3 mins read

Loud mobs and silent rulers

January 30, 2018

So, imagine this: you are a young man getting on with your daily life when someone from your religious community, caste or ethnic group comes and taps you on your shoulder. “Hey,” he says. “Have you heard? Such and such a film (or book) has insulted our great _______ (fill in god, deity, prophet, historic leader, icon), and we are gathering to protest! Come!” You growl: “What? They insulted him or her, how dare they?” In a heartbeat you drop everything and go off to join the protest. Such is your seismic fury, your sense of being personally attacked, that you suddenly find yourself a part of a mob that’s pelting stones at a school bus full of children, that’s bashing the hell out of anyone you can find who is not identifiably part of your group. You haven’t read the offending book (you don’t even read books, maybe), you haven’t seen the film because it hasn’t been released (none of your leaders have either, it’s all a chain reaction, dominoes of hearsay toppling), but you don’t care. You believe that your core has been physically assaulted, that you are merely striking back for your honour, because if you let this pass, your group will be obliterated by the cuts of dozens of books and films.
No, that is lying nonsense. If your sense of self is strong, you raise your voice in the group and say, “Hang on, but has anyone actually read this book?” Or, “Shall we wait and see the film first?” If you have a life that is in any way fulfilling, with a serious chance of achieving some goals, you also ask: “Okay, so this idiot has written this book (or these malicious villains have made this film, or that gutter-worm has painted that painting). So what?” If you are really secure in your religious identity, the only force you need to prove anything to is the one you worship. If that omnipotent goddess/god and/or his/her all-powerful prophet is insulted, they are more than capable of dealing with it, you don’t need to get involved. If your religious identity is insulted, then reply by achieving great things. If your sword of honour is actually blessed by the almighty, do not sully it by pulling it out to slash at every dog that barks at you in the street. Certainly do not give yourself the licence to attack innocents in the name of your group.
But actually all this is irrelevant rhetoric. In most cases of a section of people feeling “insulted”, you will find that the “offence” is reverse-engineered. What this means is that a political aim is first identified — as a group we need to increase our power, we need to create stronger unity among ourselves by whatever means necessary, we need to leverage the politicians’ anxiety about losing our vote, we need to stamp on other competing groups, we need to make others fear us. How do we do this? Ah, look, here is a book that we can claim offends us and on that basis we can give ourselves the licence to kill. Here’s an obscure set of drawings made 30 years ago, let’s dredge it up and attack every exhibition of the painter because he belongs to a minority we need to cow down. What’s this, a film showing two middle-class Hindu women in a relationship? Will screening the film turn millions of women into lesbians? Of course not, but it’s a godsend, we can riot and assert ourselves. Oh, look, here’s that first offending book again, or rather the writer who wrote that book a quarter century ago, he’s coming to a festival here during election time, let’s put on our offended-topis again and create trouble. The political parties will have to give us some concessions.
It’s been said before but it bears repeating: the anti-Padmaavat mass goondagiri stems from a disease that has been eating away at our society for a long time. Politicians from various parties have been guilty of allowing it to fester for narrow, short-term gains. Rajiv Gandhi was guilty, as was Narasimha Rao; Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee was guilty, as is Mamata Banerjee; Asaduddin Owaisi has been directly involved in promoting this sickness; Raghubar Das of Jharkhand is guilty. Ashok Gehlot, who endorsed the mullahs protesting Salman Rushdie coming to the Jaipur Literature Festival in 2012, was guilty. At that time, there was an opposition leader happily attending the JLF dinners, even as her party was trying to slap cases on those of us who protested the de facto ban on Rushdie. She is now Chief Minister of Rajasthan and in this anti-Padmaavat violence, she is as guilty as her counterparts in Gujarat, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh. What these people are guilty of is standing by and allowing the cynical manipulation of disaffected young men (and some women) for political gain. They are guilty of complicit silence, a la their strongman boss in Delhi, while the mobs run riot across the top half of this country.

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