The first time I met the celebrated author Amish Tripathi, we were sitting outside a theatre at the National Centre for the Performing Arts, looking out at a sprawling temporary bookstore.
We introduced ourselves. To my continuing regret, I had not heard of him. But he had heard of me. “Hey, I love your mathematics columns!” he said. Then he ran in among the books, bought one and ran back to me. It was one of mine. “Sign it for me!” he said. That kind of a bloke.
In the few times we have met since – including once when we missed a flight in Jaipur – he has been unfailingly generous, gracious and warm. So, when I watched him on a television programme recently, offering not so much the forthright sincerity I know him for, but woolly platitudes instead, you can imagine my disappointment.
The programme was an interview with Sonia Singh of NDTV, focused on the ongoing tangle over the Gyanvapi mosque.
Tripathi said plenty, starting with this pithy phrase: “More than faith, this is essentially about the truth.”
True enough. In that spirit, then, let me react to a few of the points he made.
First, “where India is different [from] Turkey and other countries”, Tripathi said, is that “the majority is dharmic and liberal, they wait patiently, sometimes for centuries.” This is why, Tripathi went on, “I could not advocate any hatred.”
That is reassuring. But is it really necessary to list the innumerable recent cases of hatred and its consequences? Well, maybe it is. Let us try just a few.
Think of Mohammed Akhlaq, slaughtered by his neighbours who suspected that he had beef in his home near Dadri on the outskirts of New Delhi in September 2015.
Think of the several young Dalits in Una in Gujarat in July 2016. Accusing them of killing cows, a “cow protection group” tied the Dalit youths to a car and beat them with sticks, rods and knives.
Think of Pehlu Khan, lynched by cow vigilantes near Alwar in Rajasthan, in April 2017.
Think of Mohammed Afrazul, whom Shambhulal Regar hacked to death and then burned the body in Rajsamand district in Rajasthan in December 2017, solely because Afrazul was Muslim. Regar was so proud of this atrocity that he got his nephew to film him in action.
Tripathi does not advocate any hatred, certainly. Is he doing what he can to quench the hatred that burns inside Shambhulal Regar and so many like him? This hatred that maims and kills too many Indians?
Second, it is not just about quenching hatred. Faced with questions about incidents like these and what they say about India, Tripathi says he likes to “look at the data”.
It tells him that “across the entire Indian subcontinent, there are only two countries where the proportion of minorities as a percentage of the population has actually gone up in the last 70 years, and one of them is India.”
That is reassuring too. But I have to wonder: what would Mohammed Akhlaq have felt if, as his neighbours were lynching him, Tripathi explained to him that “the proportion of minorities as a percentage of the population has actually gone up”?
What if this calm attempt to reassure Akhlaq included Tripathi’s conclusion about this proportionate increase, that it “shows that India is actually a decent liberal country”?
The point: does the data allow us to wave away such savagery? Does it allow us to actually celebrate the men accused, for example, when ministers garland them, or when we wrap them in the national flag when they die? What does such celebration say about being decent and liberal?
A country of 1.4 billion, says Tripathi, will have “some idiots”. No doubt. May we judge a country by how we treat those idiots?
Third, Tripathi points out that “among our faultlines is also caste oppression.” But he goes on to say that we speak of it “truthfully” and have “made compensation for it” by running “the biggest positive discrimination/affirmative action programme in the history of humanity”.
He means, of course, our long-standing policy of reservations, and he is right to point to it.
Yet, can Tripathi really be unaware of the tremendous backlash against reservations over many years? There is Rajeev Goswami, who set himself on fire in the midst of an enormous protest against reservations.
There’s the constant chatter about how the policy kills “merit”. How often have you heard stories about students who use reservations being shunned on their campuses? How often have you heard people go on about doctors who benefit from reservations being incompetent and a threat to life?
Tripathi asks: “Hasn’t India actually improved in the last 70 years in terms of how the caste issue is addressed?” How would a member of our lower castes answer that? What would she have to say about caste oppression?
Finally, let us return to something that Tripathi says is the “only disinfectant”: truth. He is absolutely right to call it that. Which is why I am going to list here, randomly selected, just five truths – or possibly, the lack thereof – about this country. This could be a much longer list:
Indians slaughtered 3,000 Indians in Delhi in 1984. Nobody of any significance has been punished.
Official figures say the pandemic killed about half-a-million Indians. This number flies in the face of reason and common sense. Surely we owe the victims of Covid-19 and their families an honest accounting of what they suffered? Because there’s mounting evidence that the toll is several times higher.
Indians slaughtered 1,000 Indians in Mumbai in 1992-’93. Nobody of any significance has been punished.
Only a few months ago, the government announced that India suddenly has more women than men. This is so at odds with our documented reality over many years that “truth” is not a word that readily applies here.
Indians slaughtered 1,000 Indians in Gujarat in 2002. Nobody of any significance has been punished.
“True strength will come,” Tripathi told Sonia Singh, “when we speak the truth, when we don’t hide things of the past.” So correct. So let us pick one of those five, then: the slaughter of 1,000 Indians in my city, Mumbai, in 1992-’93. Let us stop hiding it and instead speak of it. Let us punish those killers right away.
That would be some disinfectant.
Dilip D’Souza is the author of eight books. His most recent work, with Joy Ma, is The Deoliwallahs: The True Story of the 1962 Chinese-Indian Internment.