Having been a teacher for close to half a century, I feel entitled to comment on the novel pedagogic practices that are emerging in our blessed country. After all, all kinds of people are now in the business of “teaching a lesson”. I am, of course, referring to the reported beating to death of Tabrez Ansari, allegedly on suspicion of theft, in Jharkhand. Ansari was reportedly tied to an electric pole, and beaten for approximately four hours. Four hours — just try and wrap your head around that. The electric pole was on a public street, albeit at night. Still, factor in bystanders, passers-by, spectators, jhal-muri vendors, and of course the heroic “teachers”, beating a bound man. The video of this act of performative violence, this spectacle, shows children, on their way to, or from, mere conventional “lessons”; giggling women, probably out to buy vegetables; men hard at work spitting tobacco juice, exhorting the dying man to look into their mobile cameras to give them a good shot, just an ordinary day. So ordinary that the police turned up alright, but only when the man was nearly dead. Still, they took him to a doctor — who failed to notice the head injury that apparently killed him. Eventually, four days later, they even took him to the hospital, where an ECG confirmed that there was no life in that bloody, battered body. He — it? — was taken to another hospital but Ansari remained stubbornly dead. A minister of the state government suggested that the whole incident was a conspiracy to malign the BJP government — in which case Ansari must have been part of the conspiracy — because dying like that, remaining dead, certainly gives the government a bad name. He may be dead, but he’s practically seditious!
Reportedly, 11 accused have been arrested. And we have been assured by relevant authorities that justice will be done. Of course, in one sense, “justice” has been done already — the man is dead, and he is on record as having chanted “Jai Shri Ram” and “Jai Hanuman” before he died. A mere few weeks into the new government, and we are practically at Hindu Rashtra! However, my theme is not “justice” but “pedagogy” — since the point of the whole arduous exercise — eight hours, in full public view, was “teaching a lesson”. And since learning lessons is the necessary complement of teaching lessons, I wish to explore the lessons that might be learnt from this public pedagogical exercise.
The first thing one notices are the pedagogical tools. Now, the use of physical violence is traditional: Spare the rod, etc. Of course, the traditional teacher did not use iron rods and metal-studded belts. Still, if the goal is efficiency — swiftly reducing flesh to pulp, breaking bones — then robust tools are unavoidable, even advisable (my frustrated chemistry teacher used to throw a wooden duster at us in exasperation. But I don’t remember many broken heads).
The other question that arises concerns the “beneficiaries” of such pedagogy. After all, if the lesson was intended for the deceased Ansari, then all that hard work — eight full hours, hammering away — has been wasted, hasn’t it? But perhaps we are dealing with an advanced form of deflected pedagogy: The intended beneficiaries of this pedagogy are not the obvious ones — who end up, all too often, dead. The real “beneficiaries” are the ones who identify with the victim, harbour some brief spark of empathy for what was once a fellow human being. These intended “beneficiaries” could include “the Muslim community”, “urban naxals”, “anti-national libtards”, etc.
It is in the nature of such deflected pedagogy that the beneficiaries must be a large, open set of intended, and unintended, people. Sometimes I suspect that the intended beneficiary of the lesson from Ansari’s death — and Akhlaq, and Rakbar, and Junaid… — is the infamous Mahmud, who “looted” Somnath. And, the countless other “invaders” who remained invaders even after centuries of residence — as well as the others who mysteriously became “invaders” by the mere act of seceding from an inhumane, sclerotic, ossified Brahminical Hinduism. It’s a pity that Mahmud has been dead for a thousand years — and can’t, therefore, be killed again, in a climactic pedagogical exercise. We might have been spared this recurrent, retail pedagogy — these lynchings.
Obviously, the business of teaching lessons is incomplete without the question of lessons learnt. Anyone with even a minimal experience of teaching knows that teachers have little or no control over what students take away — learn — from their lessons. Seeing students’ notes from one’s carefully prepared lectures is inevitably a sobering experience. I suspect that there might be something comparably sobering about the lessons being learnt from these pedagogic lynchings. Official lies — as in the responses to the latest US State Department report on the state of religious freedom in India — are all very well: Those poor fellows derive their livelihood from barefaced lying. But the rest of us know — should know, need to know — that the country (a country, any country) only becomes feasible on the basis of some agreed, consensual, constitutional ground. It is sustained by a faith in the institutions that derive from that Constitution. Once that faith is eroded — corroded, destroyed — whether by acts of omission or commission, whether by silence and passivity or by overt acts of criminality, then that country — any country — is on a slippery slope. (Uttering this warning is not in any sense a recommendation or promotion of the consequences of ignoring the warning.) In our fallen — falling, fragmenting — world, alas, examples abound. Think of what was once Yugoslavia or, nearer home, Sri Lanka. Or, come to think of it, of the Bangladesh that was once East Pakistan. I fear that one possible lesson that might be learnt from these pedagogic lynchings, which go unpunished, and are even commended and celebrated by members of the ruling dispensation, is precisely that the institutions that enable civic, broadly civil, coexistence, have been hollowed out. I fear that the antonym of civil coexistence is civil war.
There is one final lesson that could be learnt from this tragic and criminal episode — but I fear that it won’t be. This is the lesson that is encoded in the ritual incantations, the slogans — Jai Shri Ram and Jai Hanuman — that the dying man was forced to chant before he died. These were, of course — as is known to all except the Official Liars — key instruments in the campaign of hate and discord that has sedulously been pursued by Sangh organisations, in varied forms, for close to a hundred years. Fake history, fake science, all is grist to the mills of hate. So Hamid, returning with a chimta for his grandmother in Premchand’s Idgah, becomes a plausible stand-in for Mahmud, for Timur, for Aurangzeb — and, of course, for Masood Azhar.
The real lesson to be learnt is a simple one: Hate has consequences. The climate of impunity that emboldens the perpetrators of public murder to post real-time videos online is directly related to the programmatic use of hate speech. So is the brutalisation that hardens people to the sight of Ansari’s baffled, grief-smudged wife of a few weeks. Now, widow. And those who propagate and promote that hate must bear responsibility for its entirely predictable consequences. It won’t be learnt, of course — but I daresay the lynch mobs will not stop trying.
This article first appeared in the July 2, 2019 print edition under the title ‘Lessons of hate’.The writer taught at the Department of English, Delhi University and a grandson of Munshi Premchand