I regularly travel by trains hopping between Delhi & my home in Ranchi between semesters. Over the past four years since train travels turned a regular feature of my life, I’ve had multiple lively conversations with fellow passengers. Most of the times it’d be the obvious; on how Ranchi’s weather has deteriorated over the past decades. Once undivided Bihar’s summer capital known far & wide for its pleasant summers & gorgeous waterfalls is now swamped by apartments & malls. Most of the people I met rue the breakneck pace of urbanization in & around Ranchi.
At other times I’ve had some serious conversations on a range of topics from Jharkhand’s endemic issues of Naxalism & the sensitive anti-land grab CNT act that prevents large industrial houses & other powerful private entities from grabbing adivasi lands. Whether I agreed or not, all of such discussions would end amicably with the two of us learning something from the other; that’s why I always relish boarding a train.
Recently on a train to Delhi, I realized, things have changed faster than I imagined. A young man was trumpeting how the new UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath was ushering in a new-era across India’s most populous state although he chose not to give details of what this “new era” actually is. A fellow co-passenger retorted by listing the growing problems of lawlessness across UP, the absurd logic behind Adiityanath’s pet project; the Anti-romeo squad that ostensibly aims to discipline eve-teasers however, often ends up raking negative publicity. As the two engaged in an argumentative exchange, there were moments where I wanted to put my point across but, each time I restrained myself.
For the past three years I’ve seen the popular discourse turn increasingly aggressive. The line between what constitutes the nation & the government has blurred to the point that even mild criticism of the regime can get you a free pass to Pakistan. As someone with a Muslim name, I’ve always known I had little space to maneuver when engaging with people on political issues. There are those who’d always invoke your extra-national loyalties; as if I had one, gauging you on the metrics of eating habits, appearance & the ultimate loyalty test reserved for Muslims; an India-Pakistan cricket match.
It isn’t as if these things didn’t exist before the present majoritarian BJP government came to power riding high on the near impotency of the UPA-II in handling sensational corruption cases. A subtle distrust of those who don’t conform to the standards of the majority is a binding feature of societies across the world. In this respect the Indian nation is no different given its history of sectarian conflicts; those in minority particularly India’s nearly 180 million strong Muslim minority has always been a subject of distrust & a potential internal security threat for a state that’s nominally secular but, has always shown majoritarian proclivities.
Over the past seven decades most of us have become inured to the flaws of the Indian state. We know that the chance of India’s marginalized; Adivasis, Dalits & Muslims climbing up the ladder of social mobility is hamstrung by the near hierarchical order of the Indian society. The unfortunates never break free of the economic & social traps that bog them down over multiple generations. Let’s not pretend that we’ve ever been an egalitarian society even Nehru’s grand socialist scheme reeked of Brahmanism. As for Mahatma Gandhi, almost all his life he believed, emancipation of the Dalits can only come at the hands of the savarna. If people like Gandhi & Nehru had a hard time freeing themselves of feudal mentality others like SP Mukherjee & Deendayal Upadhayaya; the “guiding lights” of the ruling BJP remained firm on the ideas of varna-vyavastha as a key element of the Indian society.
The recent caste violence between Dalits & Thakurs in Saharanpur is a standard lesson on how to discipline the unruly lot among the Dalits who won’t easily fall in line following BJP’s resounding victory in the UP elections. The intermittent caste & communal violence directed against Dalits & Muslims is a calculated attempt at showing them their place. The specter of cow vigilantism grows less for the love of gau-mata & more for obvious prejudices against Muslims often stereotyped as uncouth beef-eaters. Probably, these stereotypes are the reason that the gruesome murders of Akhlaque, Pehlu Khan, Junaid & Alimuddin won’t appall the collective conscience of the nation. We’re often told to brush-off such incidents, that they’re mere stray occurrences in a nation that takes pride in its diversity.
How do we then, explain the continuous erosion of India’s syncretism? How do we allay the fears of those who now believe that India has begun to mirror its western neighbor; Pakistan?
Lynch mobs call the shots across towns from Haryana to Jharkhand know well that police & the administration is on their side. They run amok knowing that the present ruling dispensation is the fountainhead of their ideological moorings. In the run-in to the 2014 Lok Sabha election, it was Modi himself who’d harp on beef & accused the ruling Congress party of promoting cow slaughter & beef export. His divisive rhetoric during the Bihar & UP elections is unprecedented for a Prime Minister. It took him nearly two years to condemn gau-rakshaks; that too euphemistically, after multiple instances of Muslims being butchered across North India in the name of the holy-cow. The marginalized in India are increasingly feeling restless. This isn’t a hyperbole it’s the stark reality of the times we live in.