Who Is Afraid of Otherness?

It seems that the law and order in state after state may end up being handed to the tender mercies of demolition crews whose loyalty is with the Hindu nation state, not the Constitution.

Saakhi is a Sunday column from Mrinal Pande, in which she writes of what she sees and also participates in. That has been her burden to bear ever since she embarked on a life as a journalist, writer, editor, author and as chairperson of Prasar Bharti. Her journey of being a witness-participant continues.

This summer towards the end of June, my husband and I spent a few weeks in a little village called Pyunda, up in the Uttarakhand mountains. We have been going to these hills for ages and know by now that travelling a smallish distance offers no real escape from news. News was all around us – local newspapers, news channels and of course social media. We found that the dry and hotter-than-average summer was worrying the villagers and rich home owners who have built second/third homes there. The resinous pine trees are vulnerable to forest fires if the rains do not come often enough. Then there were the twin streams of tourists to be dealt with: the pleasure seekers, trekkers and those doing the pilgrimage circuit.

Local and national news overlapped about traffic jams on hill roads at holy Dhams on the one hand, and the great preparations being made in New Delhi to welcome the global guests coming for the G20 summit in early September. Then there were the never-ending cricket matches. The local cricketers followed those avidly, hoping one day to be another Dhoni or Rishabh Pant. The roads, given the new unpredictable weather patterns, were always in danger of being blocked by major landslides or being swept away by flash floods. That never stopped anything. The bulldozers bulldozed, the buses snaked around mounds of earth on half done roads, and large posters bearing the faces of political leadership continued to be pasted.

Mrinal Pande

Illustration: Pariplab Chakraborty

What desensitises a sensitive people? We were all somewhat irritable but also dulled by the news various sources regurgitated each day. A surfeit of information for a society largely apathetic to any wide ranging national vision. A few weeks later, the Manipur fires began and a few flashes that we all saw didn’t really show the size of the tragedy far away in the northeast till later. On TV panels, we heard politicians and their lackeys vying with each other to express a passive dismay we knew they didn’t feel. Since the central leadership didn’t intervene in a big way, we got used to images of barricaded villages, of women and children in makeshift tents receiving food doles in plastic bowls like refugees from another land. Do we Indians botch up everything, even a well united India that was handed to us on a plate, along with a carefully crafted Constitution?

Manipur was followed by Nuh and we knew that the country had changed. That we were back in the 1940s when one rumour, one carcass discovered in a place of worship, one quarrel over kite flying can result in bloody communal clashes. When it began escalating, for a long time there were protests and demonstrations to prove our capacity to fight back against communalism, sexism and casteism. But we didn’t realise that politics kept pushing us towards relapses into the consolidated barbarity of 1947. That was when the historic fault lines were thrown into motion after 1857. They had never dissolved but remained active and helped sell the dream of ‘Ek Bharat Akhand Bharat, Ek Nishan, Ek Vidhan’! Because the Hindu is endangered!

Those of us who protested (specially in the vernaculars) when the Babri Masjid was brought down, were told by the politicians high on Hindu identity and reunification of Akhand Bharat, that the secular train the likes of us relied on had departed from the platform. In 2023, when 52 shades of Hindutva are in the air and every chief ministerial wannabe is bowing at this temple and that, all plastered with sandalwood paste, we are witnessing where that fabled secularism terminated. The high ground for being an ‘Asli Hindu’ has already been claimed by the BJP.

The popular slogan that largely unites the aggressive trishul– and sword-wielding lynch mobs into attacking minorities and tribes other than their own is “throw out all foreigners (read non-Hindus) or make them say Jai Shri Ram and accept the superiority of the majority community”. It is senseless talking to them of the constitutional provisions. Justice is being wielded by mobs, occasionally also the state police even before the FIR has been filed. It seems that the law and order in state after state may end up being handed to the tender mercies of demolition crews whose loyalty is with the Hindu nation state, not the Constitution.

When rage cools, sadness and anger still remain. What dull wittedness got us to pile the injustices of a half developed capitalism on socialism without realising that there is no ‘trickle down’ of wealth in the real life of nations and the romanticised loneliness of the fat cats on top is nothing compared to the loneliness of the billions crowding around the bottom of the power pyramid.

Meetings are being held in both camps, the ruling coalition and the Opposition INDIA. At this point political strategy making needs the very people both sides seem intent on keeping out. These are groups disliked only because they remind us of the our ancestors’ own exploitative expansion in India by grabbing land and women, of the long colonial past that followed after a few centuries of having it good. A look at the handbooks prepared for G20 guests shows the impossibility of excising Bharat from India or Hindustan even though dozens of government departments may have tried. How do you cover up the Qutub Minar, the Taj Mahal? The Raisina Hill buildings or the tomb of Humayun ?

Women from the unorganised sector are the first group kept deliberately away from proportionate representation during vital debates at home and in the markets and the Parliament. They are followed by the minorities and tribals. Most of them speak in vernaculars, not the smooth English or Sanskritised Hindi of the power packs on either side. They are kept away because their epistemological stance on political participation, on economy and jurisprudence is very different from the mainstream and will pressurise the system into effecting major changes in power distribution. To justify their ostracisation, they are stigmatised as being under educated, being too emotionally driven, their analysis being based not on data but anecdotes. If at all, they are included in cultural performances: promotional ads, documentaries, theatre and films and OTT serials. There they are cute home makers, happy wives of farmers, gangsters, whores, thieves and dacoits. But if seated at the high table, they remind silent followers of the formally laid procedures rather than articulate free minds that may choose to speak on the injustices of a monolithic system.

Inclusion is what we need now. When the body of one of our greatest vocalists, Kumar Gandharva, was carried to the cremation grounds in his home town Devas, his pall bearers were led by a band of a wandering Nirguniya singers. Their sect pays homage in folk songs to a great abstract god, who stands above all caste or creed. Perhaps Kumar ji had willed that it be so. He had reintegrated their songs in his own classical repertoire so he wished to be accompanied by the deeply philosophical, despairingly gay and ironical Nirgun music till the end ,as his mortal remains turned slowly to ashes and dust. If the Nirgun songs reminding us of the irrelevance of borders, of our mortality and the eventual disappearance into the elements, were to penetrate their minds, a sensitive leadership would be mortified at the very thought of abrogating to oneself the rather ridiculous task of planning for a thousand years.

Mrinal Pande is a writer and veteran journalist.