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Year of the farce

By Mrinal Pande

Any writer asked to do a short oped for an year-ender must acknowledge the absurdity of his/her position in times like these. An editorial in the Urdu publication, The Munsif Daily, questions the credibility of the nation’s prime investigative agency that has had all the 22 men accused of killing Sohrabuddin Sheikh acquitted, while the judge expressed his helplessness and apologised for the poor evidence that was put before him. Issues like religious tolerance, privacy and independence of institutions are forcing their way into the heart of electoral debates, even as, to our west, a fast unravelling EU drops below the horizon, and, up north, the emerging superpower China struggles with its own problems. Yet, in India, after suffering a humiliating electoral loss in five states, the prime minister addressing a rally in Himachal Pradesh repeats with a tenacity reminiscent of US President Richard Nixon, that he is an ever-vigilant chowkidar who will not spare the thieves. With your blessings, the report quotes him saying to the public, I will not stop this fight.

The vigilant chowkidar faces a tough year that will see the general election decide the face and direction of the central government in 2019. At the end of 2018, when India’s fiscal deficit touches 114.8 per cent of the full year target, due to lower than expected tax collections, analysts’ predictions for a reduction of deficit or a turnabout in the all but collapsing agrarian economy, are bleak. As Jawaharlal Nehru, much reviled by the BJP, and B R Ambedkar, well understood, progress in the world can at best be incremental. Only the willfully or otherwise ignorant will ignore that the history of nations’ progress is simultaneously the history of pain, murder, gross venality, slavery and cyclical horror. No culture is free of it, no community is entirely unstained. The progress in the first seven decades of Independent India may appear small to the ideology of the Sangh, but to those who not so long ago, could not drink from public wells, or marry a person of choice, go to college and compete with men of all castes in all fields, such incremental change has enormous value. In fact, it is the insecurity and sense of alienation of minorities, of women, of tribals and marginal farmers, that in the past few years has deepened, which must be addressed coherently and patiently by whichever political party wishes to come to power.

This writer has inherited both her optimism and sense of despair from a mother who was one of the least politically inclined writers she knew of, but a fierce supporter of her right to write freely. My mother grew up in Shantiniketan and then married into a conservative line of Brahmins, in the process getting to know some of the greatest and also not-so-great minds in her lifetime. All of these made her perceptive of human frailties and strengths. The System failed her many times but she did not lose faith in her country. Even when she was living as a widow all by herself on her meagre earnings from her writings. I am glad she is no longer here to see what are some of the darkest political times India has known. The surrealist song and drama built around electoral rallies and the cheap pamphleteering won the 2014 elections for the BJP and its allies, but it broke the country’s spirit that my mother so admired. The losses in the recent assembly elections prove that the core no longer holds. The fabled oratory, rath rallies and sadhu-santmaha-sammelans, too, have lost their initial appeal, even to the religiously-inclined majority community in 2018. The “relaxed” one-sided broadcasts to the nation, at the end of 2018, conjure up a scene similar to a Rene Magritte painting, where one end of the canvas touches philosophy, the other, pure farce.

Take the case of Yogi Adityanath, chief minister of Uttar Pradesh. He was paradropped soon after the big win in UP and landed all guns blazing. Soon, he began making the big noise about saving gaumata at all costs. He banned cattle sales to butchers, most of them Muslims. He forbade the use of loudspeakers for azaan, citing the disturbance to public peace. Currently, he has banned namaz being performed in any public park in the state. He has banned beef sales and is planning a large statue of Lord Ram as a sort of precursor to building a temple on what is currently disputed land. Lynch mobs in UP are attacking vehicles on the slightest suspicion of carrying cattle to slaughter houses. Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh followed and, as the beatings of cattle traders grew, soon, practically everywhere, the farmers stopped selling cattle out of sheer terror of being lynched.

Now, reports of hordes of abandoned stray cattle entering fields and destroying crops are tumbling in. Last week, in Aligarh, irate farmers rounded up hundreds of such cows and locked them up in a dozen school buildings. The schools were closed and the children (rather happily one suspects) went home.

It reminds one of the high farce of Marx Brothers’ Horse Feathers (1932):

Groucho: Have we got a stadium?
Faculty: Yes.
Groucho: Have we got a college?
Faculty: Yes.
Faculty: But Professor, where will the students sleep?
Groucho: Where they always slept, in the classroom.

At this point, Groucho turns to the audience and after watching his brother (Chico) at the piano he reminds the audience, “I’ve got to stay here, but there is no reason why you shouldn’t go out into the lobby till this thing blows over.”

Were we to be so lucky!