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Tuesday, June 28, 2022

A virus rages among us

Sonia Gandhi writes: It's the virus of hate and divisiveness. It deepens distrust, stifles debate, damages us as a nation and people

Written by Sonia Gandhi | New Delhi |
Updated: April 16, 2022 9:10:44 am
Congress President Sonia Gandhi. (Express Photo: Anil Sharma)

Does India have to be in a state of permanent polarisation? The ruling establishment clearly wants the citizens of India to believe that such an environment is in their best interest. Whether it is dress, food, faith, festival or language, Indians are sought to be pitted against Indians and the forces of discord are given every encouragement, overt and covert. History — both ancient and contemporary — is continuously sought to be interpreted to promote prejudice, animosity and vengeance. It is a travesty that instead of utilising our resources for creating a bright, new future for the country and engaging young minds in productive ventures, time and valuable assets are being used up in attempts to refashion the present in terms of an imagined past.

There is much talk by the prime minister of acknowledging India’s multiple diversities. But the harsh reality is that under this ruling dispensation, the rich diversities that have defined and enriched our society for centuries are being manipulated to divide us and, worse, to harden faultlines and make them more firmly entrenched.

It is now well accepted that we must sustain high economic growth to create wealth that can be redistributed, raise living standards and, most of all, generate the revenues needed for social welfare programmes and provide adequate employment opportunities for our youth. But the worsening environment of social illiberalism and bigotry, the spread of hatred and divisiveness, shakes the very foundations of economic growth. It is no surprise that some bold corporate executives have been speaking out against what is being orchestrated in Karnataka, amongst the most entrepreneurially dynamic of our states. There has been a predictable backlash in social media against these courageous voices. But the concerns are widely shared — and very real. It is no secret that an increasing number of our business persons have been declaring themselves as non-resident Indians in the past few years.

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The rising chorus of hatred, the unconcealed instigation of aggression and even crimes against minorities are a far departure from the accommodating, syncretic traditions in our society. Shared celebrations of festivals, good neighbourly relationships between communities of different faiths, the pervasive intermingling of faith and belief in the arts, cinema and everyday life, of which there are examples by the thousands, are proud and durable characteristics of our society through the ages. To undermine this for narrow political gain is to undermine the composite and syncretic foundations of Indian society and nationhood.

There is something more insidious in this grand, divisive plan to keep India in a state of permanent frenzy. All dissent and opinion that is opposed to the ideology of those in power is sought to be ruthlessly stifled. Political opponents are targeted and the full might of the state machinery is unleashed against them. Activists are threatened and sought to be silenced. Social media, in particular, is utilised to propagate what can only be described as lies and venom. Fear, deception and intimidation have become the pillars of the so-called “maximum governance, minimum government” strategy. The Narendra Modi government has started the practice of celebrating November 26 as Constitution Day to mark the adoption of our Constitution by the Constituent Assembly in 1949. But it pays obeisance to the Constitution while systematically emasculating every institution. This is sheer hypocrisy.

How special we are seen to be globally will depend crucially on how inclusive we become at home — not through slogans but through actual actions. What prevents the prime minister from coming down unambiguously and publicly against hate speech, whichever quarter it may emanate from? Repeat offenders roam free, and there is no restraint on their use of incendiary and provocative language. Indeed, they seem to enjoy some sort of official patronage at different levels and that is why they get away with atrocious and prosecutable statements.

Vigorous debate, discussion and virtually any form of interaction where an alternative point of view is welcomed has become a thing of the past and we are all the poorer for it. Even academia, once respected for encouraging fresh thought processes, is under the scanner for interacting with counterparts from other parts of the world. As vilification of faiths and condemnation of entire communities become the norm, it is becoming commonplace to see divisive politics affecting not just the workplace, but also entering neighbourhoods and indeed people’s homes. Never before has this country seen hatred as the basis of the day to day choices that are made by our citizens.

This wonderful land of ours has been home to, and has celebrated, heterogeneity, multiplicity and creativity and has given birth to great minds and personalities whose works have been read and acknowledged the world over. The hitherto liberal environment, and the spirit of inclusivity, accommodation and tolerance, has played a critical role in making all this possible. A closed society that encourages straitjacketed thinking can hardly expect to be one where fresh ideas flow. A brow-beaten mind is hardly likely to be a fertile or innovative one.

An apocalypse of hatred, bigotry, intolerance and untruth is engulfing our country today. If we don’t stop it now, it will damage our society beyond repair, if it hasn’t already done so. We simply cannot and must not allow this to go on. We as a people cannot stand by and watch as peace and pluralism are sacrificed at the altar of bogus nationalism.

Let us contain this raging fire, this tsunami of hate that has been unleashed before all that has been so painstakingly built by past generations is razed to the ground. Over a century ago, the poet of Indian nationalism gave the world his immortal Gitanjali of which perhaps the 35th verse has become the most celebrated and quoted. Gurudev Tagore’s prayer, with its seminal lines, “Where the mind is without fear…”, is all the more relevant and has heightened resonance today.

This column first appeared in the print edition on April 16, 2022 under the title ‘A virus rages’. The writer is president of the Congress party

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