The year just ended was supposed to usher us into that heaven that Rabindranath Tagore wrote so poetically about—a land of milk and honey where every Indian has a house, festooned with electric lights; where every farmer has doubled his income; where I and my fellow citizens zip across the country in bullet trains that can travel faster than a politician’s lies; where a USD 5 trillion economy has brought prosperity for all.
That was the year that should have been. The year that actually was, though, was one in which we spent crores covering up our shanties and slums to shield the sensibilities of visiting dignitaries; where the most unfortunate among us have to be relocated to keep them from becoming a human stain on the magnificence of the upcoming G20 summit.
Where the majority lives in darkness and the economy is in shambles; where the government struggles to pay wages to those it employs; where the unemployment rate is high; where the Rupee ends the year as the worst-performing of Asian currencies; where the government has to take a “historic decision” to provide “free food” to over 800 million people who can no longer afford to buy their own supply and where public discourse is driven not by broken promises and a failing, flailing government but by Pragya Singh Thakur and her ilk.
Pragya Thakur in the lead-up to elections in the state, incited hate while addressing an audience in Karnataka on New Year's Eve.
Minister of State for Home Affairs Nityanand Rai assured the media that minorities are safer in India than anywhere else in the world.
The BJP “strongly denounced” any person who “insults or demeans any sect or religion” only when faced with International condemnation.
There is no such thing as ‘love jihad’ in law, and that no cases have been reported by any central agency.
A BJP leader urged his followers to celebrate 25 December as 'Tulsi Pujan Diwas' promising that if given power in West Bengal, the party will run riot with bulldozers “just like in Uttar Pradesh”.
Times When Pragya Thakur Went Knives Out
It is no accident that Thakur whose health is so poor that she had to be given bail in the Malegaon blasts case, but not so poor as to inhibit her from traveling to Karnataka to light fires in the lead-up to elections in the state, told her audience to keep their knives sharp enough to cut not just vegetables but also human heads, on the same day that Minister of State for Home Affairs Nityanand Rai assured the media that minorities are safer in India than anywhere else in the world.
Rai was laying the ground for denial and distancing as in, “the BJP has distanced itself from” whatever new outrage its water carriers, protected by the non-stick Teflon coating of their saffron robes, have perpetrated. Memory is short, but surely not so much that we have forgotten how the BJP “distanced itself” from Thakur’s earlier statement praising Nathuram Godse as a “desh bhakt” (a comment that prompted Home Minister Amit Shah to ask for a “detailed report” and Prime Minister Narendra Modi to say he will “never be able to forgive her from my heart”, even as his party gave her a ticket to contest the Lok Sabha polls of 2019), or when she said that Maharashtra Anti-Terrorism Squad Chief Hemant Karkare had been killed during the 26/11 terrorist attack in Mumbai as a result of her curse.
We might have to wait till 2024 to realise the Prime Minister’s promise of running water in every home, but the year just ended, has seen the spigot of hate gushing with unabated force.
Remember the ‘Dharam Sansad’ of December 2021? The follow-up ‘Sant Sammelan’ of January 2022? Remember Prabodhanand Giri in Aligarh, declaring that Muslims “have no right to live in India” and asking his audience to pre-emptively kill “jihadis”? Remember the ‘Dharam Sansad’ at Una in April 2022, where Pooja Shakun Pandey asked the audience to take an oath to train in weapons and kill those belonging to other religions?
I could go on, but the point makes itself: The ground for Pragya Thakur’s essay in hate, which brought the year to a close, was systematically ploughed, seeded, and fertilised throughout the year.
Media’s ‘Fringe’ Tag & Free Rein To Hate
There was a time when the complaisant media would label such hate mongers as “fringe” but that label like the Rs 2,000 note that was supposed to inoculate us against ills ranging from terrorism to black money, has been in short supply of late.
The only known use of the “fringe” fig leaf this past year was when the Ministry of External Affairs deployed its ambassadors in Arab nations to stick that label on the party’s then-National Spokesperson Nupur Sharma. And it is worth noting that the BJP “strongly denounced” any person who “insults or demeans any sect or religion” only when faced with International condemnation.
If anything, the BJP in the year past has done a U-turn and, rather than “distance itself” from the purveyors of hate, it has overtly embraced them. As for instance Manoj Kukrani—a convict in the 2002 Naroda Patiya massacre who conveniently out on bail, campaigned for his daughter Payal Kukrani in the Gujarat assembly elections. Or Chandrasinh Raulji, a member of the Gujarat government that decided unilaterally to release the 11 men found guilty of raping Bilkis Bano and killing nine members of her family. Raulji feted the released killers, excused their actions on the grounds that they were “sanskari Brahmins” and, for his pains, was given the party ticket to contest from Godhra.
Kukrani and Rauji won, confirming the BJP’s current line of thinking that hate is, for the party faithful, a feature and not a bug, and that it no longer needs to pretend to keep such hate mongers at arm’s length. (Elsewhere, former Union Minister ‘Swami’ Chinmayanand Saraswati has secured anticipatory bail in a case of rape.)
