The polemics over rape and the growing polarisation of the national discourse is a battle for the soul of India, writes Tarun Basu for South Asia Monitor
By Tarun Basu
"What has happened to us, are we still human?” The conscience-stirring words of teenaged Pakhi Jain, a Class X student who had just given her board exams, resonated through the sombre crowd of young and not-so- young assembled on Parliament Street in the centre of New Delhi to protest the brutal violations of young girls, allegedly by elements with suspected affiliations to the toxic cult of Hindu religious chauvinism. "It’s a shame that people are defending a rapist based on political ideology and religion!" Pakhi, who said she had come to the 'citizens' protest' ignoring her parents' fears about her safety, remonstrated: "What difference will it make if you top your exams? If you do not speak up now, concepts like democracy, equality, love and freedom, will only exist as concepts in a textbook. Is this the life that we want to live?"
In the days since the #NotInMyName protest, women across the nation, and concerned citizens, are increasingly voicing their anguish at the spreading climate of hate and prejudice in the country, of systemic attacks on minorities and suppression of the voice of socially oppressed groups in the pursuit of a fuzzy cultural-nationalist objective that may end up tearing up the very social fabric of India as one has known it.
"Today we are confronted with a politics of hate that has swept large parts of our country..... Muslims live in fear of the shape of the next round of attacks, even as the rights of Dalits and Adivasis enshrined in the Constitution are being questioned," read the flier distributed at the Parliament Street protest.
"Silence is no longer an option. If we do not speak today, those who speak hatred, those who want to break the country, those who want to destroy the Constitution, will win. We cannot let them win. For if they win, we lose our country."
India today stands at peculiar crossroads, unprecedented perhaps in its 71-year-old history. It is perhaps not wrong to say - or so one would like to believe - that those who are practising and promoting this ideology of prejudice and hatred are perhaps not just in a minority among the larger body of liberal Hindus but are misguided as well. They may have been made to believe that, with the ascension to power of the politics of a nationalist persuasion - with a revanchist ideology borne out of a flawed reading of history - they have the electoral endorsement to put their supremacist ideas into practice.
But facts speak otherwise. In the last election, when the support for this ideology and political thinking reached its zenith, the percentage of the country that backed it was only 31 percent. That means, a good 69 percent of India was against this line of thinking and politics. With an increasing number of people - particularly the disillusioned young who had voted in large numbers for the Modi-led BJP expecting positive change and advancement - turning away disenchanted and even revulsed by the utterances and actions of practitioners of hate politics who seek to culturally homogenise India - the rightwingers are increasingly losing support of the country's silent majority. And this is the segment whose conscience is being shaken by secular activists pleading with them to take a stand because "silence is no longer an option".
"It is very important to expose the hatred and the low level of humanity....because silence in the times like this is termed as complicity," echoed Swara Bhaskar, Bollywood actress and one of the few in public life not afraid to take a stand.
Those who are strutting around claiming to be the champions of Hindu revivalism are actually doing disservice to a faith that has been for centuries associated with tolerance and acceptance. When crowds of militant-looking Hindu youths, many sporting red bandannas, brandishing naked swords in a supposedly religious procession celebrating Ram Navami - the victory of King Ram over demon King Ravana - march the streets, one is often reminded of the observance of the Muslim festival of Muharram in which Shia youths are seen indulging in atavistic self-flagellation. But one has never known Hindus to be associated with such brazen displays of militancy and aggression! Who were these swords aimed at? Was this the Hinduism of the scriptures that one had heard from one's parents or grandparents or a Machiavellian manipulation of tenets of the faith to meet narrow political ends?
In fact, there are many such media reports that trouble many Hindus and make them ask fundamental questions about their religion.
According to the Bhagavad Gita, that holiest of Hindu scriptures, all paths lead to God and all religions preach the same truth. In fact, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, India's second president and a renowned scholar-educationist, says in his interpretation of the Gita that "the Hindu thinkers are conscious of the amazing variety of ways in which we may approach the Supreme...all manifestation belong to the same Supreme." The Gita specifically affirms that that though beliefs and practices may be many and varied, spiritual realisation to which these are the means is essentially one.
This classical interpretation of Hinduism was sought to be perverted by the proponents of Hindutva, one of whose principal ideologues, former RSS chief M S Golwalkar, explicitly considered Muslims and Christians as "invaders" and hence, to remain in India, they had to "submit themselves to Hindus" and renounce their "external allegiances" to the church or prophet.
It is sheer madness, said Mahatma Gandhi at the height of the pre-Partition violence that gripped undivided India, to think that all Muslims (then 40 million now 180 million) could be banished to Pakistan or wiped out. For him it was a form of national suicide and a way to destroy Hinduism. "If India fails, Asia dies. India has been aptly called the nursery of many blended cultures and civilisations. Let India remain the hope of all the exploited races of earth, whether in Asia, Africa or any in any part of the world," said Gandhi.
The polemics over rape and the growing polarisation of the national discourse is a battle for the soul of India. It may not stop with the next elections - or it may be too late by then - but it’s incumbent on all right-thinking citizens to realise that India can only survive if all religions and their people who have sworn allegiance to the Constitution of India be made to feel they have a stake as equal citizens in a syncretic and plural democracy. That is what makes India so unique and an exemplar for other countries. If India were to fragment on religious or caste lines, it will have a devastating effect on the rest of the world. And that is why the world has so much at stake in the fabled "unity of India".
For as former President Barack Obama said during this visit to India: "India will succeed as long as it is not splintered along the lines of religious faith.” Will the 'nationalists' heed?
(The author is President, Society for Policy Studies. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org