Aamir Khan discovers how smartphone-borne outrage now sets the national agenda. Without informed debate, India is fast becoming a republic of the ridiculous.
They called it #appwapsi, and it emerged two days ago after film star Aamir Khan said he was “alarmed” by India’s climate of insecurity and had discussed with his wife the prospect of leaving the country. Some of this ire was borne by the company that employs Khan as brand ambassador, Snapdeal, a popular online retailer, now flooded with one-star ratings and uninstalled applications.
We’ve seen a lot of wapsis since Narendra Modi took over. First there was ghar wapsi, the reconversion—or “homecoming”, as Hindu nationalists call it, since they would actually like to ban any kind of conversion—of Muslims to Hinduism. Then there was award wapsi, the return of national awards by writers and artistes to protest the insecurity that they said minorities increasingly felt. Now there’s appwapsi, #AamirKhangetlost, and doubtless this cycle will continue as future outrage begets protests begets outrage begets protests.
There is a McDonaldisation of debate in India, an instant popular protest menu dished out to satisfy our increasingly juvenile, confrontational cravings. It almost always begins with smartphone users, roughly a quarter of nearly 880 million active mobile phones nationwide. National agendas are set when social-media trends are amplified by television and print—regardless of the fact that these trending issues are, usually, not national priorities.
It’s not that I have no position on trending topics. For instance, while I agree that India is entering a dark, new phase, particularly for its minorities, this intolerance is not unprecedented. India has seen much worse. The disquiet stems from the fact that Hinduism is rapidly following the hate-filled path of radical Islam and that the Prime Minister and his colleagues do little to calm what Nitin Pai of the think-tank Takshashila calls “coercive majoritarianism”. But the infantile squabble over intolerance—playing out primarily on our smartphones—is not going to solve it. I fear the copycat tide of awardwapsi will leave us numb when a deeper crisis comes along.
In any case, regardless of your position on the various wapsis, there is much in India that urgently calls for complex, informed debate. Some are long-term issues that would shame other countries into immediate action but barely stir our conscience and almost never enter our fervid, often irrational, public debates. Some are atrocities that unfold before our eyes but fail to move us.
Let’s take stock of some global-record-setting public-interest issues. India has the largest number of illiterate people in the world—316 million in rural India alone, the government revealed earlier this year; that’s the entire US population. Can you make that #trend?
India has the largest number of child brides — 230 million, a third of the world’s child-bride population, according to UNICEF; that’s 44 million more than Pakistan’s entire population. Can you make that #trend?
About 600 million Indians do not have or use toilets; no other country does worse. Imagine the entire population of the US and Indonesia—the world’s third- and fourth-most populous nations—walking briskly every morning to the rail tracks with chambu in hand. Can you make that #trend?
By any yardstick, except those we follow in this emerging republic of the ridiculous, these are (just some) mind-boggling problems that require urgent attention. It would serve India better if the government was questioned on the #trending approach it takes to solutions instead of for or against instant position delivered via smartphone.
Take, for instance, the Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan, the Clean India Campaign, which from this month has imposed a new tax on services you use. There is no clarity or discussion about what this new tax will do, nor any debate on the real issue: 315 million truck loads of untreated garbage randomly dumped across India. The bizarre, bumbling nature of India’s public debate was best showcased in August when Bangalore, a city that suffers suppurating piles of garbage at every street corner, was declared India’s cleanest city by the Swacch Bharat Abhiyan. Can you make that #trend?
As for the outrageous things that unfold before us and leave us cold, there is no shortage. I refer you to two such atrocities. The first is a material issue that I witness every day, a growing tide of shrunken, old people — mostly women — begging to survive on the streets of Bangalore’s technology capital. You see them at traffic intersections, on street corners and sitting outside supermarkets, many without the strength to stand. Can you make that #trend?
This winter, in Delhi and across the northern plains, hundreds will die from the cold — only because governments have largely ignored a Supreme Court order and will not build adequate homeless shelters. A single company’s corporate social responsibility budget should be able to pay for additional shelters with heaters and blankets to house all of Delhi’s homeless people, mostly hard-working migrants. Can you make that #trend?
The second is an intolerance that we tolerate: The enduring prejudice against Dalits, the lowest of Hinduism’s low castes. As I write this, in a government upper-primary school an hour from Bangalore, more than 100 children refuse to attend class because the new cook is Dalit. They drink no milk or eat no food that she serves. A day before #appwapsi began, a Dalit man and his daughter, involved with erecting an Ambedkar statue in Haryana, were forced to eat cow dung by upper-caste folk. In 2014, more than 47,000 crimes against Dalits were registered nationwide, steadily rising over three years (from 33,655 in 2012 and 39,408 in 2013). Such news is common, usually tucked away on the inside pages—can you make that #trend?
So it goes. Yesterday, Telangana became the ninth Indian state to declare a drought, now affecting 302 of 614 Indian districts across 18 states. But we will not make that #trend. Instead the hashtag #BootOutSnapDeal, until it removes AA, “anti-national Aamir” grew to target any company associated with the actor, and the latest is a general rant about “Muslim appeasement” by the media. They call it “#PunishMediaTrials”
Now, we can make that #trend.