In an age when ordinances and legal challenges are so thick on the ground, it is easy to step into a trap. If you are a believer in a liberal secular state, you realise the very words have been drained of their original meaning, the language they were a part of no longer navigates and orients debates. As middle-class practitioners of journalism, you are suddenly expected to live with a constant sense of guilt for being well-educated, for being a feminist or an atheist. You are no longer an individual but a type: those who sit in mega cities in air-conditioned cabins, or study in privileged universities and debate national issues in campus dhabas. Each night on prime time television debates, trivial and peripheral issues arise like vampires, to be picked up and refracted a million times by social media.
As a people you realise, with a shudder, that we are constantly distracted by peripheral issues made to seem like genuine issues – the beef ban, triple talaq, the volume of the morning azaan at mosques, or sundry tweets aimed to hurt and threaten young female students, journalists or retired officials who question the subversion of correct military or civil decision-making. All this while major issues like the plight of southern farmers who paraded naked for weeks in Delhi to demand drought compensation, the long-term effects of demonetisation on jobs and the informal sector (which employs most of our women workers), the nutritional and health status of the (very large) officially poor and marginalised groups in rural and urban areas, and the patterns of migration of the rural and urban poor triggering conflicts all over, must wait.
This piece came out of a request for a write-up on the president this week approving a proposal (of a government body for the promotion of Hindi) mandating the prime minister, president and vice-president to deliver or read out all their public speeches in Hindi. I mulled over the matter and, even though I have been a Hindi writer and a journalist for half a century, found no reason to celebrate this as a victory for Hindi. For one, as matters stand legally, Hindi cannot be deemed India’s national language until non-Hindi states (long opposed to it) give it their assent. And for another, how can any fair-minded citizen brought up in a liberal democratic ethos remain meekly tolerant of what is, after all, a flouting of the state’s legal obligation to respect the opinions of non-Hindi states in the east and south? That will create more enemies for this poor misunderstood mother tongue of millions.
Big fuss over non-issues
Could it be that orders such as this, or the ban on beef, or the shutting down of liquor shops along highways, or the proposal for state control on portions of food served in restaurants, emanate from faceless authorities sitting in some kind of war room somewhere aiming to deflect the nation’s attention from issues the state no longer wishes to debate? And is that the reason why as soon as such ideas manifest themselves in the public space, they go viral within minutes and set the agenda for national debate in the media? If you really analyse it, the mandate on the use of Hindi translates into asking those who are mostly already using the language on formal occasions to continue to do so, but backed by a public proclamation this time. Behold also that the terms of two of the men at the top, President Pranab Mukherjee and Vice-President Hamid Ansari, end soon: Mukherjee bows out in July and Ansari the next month. As for the Opposition, the Rashtriya Janata Dal, the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party are unlikely to oppose the order. And the Congress, furiously rummaging for votes for the 2019 general elections in the backyards of Amethi and Rae Bareli in Uttar Pradesh, is unlikely to, at this point, signal a disdain for Hindi or root for English.
So what happens each time such an issue crops up? The media predictably grabs it. Take the example of the row over triple talaq, a practice where a Muslim man can divorce his wife merely by uttering the word talaq thrice. The government and several women have moved the Supreme Court against this practice as well as that of halala – where a Muslim woman who wishes to remarry her former husband must marry another man, consumate that marriage and get him to divorce her. Yes, triple talaq and halala are abhorrent practices that have denied gender equality to countless women. But what of the third issue mentioned in the petition pending before the Supreme Court: polygamy (having more than one spouse)?
Since the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes have also been granted the right to polygamy, and both groups have registered a high incidence of polygamy in the Census, how and why is it that this matter has not been simultaneously brought up to be debated as hotly as the other two, if at all? Has the real aim behind the petition all along been only to reduce the authority of the Muslim clergy – the guardians of Muslim personal law or Sharia – and to finally co-opt them into supporting a progressive move (as in the case of the beef ban)?
The way the debate is going, if triple talaq is struck down, the majority supporters of this move would be told that they have cause to feel virtuous for having helped their Muslim sisters escape the clutches of an evil patriarchy. (It seems to be happening already, with Vishwa Hindu Parishad leader Sadhvi Prachi advising victims of triple talaq last week to convert to Hinduism and marry Hindu men.) The majoritarian state (poorna bahumat ki sarkar) then gets branded progressive, secular and pro-women ahead of the 2019 elections. And efforts to lure away large chunks from Opposition parties that rule states that are poll-bound get an automatic boost.
There are two sorts of impoverishment – one of the material kind, another of the psychological sort. Communities marginalised and denied an equal share in debates on vital issues affecting them eventually become so submissive that their needs and the desire to fight to fulfil those needs both begin to atrophy. “Do we eat beef? Bada (buffalo) meat?” asked a bewildered woman on TV. “No, no, we just cannot afford it. We barely scrape together a meal each day.” But the media carries on, rooting for non-issues, treating any text the state throws at it as a double text for Sabka Sath Sabka Vikas, the panelists busy with their Talmudic hairsplitting of the how-many-angels-on-the-head-of-a-needle kind.
Real barbarism, wrote the Polish writer-journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski, begins when one can no longer judge or know that what he does is barbaric.
Sound and fake fury
These days, listening to long meandering TV debates about some media baron humiliating the nation by calling us poor, one is frequently tempted to believe that it is we, a brave third world country struggling to emerge as a super power, who alone know the future and the truth about life. We who have tasted the bitterness, financial insecurity and marginalisation peculiar to a vernacular writer in the developing world are being provoked subtly to feel even more special as the bottom-of-the-barrel monkeys. But this mindset, being sold so hard and so often, also presupposes that life in India is a stinking hole, especially for vernacular wallahs. The calm, contentment and comfort enjoyed by representatives of the New York Times or Time magazine or The Guardian, actually all those on the other side of the linguistic divide, is by nature fragile and accidental in the life of Real India. This inverted snobbery of the poor presupposes that the majority that have suffered, endured great adversity and repeated defeats in the past have a greater right to have the final say, to decide everything in this century, no matter how narrow and self-centered their perspectives, how embittered and closed their minds.
These ephemeral debates with their vociferous demonstrations of loyalty, consent and diligence over issues such as the size of tricolours in school buildings, the singing of Vande Mataram, the performance of Surya Namaskar, mob lynchings and meat eating drown out all reasonable doubts about issues that should really matter to us. To question the proffered Big Vision as weak is to be anti-national and to condemn yourself to a hell where trolls bay for your blood. Of course, even now there are successful elastic journalists, always smiling, always ambiguous as they sign off. They thunder or smile and shush all others to allow the party spokesperson to unfurl his daily pack of half-truths before the nation every evening. Even in print, one notices, planted stories have arrived. It is fast becoming a shameless ruthless world of money and power-grabbing.
Empire-building, says the Mahabharata, is a word that gobbles up all others (sarva bhak). The ease with which the human mind can be manipulated by the builder of an empire sees to it that the mass receives but no longer seeks. Citizens are being turned into media consumers satisfied with the simplified, embellished kitsch served to them at subsidised rates or for free through thunderous speeches delivered by a rockstar leader. Power is now one vast spectacle full of sound and fake fury that puts Bollywood to shame.
The only emperor, the poet William Carlos Williams wrote, is the emperor of ice-cream. In the age of 24x7 television and social media streaming, elections in India are war: they create a world where everything gets magnified, full of great tension, terror and cruelty. There is no one else on this battlefield, we are told. Each evening, it has to be Us versus Them.