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Sunday, January 23, 2022

Deafening silence in a year of hate speech

🔴 In 2022, may we have another year of speech — but speech that is made of words of love, justice, peace, and most importantly, laughter and endurance

Written by Aditi Mittal |
Updated: January 1, 2022 9:15:35 am
The silence of our elected leaders who have not said one word to condemn the hate speech and the riots, the silent acquiescence of our police forces as they lathi-charge people who demand action against hate, instead of the ones who spread it. (Illustration: C R Sasikumar)

2021 was a year of speech – free speech, hate speech, funny speech — and a year of silence. I grew up during India’s Mile sur mera tumhara era. My grandparents were all too familiar with the horrors of Partition and they often spoke of the riots that followed — about neighbours who told on each other to rioters and about identifying family members in piles of bodies. They talked of “divide and rule”, an insidious British policy that was meant to keep us fighting among ourselves so that we would not pay attention to the poor state of affairs in which we were living. They recounted how years of poisoning the minds of people against each other had exploded as a bomb, the shrapnel of which flew around us for years and the wounds from which took decades to heal.

In the refugee colony of Mumbai where they ended up, they promised themselves they would never live in a world where we dehumanised one another. The British might have forsaken us, but we would not forsake each other, they insisted. They would never passively watch their country burn. Never again. In the India they chose to live in, we constantly flooded into every neighbourhood house with vessels full of food to celebrate festivals, offer condolences, and watch out for each other in need.

They were both generous in their laughter and I would wonder how they managed to smile, after all they had endured. My grandmother would ruffle my hair and say “a laugh doesn’t have a religion Adu, a laugh is the sign of your survival, a sign that no matter what, you are here”. She was a staunch vegetarian, who was well known for whipping up excellent mutton at a moment’s notice. My grandfather was the man who always carried that extra hanky to wipe an errant nose, to lend someone to cover their head when they entered a gurdwara or to hold a heap of one-rupee coins to give away as Eidi. I think of them every time I turn on the news these days.

2021 ended in what is now being called the “Haridwar hate assembly”, a conference by Hindu extremists, that featured multiple calls to take up arms against Muslims. Just a week before that, churches were attacked and vandalised when Christmas was being celebrated. In the same week, Hindu groups shouted slogans to prevent Muslims from offering namaz in Gurgaon. Another, now viral, video shows Hindu children taking oaths to take up arms in the name of religion. And this was only in December 2021. All the rhetoric of India becoming a “superpower” and “trillion-dollar economy” has mutated into a vicious call for “Hindu Rashtra.” The bogeyman that is being fed to us now is that “Hindu khatre mein hain (Hindus are in danger)”. A slow drip of poisonous lies about demographic change, historical lies spread through WhatsApp messages and dubious online pages, is being pumped into our veins.

This is the modern divide-and-rule, the distract-and-rule. So that while fuel prices and unemployment skyrocket, our borders are breached by China, and our international relations and rankings on multiple fronts take a hit, we are distracted by reporting our neighbours to the rioters. This time, we don’t even have the British to pin the blame on.

Today, religious majoritarian aggression has become so commonplace that it all blends into one large mass of hate when you open your newspapers, put on your TVs, or look at your phone screens. I can afford to have my eyes glaze over: I am, after all, an upper-caste Hindu woman. I can luxuriate in shock and sentimentality, while Muslim and Christian boys and girls around me grow up far too quickly in a world actively hostile to them. I am privileged enough to not be directly affected.

It did not affect me directly when Munawar Farooqui, a stand-up comedian, spent a month in jail over completely unfounded charges, and had several of his shows cancelled after Hindu groups insisted that his jokes were offensive to them. I have seen Munawar backstage at comedy clubs. He has an unguarded smile, and a life that has seen the ups and downs of growing up a Muslim man in India today. He tells his story with a sparkle in his eyes, a cheeky grin and home-grown wisdom, to hoards of audience members of every religion that adore him. There is no violence there, no calls to jingoistic nationalism, no fear-mongering, just laughs, which have no religion and are the sign of our endurance.

But the thing about 2021 that has me terrified is not words, but the silence. The silence of our elected leaders who have not said one word to condemn the hate speech and the riots, the silent acquiescence of our police forces as they lathi-charge people who demand action against hate, instead of the ones who spread it. The rapidly spreading poison in our veins of hatred, suspicion and bigotry that makes no noise, but hardens our bodies into bombs that will explode one day, the shrapnel of which will fly in the air around us, and the wounds of which will take decades to heal.

Our silence and privileges will not protect us. Shrapnel does not ask your religion before it pierces you. They say that we turn into our parents, but I fear that our generation will have no choice but to live the lives of our grandparents. We cannot forsake each other. My wish for 2022, ironically, is more speech — speeches that bring us together instead of ripping us apart, words of love, words of justice, words of peace and, perhaps most importantly, words of laughter and endurance.

This column first appeared in the print edition on January 1, 2022 under the title ‘The year of noise, speech — and silence’. Mittal is a stand-up comedian, actor and writer

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