The problem is this: India is in the fight of its life with itself. Indian society is on a knife-edge – literally – and national attention is highly distractible.
Last Thursday India woke up to a video clip from Rajsamand, Rajasthan, posted on social media. A man slaughters another with what looks like an axe, as the victim screams for mercy. When he lies in a pool of blood, the killer turns to the camera, out of breath from all the murder, and tells us to stop “love jihad”, and that “jihadis” should leave India, or suffer the same fate. Then he sets the body on fire. The person filming this barbarism is the killer’s 14-year-old nephew.
Every rational person should force herself to watch the footage. It is stomach-turning. But it is Shambhu Lal Regar’s public statement of motive that measures the distance we have travelled from ‘isolated incidents’ to the collective savagery unleashed by Hindutva. Every jubilant comment under the video further increases that distance.
Regar killed Mohammed Afrazul on the 25th anniversary of the demolition of the Babri Masjid, for little reason other than because Afrazul is Muslim, and because Regar can. That he recruited a child to help speaks volumes about how the next generation is being trained to think and act.
Hindutva has come in from the cold, and how. In a short quarter century it has achieved a central government with a majority, and gone from metaphor to the thing itself, from breaking domes to cracking skulls. The present state both covertly and explicitly intimidates minorities, and backs those elements that aid this project. The men who lynched Pehlu Khan were given a clean chit. The Union Minster for Culture draped the tricolour around the man accused of killing Akhlaq in 2015. It is no surprise that not one senior BJP leader said a word about the shocking murder in Rajasthan. Silence is the greatest enabler and signal of complicity. For the record, the Congress leadership has been equally tongue-tied, which looks equally bad.
The same day as people were reeling from the footage of the murder, Mani Shankar Aiyar used the word ‘neech’ in referring to Mr Modi. A huge fracas broke out as Rahul Gandhi publicly demanded an apology from Aiyar and suspended him from the party, Aiyar apologised but clarified that he used ‘neech’ to mean ‘low’ rather than ‘low-born’, and the prime minister cynically turned his campaign speeches into a poor-me wail about how the Congress looks down on poor, lower-caste people like him, what has he ever done to them, can Gujarat tolerate such an insult?
Thursday was the day when the English media went from alarming slide into free-fall. Broadcast media, with an honourable exception or two, is so perfectly aligned with the political establishment that the Aiyar remark blew the murder in Rajasthan out of the water.
One can debate whether or not Aiyar was being casteist, but one expects Modi to exploit every ambiguity possible in a nail-biting poll. Twisting something is, of course, different from all-out crazy talk – he has shamefully gone on to insinuate that the former prime minister Manmohan Singh among others is guilty of treason and conspiracy, to which Singh has issued a fire-breathing rebuttal. But all of that is part of the circle of political life; eventually someone will win the election, and life will go on.
The problem is this: India is in the fight of its life with itself. Indian society is on a knife-edge – literally – and national attention is highly distractible. The media tends to put a spotlight on the boxing ring of daily politics and encourage some boxing so that they’ll have something juicy to write about. It’s the equivalent of shouting ‘Fight! Fight!’ every time one chap sticks his tongue out at the other. It’s easier, and more fun, than paying attention to the bloodletting in the darkness of the bleachers where the rest of the spectators are busy slashing each other’s throats as the whole stadium crumbles around our ears.
It’s a fine thing to call for civility in public discourse, as Rahul Gandhi has done. But as the newly-appointed president of the largest opposition party, his task will not simply be to win civilly. He will have to win, as well as find a way to walk the Congress party back from its own venal version of communal politics. Vote bank politics is a mug’s game, and Modi plays it better, with the advantage of a highly polarised society. To provide a truly robust alternative, the Congress would do better to steer according to constitutional principle and the founding tenets of the Republic. There is no other way to halt and reverse India’s appalling slide into majoritarian impunity.
If you doubt that, watch the video again.
Mitali Saran is a Delhi-based writer and columnist.