A month down the road, the dust — or, given the backdrop, should one say, the cow dust, the godhuli (that beautiful term, resonant with bells, red earth, fading sun, a setting we have now turned into a horrific lynching park) — settles over the announcement of Yogi Adityanath as Uttar Pradesh’s chief minister. But the outrage, by India’s “liberals”, has left a mark. For, with UP’s new CM, it seemed that — yet again — the idea of India had come crashing down. Yet again, Indian pluralism, freedom, even Hinduism, were under attack; majoritarianism (fascism too) waft like cloying hair-oil in the air. These awful times are so fatiguing, we must “conserve our strength”, a liberal guru advises, as we build resistance (a la those WW-II intellectuals); indeed, many of “us” are so overwrought by the “mounting assaults on secularism”, we even forget to tell cook to chill the sorbet.
Of course, given the Yogi’s pre-CM pronouncements, such lamenting is fine. But why didn’t such visceral, gut-wrenching despair dog, say, Rajiv Gandhi, despite his reluctance to battle brutal 1984? Many mouthed Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s “raj dharma” admonition in 2002; but how many asked him, or L.K. Advani, what price raj dharma — also, the strong shielding the weak — in 1992?
Perhaps raj dharma, like communalism, lies in the beholder’s eyes. This suppleness of ideals, this selective sanctimony, is liberal India’s saddest truth, for it reflects how lovingly we nourish the split infinitives of our history: Snobbery, nestled with an inferiority complex. Both show in how fast we overlook, forgive, forget, accept communalism by everyone we’d rather like to party with. “No one parties as much as the Indian upper classes,” Noam Chomsky reportedly said. He could well be thinking of India’s liberals.
Thus, in Indira Gandhi’s era, even as Kashmir and Punjab choked, an invitation to tea, a coterie, a committee, was much sought. A call from Rajiv delighted a liberal heart, although Black Thunder boomed outdoors. Lalu Prasad courting caste was cute. Bihar’s Muslims remained too wretched to even kidnap. But Lalu was such a sweet subaltern, desiring acceptance at Delhi’s clubs. Compared to the right’s charmless determination to bend society to its will, subalterns like Lalu, flaunting the skullcaps, the lungis of street theatre-secularism, were cool.
Such “earthy” leaders made great party stories — or party partners — for India’s Westernised snobs, whose communalism comes with a fake Brit accent. For liberals, when leaders with the right accent evoke communalism, it is, somehow, ok. It is awful when a “vern”, bereft even of Hindi kavita, does so. This explains the puzzle then; how, despite ten years of a non-BJP government, and six years of a non-Modi sarkar before, did communalism grow, unlamented? In 2013, the Ministry of Home Affairs recorded a 30 per cent rise in communal incidents, worst-hit being UP (under the SP) and Bihar (under Nitish Kumar). In 2012, Kokrajhar in Congress-run Assam saw riots displace 79,000 people. In 2011, Congress-run Rajasthan’s Bharatpur shook; in 2010, on Mamata Banerjee’s watch, the Deganga riots broke out.
Yet, as pressures — land, jobs, reservations, passions — began curdling into hate, not one incendiary communal law, not even the beef ban, was sought to be repealed. Not even, when in 2002, five Dalits were lynched in Haryana, on suspicions of cow slaughter. Why didn’t the liberals lament the “idea of India” then? Were we partying that hard with the charming in charge, enjoying high culture’s kebabs, kneaded with power’s grease? Now, when the kebab is literally in danger, we discover, so is the party itself. And we wail.
But not many are impressed. For even as the liberal speaks endlessly about the end of free speech, India has changed. It remains deeply concerned with justice and peace, but it is wise enough to see whose peace is of a piece with a biased view. In this India, citizenship isn’t just ahimsa over foie gras, drinks at the club bar, an exclusive seminar. It is a circus — a website, a theatre, a metro, a mall. Here, as symbols and cymbals clash, even the best faux accents aren’t revered. Here, just because you can say it with elan, you can’t have your communal canape and eat it too. No wonder some of “us” are feeling faint.