How India Marched Towards the ‘New Normal’ of Bigotry, Communalism

Slow, small, insignificant events kept adding layers of ‘normal’ till we reached the New Normal of blatant bigotry.

Updated
Opinion
5 min read
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‘Creeping normality’ (also called gradualism, or landscape amnesia) is a process by which a major change comes to be accepted as ‘normal’, even ‘acceptable’, if it happens slowly through small, often unnoticeable, increments of change. A change that might otherwise be viewed as objectionable if it were to take place in a single step or short period, is seen as quite all right – as we living in 21st century India can bear witness to the slow-building horror some of us have felt over the decades.

Slow, small, seemingly insignificant events, beginning with the country-wide Rath Yatra of the 1980s, kept adding a layer of ‘normal’ till we reached this stage of the ‘New Normal’ where blatant bigotry, bare-faced communalism and publicly-aired prejudices are considered perfectly all right.

‘Creeping Normality’: How Has The Urdu Poet Looked At ‘Gradual Changes’?

The American scientist Jared Diamond describes ‘creeping normality’ in his book written in 2005, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. Diamond gives the remarkable example of the natives of the Easter Island who, seemingly irrationally, in just a few centuries, chopped down the last of their trees, wiped out their rich ecosystem, drove their plants and animals to extinction, and saw their complex society spiral into chaos and cannibalism. As Diamond writes:

“I suspect, though, that the disaster happened not with a bang but with a whimper. After all, there are those hundreds of abandoned statues to consider. The forest the islanders depended on for rollers and rope didn’t simply disappear one day—it vanished slowly, over decades.”
How has the Urdu poet looked at gradual changes, so gradual that they creep up unannounced as a fait accompli?

As Shaz Tamkanat admits, often there’s a self-denial that this will not happen, not to me, not now at the very least:

Abhi kyunkar kahun zer-e-naqab-e-surmagin kya hai
Badalta hai zamane ka chalan ahista ahista

Why should I say what is under the grey veil
The ways of the world change slowly, slowly

And Ateeq Asar is ruing the gradual absence of trustworthy voices which is possibly an early warning signal that goes unheeded:

Utthe jaate hain dida-var sabhi ahista ahista
Ye duniya mo'tabar logon se ḳhali hoti jaati hai

All the connoisseurs leave one by one
This world empties of wise men slowly

‘Look At The Speed Of Revolution... So Slow, Yet So Swift’

And the much underrated but marvellous poet, Asad Badayuni, who died tragically young, speaks as though he has foreknowledge of what the future might hold. As is often the case in Urdu poetry, it is implied, obliquely, rather than stated directly, and the references to roses and thorny bushes is implicit rather than explicit. In a sher, eerily reminiscent of what happened at Easter Island, he writes:

Ye dharti ek din banjar zamin ban jaaegi jaanan
Gulabon ki jagah lenge babul ahista ahista

This earth will turn into a barren land one day, dearest
Thorny trees will slowly and steadily take the place of roses

Sometimes, the poet draws solace from placing the blame squarely on Time and, therefore, absolving himself of all culpability as, for instance, in this sher by Shahryar:

Waqt teri yeh ada mai aaj tak samjha nahi
Meri duniya kyun badal dii, mujh ko kyun badla nahiin

Time, I have till today never understood this trait of yours
Why have you changed my world, but not changed me

Firaq Gorakhpuri has the last word when change, especially revolutionary change, manifests itself:

Dekh raftar-e-inqalab 'Firaq'
Kitni ahista aur kitni tez

Look at the speed of revolution, Firaq
So slow and yet so swift

What We, In India, Must Dwell Upon

Coming back to where we started, to gradualism and creeping normality, it is never about pulling down one advertisement, renaming one road, removing one book from a syllabus, issuing one letter of apology, retracting one seemingly benign statement, dropping one member from a committee… and so on and so forth in a long list of solitary acts.

It is, rather, about the cumulative impact of these solitary acts of omission or commission. It is about the Sorites Paradox (also known as the Paradox of the Heap).

Imagine a heap of sand, from which grains of sand are methodically removed, one at a time. One might think that removing a solitary grain here or there makes no difference to the heap. But what if this process is repeated over a period of time with persistence and regularity? What if only one grain remains from the original heap? Will it still be a heap? If not, when did it change from a heap to a non-heap? Was it that first time, when the first solitary grain was removed?

These are questions we in India need to ponder.

How Naushad Noori, Bangladeshi Urdu Poet, Drew Our Attention To The ‘Mound of the Dead’

Naushad Noori, one of the most remarkable Urdu poets from Bangladesh, draws our attention to the ‘Mound of the Dead’ and the lessons to be learnt from it. An ardent supporter of the Bangla language movement and the creation of a new country based on linguistic and cultural affinity rather than religion and jingoistic hyper-nationalism, Noori seems prescient, pointing towards the disaster waiting to unfurl in this poem entitled Mohenjodaro written in 1952:

Ho sakta hai, koi toofan
Ho sakta hai, koi darya
Ho sakta hai, koi faateh
Ho sakta hai, koi lutera
Shehr-e tamaddun dhool ke neechey
Dhool ke neechey boli bhasha
Aur issey tarikh-nawees
Log kahein murdon ka teela
Koi vaba to phooti thhii
Koi bala to tooti
thhii
Mere shehr ke rehne walon
Apni Pothi, apni Gita
Apni apni lok kathayein
Apni apni geeti mala
Apna apna harf-e tahajji
Apni apni boli bhasha
Pattey, patthar, poste, papyrus
Tambe, lohey par likh rakhna
Wahi waba phir phooti hai
Wahi bala phir tooti hai

It could have been a storm
Or a river
Or a vanquisher
Or a plunderer
That buried an entire civilisation
Under a mound of dirt
Languages and dialects
Under a mound of dirt
Today, the historians call it
The Mound of the Dead
Perhaps an epidemic broke out
Or a calamity fell upon it
O people of my city
Hold on to your Geeta and Pothi
Your folk tales and fables
Your songs and ballads
Yours letters of the alphabet
Your languages and dialects
Inscribe them on copper and iron
And on leaves, stones, skin and papyrus
That same epidemic has broken out again
That same calamity has befallen.

(Dr Rakhshanda Jalil is a writer, translator and literary historian. She writes on literature, culture and society. She runs Hindustani Awaaz, an organisation devoted to the popularisation of Urdu literature. She tweets at@RakhshandaJalil. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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