I happened to re-read “Kabuliwala” recently. Rabindranath Tagore had written this short story, portraying the seemingly improbable, yet endearing, and ultimately transient bond between the middle-aged Rahamat – a Pashtun merchant – and Mini, the five-year-old daughter of a Bengali novelist, in 1892. The text and its cinematic adaptation – Tapan Sinha had directed Kabuliwala in 1957, with Chhabi Biswas playing the title role – had been a source of unalloyed joy in my adolescence. But the experience of revisiting the text was curious. Certain passages seemed more resonant than others. For instance, I could relate, with a clarity that was unsettling, to Mini’s terror when she saw Rahamat and his strange attire for the first time, her belief that Rahamat hid children in his sack (jhuli), as well as Mini’s mother’s fear of kabulis because of their alleged involvement in the trafficking of children. More worryingly, Tagore’s humane denouement, in which Mini’s father discovers, before his daughter leaves him for her marital home, that the gulf that separated Rahamat from him had been bridged, ironically, through their shared sense of loss, appeared unconvincing. Could the chasm between the two men, one facilitated by geography and culture, be bridged by loss? For that, Rahamat – the proverbial outsider – needed to belong to the world inhabited by Mini’s father. My scepticism of Tagore’s faith in assimilation made me realize that my relationship with the text, and its purported message of hope and inclusion, had changed.
I was revisiting “Kabuliwala” at a time when nine states in India have witnessed the death of several people in the hands of frenzied mobs. On most occasions, the assailants had accused their victims of being child-lifters, a charge that had been faced by the fictional Rahamat as well. Some of the inferences that have informed the public discourse on these brutal lynchings are illuminating. For instance, it appears that notwithstanding the long history of such extra-judicial murders, lynching eludes definition or classification in India’s law book. This grey area in the law, coupled with political patronage – Union ministers have been known to felicitate cow vigilantes convicted of killing a meat trader – is instrumental in instilling a sense of impunity among the violators of the law. This must have been on the mind of the Supreme Court, which has now stated in the course of a judgment that Parliament must enact a special legislation to tackle the “Typhon-like monster” of mob rule.
Discussions on lynchings have justifiably exposed the diabolical role of social media platforms. There is credible evidence – investigating agencies concur with this assessment – that WhatsApp has emerged as an effective tool for rumour-mongering, enabling vested interests to incite and mobilize vigilantes with lightning speed. Interestingly, the claim of technology as a facilitator of violence has a pre-history. In an America that had only recently abolished slavery, white communities sought to project the lynching of black people as spectacles for public consumption in a bid to resist a State that was pursuing an inclusive agenda. Photography – much like WhatsApp today – was the technological marvel of the time, and was used as a key weapon in the demonization of Otherness. Lynchings were often photographed, and the images sold along with such souvenirs as bones and organs of the deceased.
Perhaps the most telling deduction from the unchecked rash of vigilantism in modern India concerns the question of identity. Belonging or, conversely, being accused of not belonging can separate life from death during these episodes of wanton violence. In Assam, in a frantic, but futile, attempt to save himself from his assailants, a young man – an émigré – had pleaded that he, too, was Assamese. In Malegaon, hours after the lynching of five men of the Gosavi community in Dhule, a mob set upon five visitors, including two women and a minor, after a boy, who did not understand the language the victims were speaking in, alerted his family. It is not surprising that specific constituencies – wage-earners, migrants, immigrants, nomads, transgenders, wanderers, both the saintly and the insane – people whose identities are perceived to be extraneous to local ecosystems have been the usual targets of the murderous frenzy. Would Tagore, writing in New India, still repose his faith in the human ability to empathize as a deterrent for the rage against the Other?
At the dawn of the 20th century, Ida B. Wells, an African-American investigative journalist, had observed, with a vision that was precise and prescient, that lynchings usually succeeded in territories marked by transient populations and enfeebled law enforcement. Such swathes of lawless territory may appear remote to the urban, affluent Indian. But the threat posed by polarization – the apex court has justifiably identified lynching as an “expression” of intolerance – may not be that distant. For polarization, the kind that is being adroitly engineered by the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government, can encroach upon and alter, at times with a chilling finality, some kinds of relationship that we believe, mistakenly, to be enduring. There is a line of thought that the seemingly benign nature of these transformations – such as a text shifting its shape – is what makes communalism mutate fatally. Scale is thus critical in this context. A riot is an acceptable manifestation of a septic fissure, but not, say, one’s changing relationship with a story written years ago.
But it is equally true that these alterations, even though they are tiny, almost imperceptible, shifts, are not going undocumented. The other day, I came across a tweet in which a woman talked about the nervousness that accompanies the act of reading an Urdu book on public transport. Equally, my sense of bewilderment at my inability to derive strength from the compassion and kindness so evident in “Kabuliwala”, a text I had turned to for succour on earlier occasions, had not gone unregistered. By merely recognizing – and not resisting – this transformation and its agents, are we being complicit in India’s journey to a majoritarian State?
It is plausible that the final destination, then, would be an India imploding into a confederacy of tribal, sectarian, squabbling principalities. That way, India can return to being a rajya sans Ram, supposedly the upholder of inclusion and justice.