March 28, 2002


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Ashwin Mahesh

An irrelevant fury

Frenzied mobs on trains heading to and from Ayodhya raise deliberately provocative chants against Muslims in Hindu-minority towns! In anger, local community leaders and their henchmen storm one such train and torch the passengers. In sympathy with such "victims" other trishul-types around the state take to the streets, destroying Muslim homes and shops, and murdering people with impunity. The chief minister and his cabinet respond with such alacrity as might scarcely awaken a snail. The police are complicit in the crimes. The home and defense ministers, fresh from thumping losses in assembly elections, cannot muster the force of the state toward restoring law and order.

But why? The usual answers are always at hand. Political exploitation, outright bigotry, and unvarnished criminality are at the root of all these riots, whether orchestrated by ruling parties or by those in Opposition. In India's most prosperous and industrialised state, more open to the global economy than virtually any other, .... add your cliche here and it will make just as much sense. For a national government sliding into oblivion with each assembly election, street warfare in its last bastion must crown the other accomplishments of its much-promised Ram Rajya.

What do these riots say about India, one might ask. Plenty of people are quick to insist that these gangs do not represent the real mahaan Bharat, that they form only a small minority on the fringes of our society. The irony of that view is telling in these times; one is reminded of Pervez Musharraf and his pronouncements that the militant elements in his nation constitute only a tiny fraction of the populace there! But I digress -- the other side as to whether these riots find favour or disgust among the public was offered by Varsha Bhosle and I quote here: "Problem is, there are far, FAR more Hindus who want to see the Ram temple come up at Ayodhya than there are clutches of "secular" opinion makers, historians, politicians and socialites. The alumni of Cathedral School or JNU do not an India make. This country also consists of the people who burnt Bombay and are burning Bharuch."

Varsha has many theories; I haven't found one to agree with in four years and don't expect that will change. Just now, however, I recall an e-mail conversation with her nearly three years ago. After we'd exchanged the predictable pleasantries -- you're an unvarnished bigot and I'm a brainwashed Red spy -- we tried briefly to ask a different question from the usual ones i e rather than wonder why things are the way they are and seek mere explanatory answers, we asked what it will take to obtain the kind of change we each seek in society.

Cosmic wisdom must not be my forte, for I cannot announce the discovery of the answers. Nor, from her continuing inimitable style, does it appear Varsha can. There is, however, one thing I have grasped in the intervening years, namely that notwithstanding our ability to imagine how change occurs, it nonetheless does. This much would be obvious to most, you say? In my defense, read the first seven words of this paragraph.

The thing is, one day these riots will stop. Not just these ones in Gujarat, but most riots -- everywhere in the country. There will come a time when the the hoodlums will be culled from the devotees and hauled off to their proper homes in prisons. Alongside their cells, elected officials and city corporators who instigate mobs to burn trains will take their rightful place too. The feeble governments that provide these worthies shelter from the law -- they too will visit the dustbin of history, and take extended residence therein. The opportunists who find the moment ripe to wag their fingers at state-sponsored rightist bigotry (while remaining deliberately ignorant of leftist crimes) will likewise be consigned. One day, nearly all the mayhem will reach a full stop.

How and when I cannot say, a smaller effort to understand why is the most one can attempt. The madness isn't momentary, and it is important to resist the wishful temptation to regard it as such. Nevertheless, there is little doubt that the anarchy will cease, if not from reason then from necessity. It is quite simply unimaginable that any sane society can long withstand the ravages of these "disturbances," or any of the other shenanigans that pervade our political processes. The force of democracy and the material self-interest it promotes places little value on the exhibition of our social chasms. The transformation of practically every democracy on the planet suggests that society simply tires of these social evils masquerading as ideology or leadership. There is no reason to imagine that India will be any different.

The day shall surely come to pass when the religious figureheads will confine themselves to the worlds of those still willing to pay them heed, and legal and secular society will emerge as the dominant force for social organization. This may appear incredulous in a time when mobs thumping their chests in faithful bigotry roam the streets. Yet, one need only look back at the world that has been, for it holds much evidence for the times that lie ahead. Sati is gone, slavery and bonded labour are condemned, and caste is frowned upon; with enough time having passed, in such order they shall have further diminished or perished too.

Nor will such mutation be limited to the sphere of religious zeal. True, faith will appear a visible area of reform, but there will be more. Those upper-caste armies of landlords that now enforce savage caste-discipline across much of the rural north -- one day the last of them shall find himself at the uncomfortable end of a noose. The hypocrite who runs factories that employ children to make firecrackers and recycle batteries by hand while making generous donations to his local temple -- in time his ilk will find a fire lit under them, as they are themselves returned to the earth from which they arrived. The perpetrators of dowry and domestic violence who now live with such impunity -- they too shall find the force of change upon their throats one day.

And so it shall be with every sphere of our lives -- things will alter with the force of modernity and the largely liberal ideas that accompany it. The violence with which such change is resisted is partly to be seen as indicative of the force of such reform itself; those who loathe such a refashioning of the world lash out in anger and fear. Twenty, fifty, a hundred years from now, the India that regards Hindu assertiveness as "reasonable" or polygamy as a religious "right" will simply have vanished into an irrelevance of its own creation. Emphatic and polarised views of one's world do not lend themselves to small revisions -- they are definitively erased.

Today, there are certainly those among us who reject the inevitability of this future. They are vociferous in resisting it, event violent. A few snapshots of our history taken twenty years apart from the mid-19th century, however, clearly establishes the irrelevance of their fury. The world is transformed according to an expanding liberalisation of the mind, and lately the body as well; those who flutter briefly and perish in opposition to it are firmly cast aside and merit not one nostalgic memory. Godse is remembered by the few, Gandhi is revered by the many. There is an order to things in free societies, an extraordinary being that rewrites the rules, whether they be borne of honourable traditions or mere folly.

And then there are others -- those who will see this portending of the future to be overly hopeful. Such a world shall never be, they aver with the certainty of spectatorship amidst change. Their inertia is not to be regarded as pessimism alone; more than that it is a small attempt to explain away an absence of purposefulness to obtain desirable reform. Very well, wait and watch.

Ashwin Mahesh

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