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With eyes wide open, we’re hurtling into an abyss

Pratap Bhanu Mehta writes: The new Hinduism is about widespread acceptance of vile prejudice, alignment of state with majoritarian power, contempt for rights, glorification of violence

Police at the spot where communal violence took place between two communities at Jahangirpuri in New Delhi. (Express Photo by Praveen Khanna)

Anyone who has ever genuinely immersed themselves in Ramcharitmanas will recognise the singular poignancy of one moment in the Sundarkand where Hanuman meets Sita. Until that point the story is hurtling towards disaster. Sita has been abducted. Ram is distraught and unsure of himself. But the moment Hanuman meets Sita is the point at which the epic turns; the confidence that order will be restored reappears. Hanuman drops Ram’s ring from the tree. Sita experiences contradictory emotions: Joy at recognition of the ring; fear about what its presence might mean. (In Tulsidas’s rendition: Harsha vishaad hridya akulani). Sita is thinking many things. Suddenly Hanuman’s words of reassurance break out as he identifies himself. In all musical renditions, whether by Channulal Mishra or the underrated version by Mukesh, the gentle line “madhur vachana bole Hanumana (Hanuman spoke, his words like honey)”, always stops you in your tracks. Its power is not just the simple poetry but the magical calm it produces, an almost irresistible effect that, for a moment at least, bathes you in gentle reassurance and bliss. That moment is itself the deliverance from all worry, and from evil.

It is a measure of our perversion as a society that Ram and Hanuman are now tropes to prepare the ideological groundwork for pogroms. The communal frenzy that has accompanied Ram Navami and Hanuman Jayanti, spread across several cities, should leave us in no doubt about the direction in which India is headed. On the surface, the narrative circulating in society is simple “Hindus were taking out processions celebrating festivals. We were asserting our right. We got pelted by stones or worse. The minorities are responsible for this. It shows Hindus are not safe nor do they have space in their own country”. And then the ominous “We need to get rid of them.” This narrative is designed to feed the most contrived sense of Hindu victimhood. This is an old playbook.

What should give us nightmares is this. The simple fact is that this narrative is very widespread. All the arguments that we used about majoritarian communalism in India no longer hold. Its logic is no longer merely instrumental (as if that is not bad enough), that will pass with election cycles. It is no longer episodic where we can take reassurance that it will somehow pass of its own accord. It is not local in nature, but has taken on a national character. The orgies of hate and prejudice are not aberrations. They are now the norm. They are the norm because the highest levels of political authority, including the prime minister, by silences or dog whistles, condone it. They are the norm because elites openly spout it, without shame. They are the norm because being communal in some ways has become almost a necessary condition of political advancement and is fast becoming the default common sense of civil society.

But what is more ominous is this. Think of what might happen to a society whose dominant religious sensibility literally inverts everything of value. Religion has often been misused and put to grossly perverse and violent uses. But can you think of another occasion in the history of modern Hinduism where everything sacred has become ominous, forms of worship have become fearsome, singing and text weapons, acts of public piety menacing, a sense of community murderous, and any talk of decency or civilisation constraining? That is the fearsome image the organised mobs that masquerade as religious processions now evoke. Let us be very clear. This new form of Hinduism you are seeing unfolding is not an expression of genuine pride and piety. It is meant to be a raw assertion of power and violence to intimidate minorities. It is meant to literally extract reaction (even one photograph will do), that can be used as a pretext to construe all minorities as a threat. The number of seemingly well- meaning people for whom stone-throwing on threatening processions can become a vindication of the deepest prejudices against minorities is truly alarming. It is the one factoid they are looking for to sustain their insidious lie that Hinduism will not be safe unless minorities are shown their place if not erased. This was the mission and the aggressive processions accomplished that. It sustains the insidious lie that the murderous perversion of modern Hinduism, now sustained by state power, is entirely reactive; a belated self-assertion against a minority that dominates us, rather than what it is: Increasingly a drive to violence and cruelty.

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Writing on communalism has become a futile act. Who is it addressed to? Certainly not the state whose ideological practices and power fuel the crisis in the first place. Not civil society, because there is not much of civil society left. Not religious groups. To the votaries of new Hinduism, the only discourse of communalism that matters is one they can use in a discourse of revenge. To Muslims, what reassurance can we now give that asymmetry of numbers, state power and ideological zeal will not be used in a project of their cultural erasure? Those who claim to be secular are bulldozed by the lie that secularism is minority appeasement. To those who want to speak the language of human dignity beyond the vortex of communal identification? Is anybody left in that camp? To the Opposition parties who have no courage of conviction or a grammar of politics that can combat majoritarianism?

There is a comforting fallacy out there that somehow a pragmatic, instrumental logic will at some point assert itself over the politics of Hindutva: Inflation and unemployment will show up the cracks. But this communalism is not always rooted in material conditions. The fact that hordes of young men are seeking vindication and self-esteem through a public display of collective narcissism and violence suggests that communalism is now so deep that even social discontent has to express itself in the language of communalism.

Almost all the preconditions for widespread pogrom-type violence are now in place in India. You almost dread the thought that India has reached a point where the question is not “if” but “when.” What else would you call the widespread acceptance of vile prejudice, the dismantling of any semblance of conscience, the alignment of the state with majoritarian power, the complete effacement of the individual by imposed communal identification, the self-justification of the majority that has cloaked itself as the victim, the total contempt for rights, the glorification of violence, the search for the slightest pretext for revenge, and the radical othering of minorities?

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Even Hanuman Jayanti is not the deliverance from evil but us hurtling into it, with eyes wide open.

This column first appeared in the print edition on April 21, 2022 under the title ‘With eyes wide open’. The writer is contributing editor, The Indian Express

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First published on: 21-04-2022 at 03:59:10 am
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