“Perhaps the only thing we can agree on at this painfully divisive moment in our national history is that all this anger and derision in which we’re marinating isn’t healthy. Not for us, not for our kids and certainly not for the country. But as a nation, we can’t seem to quit. We’re so primed to be mad about something every morning, it’s almost disappointing when there isn’t an infuriating tweet to share or a bit of our moral turf to defend waiting in our phones.”
If you’re thinking how aptly the above-quoted text captures the current state of affairs in India, think again. This is the opening paragraph of Susanna Schrobsdroff’s article published in a recent issue of Time magazine and written in the context of the US. Yet it has an eerie connect to India.
The India at 70 that some of us had imagined and hoped for surely wasn’t one where a large section of the population is discussing issues of hate, right to dissent, nationalism and the need to prove our patriotism. This is not a comment on Indian politics. The current socio-political environment is what it is and, as things stand today, is unlikely to change anytime soon. Instead, it is an attempt to draw the spotlight on each of us, individual citizens, the so called ‘civil society’. What can each of us do, individually and collectively, to address what, based on our personal moral compass, we view as the mishappenings in our motherland?
One may feel that in recent times the value of human life is diminishing in India. One may also believe that divisive forces are spreading hate and communalism in India. To a large extent, they have succeeded because of the fear they have managed to instill into us. Whether we’re willing to accept it or not, a large majority of us are living under some form of threat or fear. And for now, we don’t even have the right to privacy! What we consume for our belly is wholly inconsequential. The hate around it is eating into the social fabric of India. Our syncretic traditions stand broken and many of our institutions weakened. Worst of all, in our daily lives we have now become intolerant, impatient, feisty, aggressive, confrontational, abusive and simply just less accepting.
Is this really the new India we want? Where are we headed if we continue on this path? Time has come for each of us to step back, think diligently about the issues facing our nation and acknowledge that staying silent is no longer an option. Silence amounts to acceptance of the existing social order. do we really accept it?
One thing concerned citizens wanting to make corrections in the existing social order can do is to speak up more. Don’t dismiss the power of your voice. It’s time for our individual voices to merge with a collective campaign that becomes a prolonged din resonating across the country. Current circumstances call for individual action as our individual social responsibility within the prescribed limits of the law. If the virtues of social media, the internet and other online means of communication have led it to become its own enemy, it’s incumbent upon us to change that. We need to consistently highlight the inaccuracies that spreading hatred on social media till such time that those spreading hatred realise that our voices can’t and will not be drowned by their vitriol.
Some sections of our television media is also to blame for where we find ourselves. According to American scholar Jonathan Gottschall, “The stories we consume shape us profoundly. They shape our attitudes, our beliefs, our behaviors.” And in turn affect our society as a whole. In his book The Story Telling Animal, Gottschall elaborates that “the storytelling mind is a factory that churns out true stories when it can, but will manufacture lies when it can’t”. Are not some media channels spreading lies and fueling divisiveness? They do so fully aware of the mischief they’re promoting. It’s up to us to stop them.
The constitutional protection of freedom of the press too has limitations. According to the Supreme Court states, the “importance of freedom of speech and expression though not absolute was necessary as we need to tolerate unpopular views. This right requires the free flow of opinions and ideas essential to sustain the collective life of the citizenry. While an informed citizenry is a pre-condition for meaningful governance, the culture of open dialogue is generally of great societal importance.”
False propaganda, fake news and spreading lies are not and cannot be taken as being free speech. By all means they have the ingredients of affecting the tempo of life and public order, and hence need to be checked as they make the author of such material liable for penal action. We need to bring these falsities to light to reveal the mischief of the hate-mongers. We have to raise our voices to restore the social and public order and work towards achieving the unity in diversity that our constitutional makers rightly imagined for us.
As our new president said, each citizen is a “nation-builder” and a “custodian of the legacy that we will pass on to coming generations.” Now more than ever is the time to remind everyone that the preamble to our constitution speaks of liberty of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship. It also says that India is a secular sovereign democratic republic. In the nation imagined by our forefathers, we don’t need to wear our patriotism on our sleeves. In fact, enforced patriotism only leads to jingoism.
As we celebrate our 70th independence day, let’s strive to break-away from the man-made shackles of hate. This August 15, it won’t be enough to just go wave the tricolour. It’s more important to remember that the Indian flag in fact represents the hopes and aspirations of all people of India. The saffron denotes renunciation, and indicates the strength and courage of our great nation. The white, with the dharma chakra, stands for our peace, it’s the path of truth to guide our conduct. The green shows the auspiciousness of our land. We can only be fully independent when every citizen of this country feels safe, secure, protected and free.
Remember, today the victim may not be from amongst you. But given the pace at which hate is beginning to spread in our country, it’s not long before the devil comes to rest at your door. Silence, really, is no longer an option.
Satvik Varma is a graduate of Harvard Law School, currently practicing as a corporate commercial lawyer in New Delhi.