Defeat efforts to spoil India’s humane ethos

Columnist  | Sharmistha Mukherjee

Opinion, Columnists

The scary part of this narrative is that the peripheral is gradually being merged into the mainstream.

Deepika Padukone in a still from 'Padmavati.'

It is said that if a frog is put in tepid water and then the temperature of the water is raised slowly, bringing it to boil, the frog will not jump out or try to escape the boiling water. This is often used as a metaphor for the inability or unwillingness of people to recognise or react to threats that arise gradually.

India seems to be going through a phase of the boiling frog syndrome. The evolution of a narrative unleashed in gradual measures by extreme right-wing forces on the unsuspecting people of India shows an intricately formulated design that is calculated and deliberate. First, the credentials of those who adhere to secular values are questioned, calling them “pseudo-seculars”; and then disparaged as “sickular”, now not only is secularism being trashed openly, but it’s almost become a term of abuse. None of this is sporadic or spontaneous. There is an elaborate, well-planned strategy that is being administered slowly in a bid to desensitise Indian society, trying to legitimise certain acts and trends that would have been considered unthinkable even a few years ago.

The recent murder of journalist Gauri Lankesh was celebrated and justified by social media trolls, some of whom proudly claim to be “followed by the PM” on Twitter. Mob lynchings are becoming so commonplace that they don’t attract serious media attention any longer. The killing of rationalists, questioning the credibility of each member of “award wapasi” protests, suppressing independent voices of dissent and targeting students who in any society are usually the most rebellious, blatantly communal and poisonous comments by leaders of fringe Hindutva groups as well as some elected ruling party members, all seem to be becoming a part of the everyday reality of “New India”. One of the worst possible consequences of communal politics is that it desensitises, and ultimately dehumanises, people. There’s no reason to believe that those who celebrated Gauri Lankesh’s murder, or for that matter, anyone’s murder, are people born with devil’s horns. The vicious atmosphere of hate blinds some people to such an extent that reason and perspective becomes the first casualty. The scary part of this narrative is that the peripheral is gradually being merged into the mainstream. What was earlier dismissed as “fringe elements” are now gaining ground, and moving towards occupying the central space of discourse. In the raging debate over the film Padmavati, some members of Rajasthan’s Karni Sena announced a `5-crore bounty to behead director Sanjay Leela Bhansali and even threatened to chop off actress Deepika Paduk-one’s nose. Other than giving TV news channels a hot topic of discussion for a few hours, it did not create much of an uproar, and was dismissed by many as dastardly remarks by some fringe elements. How-ever, it was soon followed by a senior Haryana BJP leader, the party’s chief media coordinator in the state, who in his enthusiasm to see Bhansali beheaded doubled the bounty to Rs 10 crores. What’s bizarre about the incident is not just his statement, but the completely tepid reaction from the party he belongs to, that happens to be India’s ruling party. People have been put behind bars for comments far less offensive. Till the time of writing this article, no real action has been taken by the BJP against him. He has neither been removed from his post nor arrested for making such threatening statements. The Karni Sena may be a “fringe” group, but a member and office-bearer of India’s ruling party is not. Yogi Adityanath was once seen as a “fringe” leader, but today he is the chief minister of India’s most populated state.

This raises a serious question. Are we becoming an intolerant society, and the acts and statements that manifest intolerance are a true reflection of our society; or are we in the process of being desensitised and lulled into complacency in small doses to such an extent that we start accepting the absurdities as real?

However, a remarkable and reassuring outcome of this saga of intolerance is the gradual growth of a counter-narrative, not led by politicians, but something that is emerging from ordinary citizens. People who were never interested in “politics” earlier have started speaking out. In the Padmavati row, for instance, a lady from Rajasthan, herself a Rajput, emphatically spoke out against the movement and the recourse to violence by the Karni Sena, clearly declaring that the Karni Sena doesn’t represent the sentiments of all Rajputs. While her voice may be lost in the cacophony of violent outrage against the film, but nevertheless it is a voice. The “Not in My Name’ protests organised in different part of the country by concerned citizens saw massive participation. The social media is one platform that is being used effectively by ordinary citizens to raise their concerns and to protest against such atrocities.

After the “celebration” of Gauri Lankesh’s murder by some sections of the Twitteratti (some of these accounts being followed by the PM himself), there was a spontaneous movement in the social media to “unfollow” Mr Modi. It’s another matter that despite all the hue and cry about the Prime Minister following the trolls, he did not unfollow his troll backers who proudly proclaim in their accounts the fact that the Prime Minister follows them.

The ultra-right-wing ideologues are operating on a grand narrative to change and destroy the social fabric of India. They are doing it by penetrating key institutions, false propaganda and blatantly divisive politics to polarise society. They are doing it with cleverly planned measures by slowly raising the heat. But they did not take one major factor into consideration. That the people of India are not frogs, they are human and humane.