City City Bang Bang, Columns

The unresolved past

Perhaps the past never goes away. It waits in the shadows, gathering evidence of its relevance, and slides back into the present when the time is right.

The current climate of division and resentment in the country feels like a throwback to a past that was deemed to have been left behind, but anger has a way of lying low and simmering long. When it combines with a conducive contemporary context, it can become a potent and dangerous force.

Seven decades after independence it is astonishing that we are debating the things we are. It is clear that the old fissures, harboured resentments and a deep sense of injury so evident at the time of Independence have gone nowhere .

Perhaps, as some have suggested, the assassination of Gandhi made it impossible for the anger to find an address. It became untenable to argue for Hindu hurt, when it was seen widely to be linked with an act of violence so unpalatable that it rendered the feeling illegitimate.

The feeling did not disappear by any means; it festered, erupting regularly in the form of riots. But the dominant discourse was so overwhelming that the murmurs in households and on the streets had no possible way of becoming politically viable instruments.
The anger got buried deep, in particular through the instrument of secularism, which became the professed ideology of most political parties.

Over time secularism, became less a principled belief and more a politically useful instrument that was used to build electoral constituencies. The anger against ‘minority appeasement’ grew as an undercurrent. But the sections of society that felt most strongly about this lacked any political heft.

The welfarist strategies employed by the Congress held sway till Advani’s rath yatra and his attack on pseudo-secularism, which began the process of the re-legitimising of the Hindu right in political terms.

The Mandal intervention had kick started the unraveling of the coalition built by the Congress. At a more profound level, it had demonstrated how the past was the key determinant of politics decades after independence. It was an acknowledgment that the social reform agenda was far from complete and that power would need to devolve to where the people were.

The mediated democracy of an earlier era, where the ruling class as per its imperatives would accommodate social groups, was dismantled decisively. Politics, which was meant to transform society, got in turn transformed by society, which dragged it back into areas that were unresolved.

The rise of the right, although very different in character is part of the same process of voices not accommodated in an earlier process, rising to the fore.

The continuing strife in Kashmir when wrapped in the ideals of hyper-nationalism and fanned by the global anxieties caused by Islamist terrorism fuels the anti-Muslim sentiment. A deeply embedded animus has found rejuvenation, largely through the efforts of this government, and been made modern and easy to consume.

The charismatic leadership of Modi allows for this sentiment to get clothed in narrative of resurgence and national pride. From being seen as an illegitimate and somewhat archaic worldview, the idea of Hindu nationalism is now a club that is both desirable and easy to get into.

There is no question that this has been helped enormously by media in different ways. As the pent up feelings of the middle class that regards itself as the cultural mainstream, began to become more expressive, television led the way in becoming a vituperative distributor of despair and anger.

Paradoxically, media serves both as cheerleader-in-chief for an aggressive form of nationalism while at the same time serving as the primary symbol of ‘anti-national’ liberal values.

The arrival of social media has been a truly decisive factor in turning the discourse on its head. Social media, and Twitter in particular, are designed to help give vent to inarticulate anger. Its format makes it easy for incoherent rage to find expression and circulation. WhatsApp augments this by allowing for a strand of opinion, however unconnected to reality, to find uncontested circulation.

Over the last few years, we have seen how this anger has got normalized. What was unthinkable a few years ago, what was unutterable, is now a casually acceptable part of our everyday discourse.

The situation in the country today is potentially explosive. Whatever the political gains that might accrue from playing the polarisation game, the risks are enormous. And it would appear that the ruling party is intent on signaling to its base as to where it stands.

The recent absence of all ministers from an iftar party hosted by the President is a case in point. Having attended this party in previous years, to not do so at this juncture, feels like a very clear sign that government wants to deepen the divide, rather than bridge it. As is its selective use of silence.

The trouble is that the situation can quickly spiral out of control. When random violence can spontaneously erupt against ordinary Muslims for no reason whatsoever, and when such incidents do not get adequate state attention, there is a real risk of a snowballing effect. Pent up hostility that has been carefully nurtured can find unprovoked expression and spread across the country. A circle of violence and retaliation can quickly get out of hand.

It is as if we are back in time, with the old resentments, only this time armed with modern instruments of the media. Sane minds on all sides must surely recognize the dangers posed by the situation today. The revenge that is sought against history is unattainable, which is why it has no end.

The current path leads to no solutions and has no destination. It is propelled by fear and anger and has no way of controlling itself. Even if one ignores the question of a nation’s ideals, hardheaded pragmatism would tell us to step back before it’s too late.

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