We know that militant Islam does not get criticised in India as much as militant Hindutva. We know it is outright silly to compare the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh with the Islamic State. We know a certain section of the intelligentsia will always display cantankerousness towards Narendra Modi. We know Mani Shankar Aiyar should have long retired from public life. We must also know that we cannot offer to send Aamir Khan to Pakistan for speaking his mind.

I have been in the United States for the last few months and I too have felt alarmed at the developments in India that Aamir Khan spoke about. I am told on social media that one can feel safe in India today only if one were an upper-caste Hindu male. I am all of this and yet, truth be told, I am a little scared of returning.

I am currently at Yale – an oasis of opportunity and exclusivity in the middle of a city where 30% of the adults cannot read and where many live in poverty and squalor. The crime rate is high, and every other day the university police chief writes to us about an assault or robbery that has occurred on a street that we may have walked minutes before the crime. But the city works; the system seems to be working. It feels like we have someone watching over us. We just have to press a red button on the street and someone wearing state insignia will turn up in a minute.

At Yale, I live close to a frat house where an apparent act of racism recently triggered massive protests across the university. But it never felt as if the issue was not being addressed at the highest level. The dean of Yale College spent hours amidst a belligerent crowd of black students and patiently heard their grievances. Every institute within Yale organised its own meetings to enable students to speak freely about their experiences. No-one said the protesters should be sent to Africa.

Sense of despondency

That does not mean racism has been dealt with in America, or that tomorrow a black man will not be needlessly pinned down by a white cop on a New York street. But it is okay to speak out, it is okay to write a pamphlet. Nobody who has a selfie with President Barack Obama as his DP will abuse you on Twitter, or throw ink at you, or come to your office and beat you up. In a way, governance here is akin to psychotherapy – the therapy may or may not work, but the patient should feel that he is in the care of a therapist. That the therapist is telling him, “I hear you.” It is the patient on the couch, not the therapist. But in India it feels as if the state is on the couch with its back turned towards its people.

What did Aamir Khan say that caused such outrage and prompted a reaction from the government? He said that for Indians to feel secure there must be a sense of justice; that when there is insecurity, people look to the head of the state to make reassuring statements. He said there was a sense of despondency, an atmosphere where people felt depressed or low.

One doesn’t have to be from the minority community to feel what he said. Where is a sense of justice in India today, in Dadri or beyond? On which topic – minority protection or otherwise – did we hear a word of reassurance from Modi? Did he tell his chief minister in Haryana to stop talking about cows and instead focus on removing pigs wallowing in muck outside the Cyber City in Gurgaon? Did his party offer a word of solace to the family of the poor Kashmiri trucker killed by goons on the Jammu national highway? Did he speak to his government in Rajasthan and ask why it felt the need to remove a Safdar Hashmi poem from a textbook?

The fact is that many in India do feel a sense of despondency today and it runs beyond the minority community. One doesn’t have to be a Muslim to see how Modi’s silence has emboldened hoodlums who see it as his tacit approval and, as a result, are leaving their internet troll avatars behind to come out on the streets.

Fear in the minority community

And then beyond this, there is something that only a minority can feel. No matter how empathetic members of a majority community are, they cannot fear certain patterns that members of a minority community do. A friend in the US tells me the story of her grandmother who lives in Mumbai and had to seek refuge in a neighbour’s house during the 1992 riots. After Dadri, she says, she has been checking several times whether the door that she used to slip into her neighbour’s house over two decades ago is opening properly. She has not returned any award or asked her son about resettling anywhere else. But she is scared. And that fear, whether it is justified or not, is genuine.

The bhakts are already blackening Aamir Khan’s face on film posters. Somebody will invariably ask him why he didn’t feel the same after the Babri Masjid demolition. Maybe he did, but we didn’t ask him. Maybe he did not then, but feels it now. Maybe he thought things will get better, that acche din will come. Maybe he saw the beaming face of the woman standing next to Maya Kodnani in a selfie that has recently surfaced on the Facebook and that scared him.

It is not that people have not been killed before for transporting cows. Or that Dalit kids were not brutalised during Manmohan Singh’s time in power. But like Narendra Modi, he never looked us in the eye and said: “May the force be with you.” Maybe we got it wrong. Maybe Modi meant: may the hoax be with you.

Rahul Pandita is a 2015 Yale World Fellow and the author, most recently, of Our Moon has Blood Clots: A Memoir of a Lost Home in Kashmir. He tweets at @rahulpandita.