The foundations of a well-functioning society are laws that reflect socially-just but flexible notions of right and wrong. However, when laws become the first resort towards dealing with social fractures, we are likely to end up with a society that refuses to deal with its most deep-seated regressive attitudes. Two recent events and the reactions to them point to our tendency to assume that the quick-fix of the legal route is the best way to deal with matters that might be considered socially reprehensible. The law, however, can only deal with symptoms. The habitual reduction of complex social issues to legal ones, in fact, lies at the heart of our desire to lead an unexamined collective life.
On January 26, the great Assamese singer Bhupen Hazarika was conferred India’s highest civilian award, the Bharat Ratna. Soon after, senior Congress leader Mallikarjun Kharge criticised the conferment, suggesting that a more deserving awardee might have been the recently-deceased Lingayat religious leader, Shivakumara Swami. The latter, Kharge seemed to imply, was a person of greater substance than someone whose fame lay in his skill as a singer. Soon after, acting on a complaint by the head of an Assamese socio-cultural organisation, the police registered a case against Kharge for “hurting the sentiments of the Assamese people”.
On January 30, the date of Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination in 1948 by Nathuram Godse, members of the Hindu Mahasabha’s Aligarh unit announced and re-enacted the murder. Media images showed a cheery saffron-clad woman pointing a pistol at an effigy of Gandhi. She was surrounded by a seemingly like-minded group that looked on as if inspecting an ice-cream menu at a push-cart at India Gate. The insouciance, fostered by the distance that time imposes and nurtured by hate, is a thing to behold. Subsequently, a group of so-called seers came out in support of the act, a variety of commentators unequivocally condemned it and a tweet by TV personality Ravish Kumar implied — somewhat confusingly — that the faux murderers were the actual “anti-nationals” and their not being branded thus was a victory of Gandhian values.
Following a public outcry — given the glib relationship to Gandhian values nowadays, the depth of such feelings is difficult to determine — the police arrested some participants of this contemporary Danse Macabre. The Indian Penal Code’s provisions invoked for the purpose include those that deal with acts which promote “enmity between different groups”.
A recourse to legal procedure has thus been the response to acts that sullied the memories of two significant public figures. A discussion on the mindset behind Kharge’s comments or the processes that produce actions like those of the Hindu Mahasabha activists has been forestalled by the apparent salve of a police case.
Our public culture oscillates between hagiography and vilification. There is no middle ground upon which we can question the thoughts and ideas of our “great men”. We either raise them to saintliness or condemn them as pure evil — but do not explore their ideas in all their frailties. For Kharge, Bhupen Hazarika was a “mere” singer and singing does not carry a value that is equal to that represented by the life of a religious leader. For Hazarika’s followers, on the other hand, he is beyond questioning, a god-like figure whose divinity proscribes inquiry into his role as, say, a political figure. Kharge’s simplistic evaluation (a singer is too insubstantial a figure for the Bharat Ratna) is met by an equally uncritical response (anything but a deferential attitude towards Hazarika is an insult to an entire culture). Hazarika was a remarkable artist, but he was also a very significant figure within the 1960s and 1970s politics of “authentic” Assamese cultural identity, particularly in relation to “tribal” claims of the significance of their life-ways. We needed a debate about what we consider valuable human attributes and the complex nature of a public figure’s legacy. But all we are left with is a police case.
Similarly, the arrest of the Hindu Mahasabha activists does away with the need for any discussion about Gandhi-ness in our present time. As mindless as their re-enactment was, the reaction to it also eradicated the possibility of a public debate: Why is our only response to such acts via an unchanging “Father of the Nation” approach? The re-enactment is only the end-product of a series of contexts and processes. These include the normalisation of violence in public life (television ads are full of pretend-soldiers selling tiles and cars), an unquestioning attitude towards Gandhi (recent objections by African scholars to his attitudes on race narrate another story), the cynical use of “Gandhigiri” to sell products and entertainment and the hierarchy of ideas that such events demonstrate — over the past two years, western UP has witnessed a rash of vandalisation of Ambedkar statues, without garnering similar publicity.
Filing a police case and making arrests have, sadly, if unwittingly, become methods through which genuine public debate is forestalled. Is there not greater value to thinking about the place of art in public life and Bhupen Hazarika’s role as a political figure than filing a case against Kharge? And, if those who disrespect the memory of the “Father of the Nation” are sent to jail, should we countenance similar action against those who, at other times and places, question what is done in the name of the nation?
The problem with invoking a law under which the Mahasabha’s members have been arrested is that we close off the possibility of developing a public discourse that can, without fear, interrogate issues of national identity. For, in this case, those who oppose the Mahasabha and its ideology may feel satisfied that a national offence has been rectified. However, they leave untouched a fundamental problem: It is dangerous to invite the law to define ideals of national life. That task is best left to open public debate.