender violence, rape, and child labour.

Somehow he determines that all of this anti-murder protesting is aimed at fostering Hindu self-flagellation. This beats me, though not in the Hindu self-flagellating way. Stripped to the bone, his argument is that a confident Hindu would be radiant with understanding about the mob's feelings, rather than whining about murder. That if liberals weren't so culturally out of it, and had a "more evolved sense of rootedness", they wouldn't think the lynchings displayed a lack of humanity.

Dasgupta's piece would be inane, but unremarkable, if it stayed in this region, limiting itself to right wing cant and the journalistic equivalent of poking snails with a stick to see if he can hassle them into retreating into their shells. 

But he goes further, bookending his piece with an attempt to frame the anti-lynching protest as treachery. His opening quote about aesthetics is from a Le Carré novel, spoken by a British intelligence officer turned Soviet mole, explaining why he betrayed his country: '"It was," Haydon replied unhesitatingly, "an aesthetic choice as much as a moral one. The West has become so ugly."' Dasgupta's ending sentence is: "India may be imperfect, but it isn't so ugly as to warrant emotional treachery."

This is such a wonderfully whacked-out thing to say that, in another social climate, it would get a big laugh, but in today's climate of unthinking hyper-nationalism and political pseudo-nationalism, it is far more pernicious. For a Rajya Sabha member to gently, gently draw a link between liberals and treason, is nothing short of gentle, gentle incitement. It's disappointing at best, and wilfully irresponsible at worst. Swapan Dasgupta knows very well that the greatest fight in India today is the fight over who does and does not belong in India, and under what conditions, and that those who do not enjoy what he calls "social sanction" are  vulnerable to the mob.

There are many such isolated instances of the Indian right wing painting liberals as traitors, either directly or by insinuation. All of us, right, left, and centre, can join the dots.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Walk the talk on cow terrorism, Mr Modi

Lynchings do not defame India, they shame it.

(Published on July 1, 2017 in Business Standard) 

On Wednesday evening, thousands of ordinary Indians put on their shoes, maybe grabbed an umbrella against monsoon rains, and walked out of their houses, carrying placards and wearing black armbands. In a dozen cities and towns across the country, they peacefully protested against murderous mob hate, and the government’s silence.

On Thursday morning the Prime Minister finally found it in him to comment on cow terrorists, after nearly a year and two dozen lynchings. He said that the violence saddened him, and that killing people in the name of gau bhakti is unacceptable.

Coincidence? Maybe, maybe not. But while the perceived causal link might gratify #NotInMyName protesters, we would do well to put the PM’s reaction in perspective.

First, Mr Modi’s single past admonition to gau rakshaks had no discernible impact. Either he doesn’t have the clout everyone thinks he has, or he hasn’t really meant it. Talk is cheap, meaningful action quite another thing. Second, Mr Modi is more likely to be eyeing Dalit voters in the upcoming Gujarat elections, than a few thousand marginal libtards. Third, his popularity has largely withstood domestic criticism, so the protests may not have moved him—though the government is tetchy about international press, so it could be that merciless coverage of his silence in the New York Times, the BBC, the Guardian, The Economist, the Washington Post have stung him into speaking.

And what did he actually say? I am unconvinced by what many are calling a firm, sincere speech. He said that the Mahatma wouldn’t approve, and also that nobody talked more about cow protection than the Mahatma, which strikes me as conveniently fork-tongued. He didn’t mention the lynching victims, not even 16-year-old Junaid whose recent murder galvanised the protests. He wondered what we have become, but let the question hang. (The answer is: a society where hate and violence can proceed with impunity, because it is constantly excused and justified in the fraudulent name of public sentiment.)

He played the angsty philosopher, not the steely administrator. It was deja vu all over again—and there was, of course, the supreme irony of beholding the ideology that backslaps Nathuram Godse, shoot from Mahatma Gandhi’s shoulder. As various Twitter wags have pointed out, the Mahatma might have shot back, Not in my name.

Unless the BJP seriously follows up on law enforcement—no small task—and on a rhetorical makeover, this will just be an instance of making the right noises to pacify critics while winking at the hate-mongers.

I hope for, but don’t expect, any change in BJP politics. Just hours before Mr Modi’s speech another man was lynched near Ranchi, and there will no doubt be more killings because, as The Telegraph’s Friday front page so eloquently showed, we aren’t supposed to kill in Gandhi’s India, but then we live in Modi’s India. We have to hope that the PM means business this time, but until we see a serious systemic effort to curb violence, Mr Modi is not walking the talk.

What is important, and heartening, about the #NotInMyName protests, is that finally citizens stepped up to fill a shameful moral vacuum. They found their moral compass and stuck to it, despite a truly stupid effort—predictably from the Right, but also from many others—to scorn and discredit the protest. What’s to scorn—the assertion that lynching is horrifying and must stop? The refusal to accept or ignore tides of blood? Does the fact that only a few thousand people protested make the protest ridiculous, or is it an ugly comment on our society? What does it say about India that a protest against murder is controversial?

The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh ideologue Rakesh Sinha, whose repeated nightly appearances on various news channels is one of the abiding mysteries of our times, claimed that the protests were a Pakistani ISI-created effort to defame India; Rajya Sabha member Swapan Dasgupta suggested that it was a case of sour grapes because the protestors no longer enjoy the fruits of Congress power. I know I’m supposed to use words, but I think an eye-roll each will do.

A Huffington Post editor wrote that focusing on beef and Muslims only helps Hindutva, to which I’d respond that it is possible to be so over-clever and over-tactical that you can lose sight of certain simple truths. In this case: Killing people and terrorising minorities is illegal, anti-Constitutional, and morally maggoty, and this country’s government has been complicit in its silence, its inaction, and its rhetoric.

I hope that there will be many more such citizen protests, most of all by rejecting hate and sticking up for each others’ constitutional rights in our daily lives. It matters, when constitutional values face marginalisation, not to let volume and numbers make you second-guess your true North. Because that is how a country loses itself.