In the late 1980s, with the debut of Ramayan, I lost some close friends to Sunday TV. We were not “good”, spiritually-minded boys by any stretch. Our watch list ranged from Police Academy (1984) through Taxi Driver (1976) to the kind that needs a friendly video-cassette rental parlour and a dark, locked room. But these same friends of mine would disappear every Sunday morning as the serial blared from every middle-class window in north India. I found it tacky. What captivated me instead were the illustrated stories from Chandamama (Dravidian in origin, translated in Hindi), the children’s Ramayana in Bengali, C. Rajagopalachari’s unputdownable condensed version, and my sister’s rage at Sita’s fate. Arguing with my friends made me realise that having alternative takes on orthodoxy made one unpopular, lonely and prone to injury. That was the first time I felt like a minority, though I didn’t know what to call it. Now that I do, thank god for my name. I remember those “innocent” times as one of incendiary change and social engineering that laid the ground for who we are today. I was in Delhi when the Mandal agitation erupted, in Mumbai when riots broke out after the Babri Masjid demolition, in front of the TV when Atal Bihari Vajpayee orated provocative speeches, catching a bus as LK Advani’s rath passed my home, drums beating into my heart. I remember, I cannot forget and so I keep silent.
That was the time when civics textbooks taught me that the caste system belonged to the past — an “evil” anathema to modern India. But the real world shocked with its election-count headlines, friends discussing caste votes and marriages, and the discovery that castes numbered not four but in thousands. I realised that the accident of my upper-caste urban birth protected me from the social violence that most Indians face at the business end of caste. Everyone knew about it, except me the elite fool.
Muslims only existed in books and films. Our fishmonger was the only Muslim I knew in the flesh — till two Muslim students, both siblings, were enrolled in my school. I did not spare any thought for them till I heard my friends calling them offensive names in private. Later, when a parent would let slip into a conversation that “Marry anyone but a Muslim”, I would sense the quiet animosity that flowed through the apparently docile savarna Hindu middle class. Ramayan hogged our Sundays innocently, ingeniously harnessing that animus to neutralise the danger from lower-caste dissent. The first time I heard the word Dalit was in a film — not a commercial hit.
Now, in the midst of a pandemic that levels all — the chosen and the downtrodden — many of us fantasise about a return to a golden, simple past. A time before the invasions, the oppressors, when Law prevailed and everyone knew their place. We have staked all on that fantasy. Which is why, when one class of social engineers argues the root culpability of Muslims for the spread of coronavirus, we believe it anxiously. It validates the choice we made and suppresses the doubts (and guilt) that we may have been wrong.
This fantasy conveniently leapfrogs over caste, the social tool enabling the elite to hog the economic output and consign the majority to subhuman wretchedness by divine decree. We stop questioning what happened to the wretched when a rival, aggressive thought stream came in and proclaimed, “You are all equal in the eyes of god”. Were all conversions forced? Maybe. Did every Muslim come from afar? Of course. Wasn’t it the suction force of political patronage promising upward mobility to those who were denied that — just like today? Of course not.
Believing this helps us to zap our social guilt of excluding millions from a dignified life. It enables a well-meaning neighbour to tell me without any sense of irony: “I don’t think if someone has corona, they should be treated like a Shudra.” Blaming those weak in numbers, social or economic strength makes us look strong and patriotic without the fear of consequences. It fulfils the fantasy of snatching back lebensraum from the interloper we blame for all our ills. The social engineers play a dangerous game of lip service to communal harmony (only in English) and hate-spewing (largely in Hindi and vernacular languages), feeding the herd we end up joining to forget our inconsequentiality. Raging, screaming and lynching with a mob protecting us, while the powerful wink slyly, we feel potent, authoritarian and rebellious at the same time — a heady elixir.
The cognitive dissonance between our deep, consumer-capitalist obsessions and a patriarchal, feudal moral system creates a social psychosis that social engineers use well. We envy authoritarian societies and their military-economic might. A poor, insecure, hugely unjust society, knowing its laggard ranking in the world, now looks for someone to blame. This resentment fuels electoral energy. The aspirational, competitive, math-loving Indian middle-class hops on, hoping this energy would electrify GDP growth and get a six-lane highway to their glass-fronted offices in an IT park built over a forest that used to let us breathe — and thus beat China. When it doesn’t happen, we find the “reason why” of the week — Muslims, liberals, short-haired women, Jamaatis, students, socialists, Nehru, Dalits, Gandhi, migrants. But never the decision to turn food surplus into ethanol at a time when every poor Indian — the greatest majority in the world — desperately fights the slide to beggary and starvation. Never a powerful politician who openly incites hate, never a powerful business magnate handing out pay cuts after the biggest payday. Nor the openly partisan reprisals against states headed by political rivals. That would have consequences.
Media magnates curry political favour for survival, citing the lynching of sadhus while omitting the fact that the killer and the killed worshipped the same god. As the lockdown chokes us indoors, as we obsess over grocery supplies, those who dissent and protest are locked away on the basis of laws that protect the state and not the citizen. As in a colonial empire, only our compliance and economic output matters, not our freedom.
Showing majoritarian mythologicals when a diverse country faces a human crisis of unparalleled scale may create an illusion of wellness. God knows, we need those illusions right now. I would take Ramayan to a food-riot any day. Maybe we’re handling the outbreak better than the developed Caucasian societies we admire and hate equally. Maybe finally we have that international respect we hanker for so much. Maybe every Indian has roti kapda aur makaan. Maybe we can do no wrong. Maybe the only wrong is to cite a wrong.
Indian flags, folded-hand emojis worshipful of national gods on social media must be true love, real patriotism and not herd logic. Maybe, at last, we have the Muslims, the dissenters, the questioners where we want them. Maybe soon they will self-combust into nothingness, leaving heavenly uniformity behind. We must forget the political experiment that allowed Ramayan, The Sword of Tipu Sultan, Bharat Ek Khoj and Mirza Ghalib to be aired together on a state-owned channel. It must have been appeasement politics.
This hope lies at the heart of the upwardly mobile, WhatsApp-armoured, factoid-enamoured Indian. Her spirit of aspirational pragmatism has made her fall in with the mob she fears, silently condoning the bullying that India has unleashed on its minorities — religious and ideological — in a time of immense hunger and misery. In the meantime, India carries on, with private citizens staking all to feed the hungry and help the miserable. Bureaucrats, doctors, nurses, health workers, restaurateurs, police, ordinary people risk their lives fighting the virus and stupidity. The poor and Muslims keep selling vegetables in middle-class neighbourhoods like mine while being name-checked on phone cameras. In some glorious future we are surely heading for, we will air them as proof of a golden past, when everyone suffered equally and together.
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