The closing of the Indian mind
The counter argument to narrow mindedness is missing
From the Grand Mufti's fatwa against the all-girl band in Kashmir, to the now lifted ban on the film Vishwaroopam, to Salman Rushdie's aborted visit to the Kolkata Literature Festival, to the forcible removal of paintings at a Bangalore art gallery to protests against nude paintings at a Delhi art gallery, the freedom of artists, writers and filmmakers is threatened like never before. Group identities are on the ascendant. There are aggrieved bands of proud Hindus, angry Muslims, outraged Marathi manoos everywhere. "Hurt sentiments" of every kind are pushing the country into what Rushdie has already termed a "cultural emergency".
A class war accompanies the culture war. Those out on the streets in their numbers protesting against writers and film makers are invariably self-styled "sons and daughters of the soil" fighting elitist modern English-speaking folk who do not understand true religious identity or ancient Indian culture.
The rightwing revolution is inching forward every day. Afzal Guru's secretive hanging is seen as a triumph of Indian "nationalism". Any dissent or questioning on the secretive execution of an individual whose case was severely contested by human rights groups, is seen as "anti national." FIRs have been lodged against students who protested against Narendra Modi's visit to Delhi University. On social media, any voice of criticism against the Gujarat chief minister is also seen as "anti-national". Journalists are now expected to play the role of patriots and nationalists, to transform themselves from the Fourth Estate to the Fourth front in the war against the nation's enemies. As the cultural Right grows stronger, the alternative narrative is strangely missing.
Is television creating the right wing revolution? In his book 'The Sound Bite Society' Jeffrey Scheuer argues that the simple direct messages conveyed by TV invariably favours the rise of rightist forces in society. Yet there is more than simply TV images at work here. Today, in times of hectic economic transformation, there is widespread panic about "loss of cultural identity". Nostalgia for a pre-modern era, romanticisation of a pre-western "tradition" is a by-product of an economy integrating into the world where western influences are dominant. The ferocious attachment to religious and regional loyalties is occurring at a time when the growing economy is forcing open-mindedness and integration with the world.
The young seem particularly infected by religious and nationalist fervour. In the attacks against Pragash, young men took the lead in attacking the Kashmiri girls on social media. Sangh activists roaring against MF Hussain's paintings or AK Ramanujan's essay "Three Hundred Ramayanas" are mostly young men. It was the 20 year old Aditya Thackeray who hoped to cash in on Marathi sentiment by leading protests against Rohinton Mistry's novel in Mumbai. The young are turning to the cultural right not just because of television, but because "garv se kaho ham hindu hai" or "Islam khatre mein hai" find a ready echo in times of cultural disorientation and confusion.
As the voices of illiberalism grow stronger, there is sadly, no leadership to provide the counter narrative. There is no leadership-political or intellectual - confident enough to assert the virtues of modernism in a society still in the grip of superstition and backward traditions. In a society becoming closed minded and jingoist, there is no leadership to assert the values of open-mindedness and pluralism.
The Afzal Guru case was where the political executive had the opportunity to rise above "nationalist outrage" and in the light of the powerful arguments made on the lack of proper legal representation, examine, without reviewing the SC judgement, whether there were grounds for mercy for Afzal Guru. Was Afzal Guru just about "public sentiment" and "collective conscience" on the parliament attack? The spectacle of the strangely smiling Home Minister announcing the execution of Afzal as if a political sixer had been scored, the denial to the condemned man of even one last chance to meet his family, showed a certain lack of vision on the part of the political executive.
From khap panchayats to crimes against women to crimes against Dalits, to demanding patriotism tests from Shah Rukh Khan, to tendencies towards press censorship, to resistance to opening up the economy, to refusing to challenge traditions, to ghettoized urban neighbourhoods, we have always been a deeply illiberal people and continue to be so. Our progressive Constitution is a statement of what we still have to aspire to be, not what we are. In fact, the gap between India's Constitution and society is stark.
To lead the culture out of the engulfing darkness, the need of the hour is a rooted cosmopolitanism. Without sounding disconnected or elitist, leaders must speak the language of change and reform at every level of society. Brutally competitive politics, with its reliance on vote-banks of every religion, is making politicians timid and scared to take on the forces of rampant narrow mindedness. Sometimes there is need to challenge so called "injured sentiments", to go against the pre-conceived demands of a mob and provide progressive and modern leadership. Every day we are reminded what a profoundly modern figure was that old man in a loin cloth who lived like a naked Hindu fakir yet challenged every shibboleth from caste to religion to region.
The narrative of hyper-nationalism, hurt sentiments, constant outrage at artistic expression is dominant today. There is no alternative narrative, no alternative voice, no counter-argument to those daily upholding their religious, nationalist and regional credentials. Unless a robust alternative narrative emerges both in politics and in society, newer generations will continue to tear down paintings, burn novels and send out bloodthirsty war cries against "traitors" and "anti- nationals", because they will not know any better.