The outbreak of Ebola in western Africa posed a challenge for medical caregivers, which had as much to do with unhelpful beliefs stalking the victims as with the erratic supply of medical antidote on offer. Mourners by tradition hug and embrace their dead in a ritual common to large swathes of Africa. Given the highly contagious virus, the ancient habit would inevitably become a ready source of its rapid transmission.
Nurtured habits and regressive traditions can thus mock any good intention and the fight against Hindu revivalism, which offers a fertile breeding ground for religious fascism in India, is not any different. (The polio crisis in Pakistan is cut from the same cloth.)
Brilliant thinkers of their time like Tagore and Ranade, Ambedkar and Nehru offered liberating ideas to make Indians a modern people anchored in their spiritual force, one which was tempered by reason. Men like Bal Gangadhar Tilak would not hear of it. He fumed at British officials who fumigated homes and evicted residents in Poona during an outbreak of the plague. It was a travesty for foreigners to raid Hindu households, he ranted. Two British officials were murdered for the transgression by men loyal to Tilak. The killers were not from some abandoned tribespeople from the jungles of India but mostly Western-educated men. Tilak also blended religion with his regressive politics, borrowing the heady brew from Hindu nationalists of Bengal.
Maulana Azad, who observed the phenomenon keenly during a long stay in Calcutta, carried it back to Delhi. His role in bringing Gandhi into the religiously regressive Khilafat Movement was a forerunner to the current exploits of the militant Islamic State group.
And yet liberating ideas have not always gone unheeded, not since the arrival of Buddha in 600 BC, or even earlier, with the Charvakas or Nastikas and their questioning of Brahminical practices. The battle between progressive and regressive ideas continues but how does one deal with unreason when it mutates into full-blown fascism?
Fascists don’t generally believe in debate. They are more adept at using the megaphone. Their leaders are by definition cocksure of their beliefs, euphemism for prejudice bred in ignorance. Open-minded liberal folk are precisely that — open-minded, carrying a heavy baggage of self-doubt.
The debate among students protesting Sunday night’s fascist assault on students of the Jawaharlal Nehru University reveals a profound ability to doubt and debate even in a mortal crisis. Should the students write to the chief justice of India to press the case against the state’s apparent dereliction of duty, its collusion perhaps against the students or failure to protect the campus from masked thugs of the Hindu right? No, comes the response. One would be foreclosing other options by getting the supreme court involved.
Actually the debate was rooted in the supreme court’s recent refusal to rein in state violence when police brutally assaulted students of Jamia Millia and Aligarh universities during massive protests against a controversial citizenship law. The top court first told the injured petitioners that it would hear the case if they first shunned violence.
The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party says it wants to discuss ‘misunderstanding’ and ‘misapprehension’ over the communal citizenship law it enacted five weeks ago. The party summoned representatives of the film industry on Sunday to share their worries, but meanwhile Home Minister Amit Shah stepped in to say he would not budge an inch.
The law offers citizenship to religious minorities from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, but not to Muslims. They are pointedly excluded although Myanmar with its ethnically targeted Rohingya Muslims is more of India’s neighbour than is Afghanistan.
Among the fugitives from Pakistan comforted in Delhi during Ziaul Haq’s regime were fiery feminist poet Fahmida Riaz and intrepid journalist Salamat Ali, both progressive Muslims. Indira Gandhi gave them asylum and they both returned home when democracy returned to Pakistan.
So how does one set up a workable challenge to Mr Modi’s determined bid to turn Indian democracy into his craven slave? An essential way is to defeat him in elections. That task would be easier if the students and other angry citizens also had the media on their side. Innocent students shouldn’t be beaten up and then also falsely called anti-national. That fiction has to be addressed urgently but it’s difficult to see how.
It’s specious to blame erring journalists always. Media seldom works that way. TV channels and newspapers are mostly owned by tycoons who frame the policy, more so these days. Exceptions are extremely rare though they exist. Discuss the Murdochs and Ambanis, the deep pockets who run the show, who set the policy. In India’s case the media is largely run by those that had decided to get Mr Modi elected in 2014. Framing the question frontally will be critical to save India’s democracy.
By arrangement with Dawn...