Lynchings do not defame India, they shame it.
(Published on July 1, 2017 in Business Standard)
On Wednesday evening, thousands of ordinary Indians put on their shoes, maybe grabbed an umbrella against monsoon rains, and walked out of their houses, carrying placards and wearing black armbands. In a dozen cities and towns across the country, they peacefully protested against murderous mob hate, and the government’s silence.
On Thursday morning the Prime Minister finally found it in him to comment on cow terrorists, after nearly a year and two dozen lynchings. He said that the violence saddened him, and that killing people in the name of gau bhakti is unacceptable.
Coincidence? Maybe, maybe not. But while the perceived causal link might gratify #NotInMyName protesters, we would do well to put the PM’s reaction in perspective.
First, Mr Modi’s single past admonition to gau rakshaks had no discernible impact. Either he doesn’t have the clout everyone thinks he has, or he hasn’t really meant it. Talk is cheap, meaningful action quite another thing. Second, Mr Modi is more likely to be eyeing Dalit voters in the upcoming Gujarat elections, than a few thousand marginal libtards. Third, his popularity has largely withstood domestic criticism, so the protests may not have moved him—though the government is tetchy about international press, so it could be that merciless coverage of his silence in the New York Times, the BBC, the Guardian, The Economist, the Washington Post have stung him into speaking.
And what did he actually say? I am unconvinced by what many are calling a firm, sincere speech. He said that the Mahatma wouldn’t approve, and also that nobody talked more about cow protection than the Mahatma, which strikes me as conveniently fork-tongued. He didn’t mention the lynching victims, not even 16-year-old Junaid whose recent murder galvanised the protests. He wondered what we have become, but let the question hang. (The answer is: a society where hate and violence can proceed with impunity, because it is constantly excused and justified in the fraudulent name of public sentiment.)
He played the angsty philosopher, not the steely administrator. It was deja vu all over again—and there was, of course, the supreme irony of beholding the ideology that backslaps Nathuram Godse, shoot from Mahatma Gandhi’s shoulder. As various Twitter wags have pointed out, the Mahatma might have shot back, Not in my name.
Unless the BJP seriously follows up on law enforcement—no small task—and on a rhetorical makeover, this will just be an instance of making the right noises to pacify critics while winking at the hate-mongers.
I hope for, but don’t expect, any change in BJP politics. Just hours before Mr Modi’s speech another man was lynched near Ranchi, and there will no doubt be more killings because, as The Telegraph’s Friday front page so eloquently showed, we aren’t supposed to kill in Gandhi’s India, but then we live in Modi’s India. We have to hope that the PM means business this time, but until we see a serious systemic effort to curb violence, Mr Modi is not walking the talk.
What is important, and heartening, about the #NotInMyName protests, is that finally citizens stepped up to fill a shameful moral vacuum. They found their moral compass and stuck to it, despite a truly stupid effort—predictably from the Right, but also from many others—to scorn and discredit the protest. What’s to scorn—the assertion that lynching is horrifying and must stop? The refusal to accept or ignore tides of blood? Does the fact that only a few thousand people protested make the protest ridiculous, or is it an ugly comment on our society? What does it say about India that a protest against murder is controversial?
The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh ideologue Rakesh Sinha, whose repeated nightly appearances on various news channels is one of the abiding mysteries of our times, claimed that the protests were a Pakistani ISI-created effort to defame India; Rajya Sabha member Swapan Dasgupta suggested that it was a case of sour grapes because the protestors no longer enjoy the fruits of Congress power. I know I’m supposed to use words, but I think an eye-roll each will do.
A Huffington Post editor wrote that focusing on beef and Muslims only helps Hindutva, to which I’d respond that it is possible to be so over-clever and over-tactical that you can lose sight of certain simple truths. In this case: Killing people and terrorising minorities is illegal, anti-Constitutional, and morally maggoty, and this country’s government has been complicit in its silence, its inaction, and its rhetoric.
I hope that there will be many more such citizen protests, most of all by rejecting hate and sticking up for each others’ constitutional rights in our daily lives. It matters, when constitutional values face marginalisation, not to let volume and numbers make you second-guess your true North. Because that is how a country loses itself.