From the pavement that skirts the boundary wall of the Janata Dal (United) office, located in Delhi’s Jantar Mantar area – the veritable hub where the country’s angry and aggrieved rage against the Indian state – a question leaps out: Why does communal conflict grab media headlines, but not the actions of those who protest against acts of brutality, such as the June 22 stabbing of three boys from Ballabhgarh, Haryana, one of whom died?
On Monday, this question hovers at the spot where Prem Singh sits. Around him is a gaggle of a dozen men and women, mostly young. A sedan and a good old Ambassador – that enduring symbol of Indian political bigwigs struggling to play aam aadmi, or the common man – drive past them into the compound of the Janata Dal (United) office. Neither do the cars stop nor do their passengers throw a glance at Singh and his companions.
A question of guilt
Prem Singh is sitting on a week-long fast against the phenomenon of mob lynching that is slowly becoming India’s new social and political norm. His self-imposed ordeal began on June 25, Sunday.
Obviously, readers have not heard of Singh. They do not know he is a professor in Delhi University’s Hindi department, and will not be surprised to know that he is the president of the little-known Socialist Party.
After all who else would go on a fast and drink only water in weather that has people sweating out more liquid than they imbibe. It is typical of those who are political relics, one may add with sarcasm. After all, a fast cannot bring a dead Junaid – the lynching victim from Ballabhgarh – back to life, nor can it get him justice.
But such perceptions will not bother Singh, who is fasting, as he says, to atone for the guilt he feels at the lynching of Muslims that just does not seem to stop. His guilt is for an action he did not commit – and which he certainly considers unconscionably inhuman.
Really, what is his guilt about?
“My guilt is over my inability to stop lynchings in my society,” said Singh, beads of perspiration breaking out on his swarthy, bearded face, and then together running down in trickles. “I am a professor,” he said. “It means something in our society. You are a journalist, you have a status. Yet you and I have failed to stop the lynching.”
So then, all of us are guilty for our inaction, our failure to oppose and end the emerging culture of mobs baying for blood, not just in Haryana, but elsewhere in India as well. Most of us perhaps do not even feel guilty. The dominant emotions we experience are anger and concern.
But not Singh, who says his week-long fast is a personal atonement. At the same time, it is a protest. Then again, protest against whom – the killers, many of whom are still unknown to us?
With his sweat-drenched kurta sticking to his body, Singh says his protest is against the very politics of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Bharatiya Janata Party.
“India is a multi-cultural society – every segment of our society has its own traditions, its own belief systems,” said the Hindi professor. “Each segment has heterogeneity within it. There are different schools of thought in each of our communities. This has been the intrinsic strength of Indian society.”
He paused to take a breather and then continued, “But what the Sangh is attempting is to bunch all these together, and roll [them] into one bundle and put it a container.”
This container is labeled 21st century India, so to speak. In other words, the attempt to homogenise India “constitutes the basis for the social conflicts mushrooming in India, for the stabbing of the three Muslims we saw on the train”, added Singh.
Search for moral values
But the Hindi professor thinks this is also part of the Sangh’s tactics to divert the frustration of the people from mounting pressure on the Indian state. “Our model of development has excluded a large number of people,” said Singh. “They are angry. The government is tacitly encouraging and allowing the people to target each other.”
Surely then, I ask, a protest against the state implies he has a demand he would want it to meet. “No,” he countered immediately. “This fast is a search for the moral values of our society.”
The search for moral values arises from society forgetting its past, its own true nature and, therefore, turning immoral. But the ruling party is not only to blame. As Singh said: “My protest is also a protest against Opposition parties. They haven’t even tried to organise people against the political culture of lynching.”
From Singh’s perspective, India is caught between a ruling party stoking social discord and an Opposition that either does not know or cannot counter the former. In such a scenario, an individual, a citizen has no choice but to assert his own moral values, his own opposition to the political madness afflicting society. Yes, even if means sitting on a fast in the blazing sun without even a TV camera to capture every moment.
But would such a fast have a public meaning?
“The culture of the fast has been turned into a tamasha because of media coverage,” said Singh. “Even Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan went on a fast to bring an end to the agitation of farmers. Then [Jyotiraditya] Scindia did the same.”
He added: “Fasts once had a potent political power. It is not so anymore.”
Behind the media glare
Perhaps the only way to recover the potency of a protest fast is to undertake it away from the media glare. But there is also counter proposition – in 21st century India, a cause is not a cause unless a celebrity endorses it, or it provokes what is called a “law and order” problem and boosts TRP ratings.
This means that unknown, unsung citizens do not have a platform to articulate their angst. In the age of sponsorship, whether in cricket or politics, you are either a gawking viewer or a celebrity on the stage.
It is this space for common and concerned citizens that Singh is trying, perhaps unknowingly, to carve out. It is to create this space that Delhi’s citizens have decided to band together to take out a silent protest march against the Ballabhgarh lynching. And not too surprisingly, Jantar Mantar is from where the silent march will begin on June 28.
But this does not mean Socialist Party activists have not pitched in. They come to the venue through the day and members of the party’s state units, undoubtedly small in size, perhaps even insignificant, have decided to go on a protest fast on a day of their choice through the week.
Unable to silence the journalist in me, I wonder: Denied the media’s attention, doesn’t a protest fast become an ascetic quest to punish the body, an individual act without any significance for society?
“Should everyone then become like Nitish Kumar?” asked Singh. “He [Nitish Kumar] says he won’t vote for Meira Kumar because she is bound to lose [in the presidential elections]. Does he want a democracy in which he always wins? It is because of the behaviour of socialists such as him over the last 20 years that India has reached this desperate point.”
Or, to put it another way, one cannot join the lynch mob. Silence and inaction make one complicit in the political crime now being enacted at an alarming frequency in India.
Obviously, there are people still trying to dissuade Singh to call off his battle, invisible to most. For instance, he said that Justice (retd) Rajinder Sachar, a member of the Socialist Party, planned to come to Jantar Mantar with a glass of juice to persuade him to abandon his fast. “I will have to tell him not to insist on it,” he said.
On the drive back from Jantar Mantar, this writer passed Union Minister Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi’s home. There were cars parked outside, some with CD number plates, indicating the presence of guests from foreign embassies. A thought popped up: there is Singh, fasting to protest the lynching of Ballabhgarh’s boys, all Muslim. Here is a representative of the government celebrating Eid and receiving greetings. What would you call it – irony or paradox?