Virulent Nature of Violence in India
With hate, thus, being officially endorsed, even embraced, the trickle-down effect has turned into a flood tide. “What the US (NB: replace with ‘India’ and read the rest as is) is currently experiencing,” David Runciman wrote in his book "How Democracy Ends" could be called the long tail of violence: there is plenty of it, but most of it is tailored to particular groups.
It is rarely a collective experience. Violence has not disappeared. Instead, it has spread and thinned out, touching individual lives in myriad ways that barely register with those not directly affected. Much of this violence is privatised, domesticated or institutionalised in places designed to keep it off the minds of the majority.”
There is no dearth of examples of the nature of violence in India – my digital files MyMind and raindrop.io bulge with the contents of folders bearing labels such as ‘hate speech’, ‘sentiments’, ‘love jihad’, ‘conversions’, ‘mosques’ and a dozen more including, in a signpost to the times we live in, ‘hacked to death’.
From just the last few days of the last year: A saffron-clad group organises an event to burn Santa in effigy, to the accompaniment of ‘Death to Santa Claus’ chants. The idiocy of calling for the death of a mythical figure, a figment of popular imagination, appears not to have registered— but then, in this brave new India, things don’t have to make sense.
‘Love Jihad’, Bulldozer Politics & Other Shenanigans
Consider for instance, the Maharashtra minister who says that the suicide of actress Tunisha Sharma is ‘love jihad’. Never mind that the Home Ministry has long since told the Parliament that there is no such thing as ‘love jihad’ in law, and that no cases have been reported by any central agency (including the NIA, which was specifically tasked to probe the ‘proliferation’ of these instances in Kerala).
Even going by the lay definition, ‘love jihad’ is deemed to be a calculated program where young Muslim men seduce Hindu women, convert them to Islam, and breed children born into that faith. It strikes me that assuming the case is proved, abetting the suicide of a Hindu girl before her conversion and impregnation defeats the purpose. No?
Anyway, a BJP leader urged his followers to celebrate 25 December as 'Tulsi Pujan Diwas' (The earlier “Good Governance Day” appeared to have been given a quiet burial) and promised that the BJP will, if given power in West Bengal, run riot with bulldozers “just like in Uttar Pradesh”.
A church in Mysore is vandalised. In Lakhimpur, Bajrang Dal members force pastors to stop prayers in a church, on the grounds that they are indulging in conversions. In Uttarakhand, Christmas celebrations are disrupted, and a pastor is attacked, for a similar reason.
Ironically, from Chattisgarh, comes reports of systemic violence, and of an organised campaign to convert Christian Adivasis to Hinduism, on pain of eviction and/or death. In Bareilly, a teacher is arrested after being deemed “guilty” of getting the students to recite a famous dua penned by Mohammad Iqbal. And an Ayodhya-based ‘seer’ casually threatens to behead Bollywood Star Shah Rukh Khan.
Dangerous Repercussions of Political Gaslighting
No event is too tragic that it cannot be turned into an opportunity for gaslighting. As, for example, the road accident that has put India cricketer Rishabh Pant in hospital. Shortly after the news broke, we were informed that men present at the site of the accident looted money from the cricketer’s bag. That initial “eyewitness report” then transmuted, on WhatsApp groups, into an analysis that the theft owed to the fact that the area where the accident took place was heavily populated by Rohingya refugees.
A distant relative (who I wish fervently was even more distant) sent me the ‘Rohingya robbers’ WhatsApp after the original “report” had already been refuted by the police, with the pointed addendum: “As a cricket reporter, I thought you might want to note this and write about it” as good an indicator as any of the insidious effects of gaslighting. (In actual fact, the driver and conductor of a Haryana Roadways bus got the cricketer out of the burning car and called for an ambulance).
It feels, looking back on the year just ended, that we are being converted, willy-nilly, into people who, high on the opiate of a mythical past and drunk on the promise of a fantastical future, seem hell-bent on turning the living, breathing present into hell on earth.
It is not just that the long tail of evil is getting longer by the day – what is particularly startling is the sheer banality of this evil that has been loosed among us. It is this banality that essayist Sarah Kendzior points to in her book They Knew: How A Culture of Conspiracy Keeps America Complacent.
It is “not the brazen depravity, but the quiet moral rot,” Kendzior writes. “The way evil travels like a disease, inflicting people who breathe it in and absorb it into their system, only to breathe it out and infect others. Are they aware that they have contracted it? Would they rid themselves of it if they had the chance? Or is it too frightening to confront when it is a part of yourself, too enjoyable when it is a weapon you wield?”
Could that be the explanation? That we go along with hate, even endorse it in election after election, because it is a handy weapon to wield against whatever or whoever we can target to hide our own insecurities, camouflage our own lack of self-worth?
Could it be that we go along with hate, even endorse it in election after election, because it is a handy weapon to wield against whatever or whoever we can target to hide our own insecurities, camouflage our own lack of self-worth?
Or maybe, we should postpone hopes and well wishes of a New Year to 2024? Though Amit Shah thinks it could be 2025, while Piyush Goyal is bullish about USD 30 trillion in 2047. Which, according to Mukesh Ambani, is under-selling our potential which is actually USD 40 trillion by 2047.
I don’t think it is remotely possible that I have another 25 years of life left to me, so hey, whatever.
(Prem Panicker is a senior Indian journalist and tweets @prempanicker. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)