In the theatre of the absurd that India is fast becoming, here are this week’s acts. Uttarakhand became the first Indian state to declare the cow as “rashtra mata”, or mother of the nation. The West Bengal government arrested a man for sharing a morphed photo and sexist mocking of Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. Odisha arrested a defence analyst who pointed to erotic sculptures at the Sun Temple in Konark and poked fun at Hindutva conspiracy theories thus: “Can this be a holy place? Not at all. This is a conspiracy against Hindus by Muslims…in our new Ram Temple, such obscene sculptures will not be there…jokes aside, this temple is mind-blowing.”
Not long ago, it was easy to laugh off TV news as a theatre of the absurd, the insecure and the bizarre. It was easy to snigger at screaming anchors – unless you took them seriously, of course – declaring nightly war against Pakistan, fulminating against imagined enemies and lining up to defend the government. It is all changed so quickly.
India was always the land of the strange and the home of the insecure, a place of milk-drinking idols, sadhus in stasis and imagined offences. Yet, for all its peculiarities, India did not take itself very seriously – at least not at the level of government. That is changing as the bizarre and the absurd transform into government policy, and Indian politicians and states are locked in a race to the bottom.
Consider the growth in government-run cow protection. Rajasthan imposes a 20% cess on liquor to fund cow safety and glory. Last month, the Maharashtra government issued the draft of a law for a “cow service commission”, whose functions would range from monitoring cow shelters to assisting businesses that could “generate power and biogas from milk, urine and dung”. They are late on the cow-wagon.
Three months ago, in Madhya Pradesh, the state with India’s worst infant mortality rate, a Hindu sanyasi was given charge of the Cow Protection Board and the rank of Cabinet minister, but what is a minister without a ministry? Haryana already has a cow ministry, so Swami Akhileshwaranand Giri’s demand that Madhya Pradesh follow suit is not unreasonable. The Congress might ruin his plans, though, as it switches from opportunistic secularism to competitive absurdity. The grand old party of Dadabhai Naoroji and Jawaharlal Nehru – under whom India launched its steel industry, mega dams, atomic and space programmes – this week promised (“this is not an announcement, it is a sworn promise”) a Ram Van Gaman path, the creation of a mythical route that Rama took during his exile. This vow comes after another recent Congress promise to poll-bound Madhya Pradesh: a gaushala, home for cows, in every district if it comes to power.
As the race to the bottom becomes political reality, myth-making is no longer the sole preserve of India’s leaders. This is now a country where a former controller of the Defence Research and Development Organisation and an aeronautical engineer this month held an audience in Mumbai spellbound as they explained how donkey urine and mercury powered planes in Vedic times. In the new spirit of rapturous obedience, no questions were allowed from scientists.
The fading of reality and logic spurs the growth of unreason and irrationality. Once that happens, anything and anyone is fair game, especially if they are fewer and weaker. This week, a village in Haryana announced a ban on beards, skull caps and public prayers for Muslims; Hindus, obviously, are free to do what they want, although we are told by the head of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh that Hindutva is incomplete without Muslims. They just need to be more like, well, Hindus.
This era of irrationality is wide in its remit. This week, we were informed that in advance of the world’s largest statue of Shivaji coming up offshore in tony South Mumbai, a replica “for public feedback” would spring up onshore. One option: At the 19th century Flora Fountain, which is currently undergoing a multi-crore renewal. Place may be in short supply, but kindly adjust.
At least a Shivaji statue that may wreck a new public space may dismay some people but it will hurt no one, which is not the case with the laws now being randomly deployed by police across India to clamp down on dissent and humour.
In less than a year, it has become accepted practice for police to beat up and imprison anyone who shows up with a black flag, as a handful of young women found out when they did just that to the cavalcade of Bharatiya Janata Party chief Amit Shah. Also commonplace – and worthy of being ignored or relegated to the margins by most mainstream media – is arresting anyone who likes, forwards or creates a social media post mocking a politician. That is done by misusing a raft of colonial-era and more modern draconian laws against organised crime and terrorism. Many of these cases collapse in court: nearly 70% of cases filed under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act of 1967 – which allows police to detain you for six months without charge – end in acquittal, but not before suspects undergo the trauma of jail.
Random jokes that supposedly damage hyper-fragile egos, or national or subnational feelings attract police action so often and so efficiently now that there is little public acknowledgement or protest. Police and the justice system display none of this new-found efficiency in actually delivering justice. Rape victims routinely run from police pillar to post just to file a complaint and some have killed themselves in frustration. Families of those who die on the margins, murdered over slights, commercial gain or lynched to death – particularly if they are Muslim, Dalit and Adivasi – find police similarly reluctant to act. A common tactic is to toss the complainant from police station to police station, claiming a lack of jurisdiction. These intractable issues find immediate solutions when the state shows interest in retribution: within a day of a complaint filed in Odisha this week, the Delhi police landed at the door of the defence analyst I mentioned at the start, Abhijit Iyer-Mitra.
The time to laugh, it appears, is ending. Or, perhaps, we should laugh. Laughter may be the final refuge – just don’t do it in public.
Samar Halarnkar is the editor of IndiaSpend, a data-driven, public interest journalism non-profit.