When, decades back, I had to study the Constitution as a law student, it was in its infancy, scarcely a decade old. For us students, the chapter on fundamental rights mattered only because it was important for the exams. It took the Emergency for many of us to understand the real importance of these rights. Today, I look at the rights differently, perhaps with a greater understanding. Article 14, which promises all citizens equality before the law, seems remarkable when I think of what it meant to a people who, ruled by a foreign power, had been second-class citizens in their own country for two centuries. What it meant to a people who lived in a rigidly hierarchical society in which people could never even hope to be equal.

But before I talk of the right to equality, I will go back for a moment to an earlier, personal story. Many years ago, I was in Cambridge for a seminar on British literature. There were five of us from the subcontinent at that seminar, three Indians, one from Bangladesh and one from Pakistan. During a casual conversation, one of these two said to us Indians, “We envy you. You can stand in the middle of the street and criticise your prime minister.” The other heartily concurred. I imagine we patted ourselves on the back then for being a mature democracy. We had the splendid example of the time when Indira Gandhi had attempted to subvert democracy and had been voted out of power. And the motley collection of parties and individuals who had formed a government after that had been voted out as well when it was clear they were totally unfit to govern. We felt good about ourselves. What made us feel even better was that we were not like our neighbours across the border. In fact, it gave us great pleasure to define ourselves as not-Pakistan.

Then, recently, I read an interview with Mohammed Hanif, the Pakistani writer, who writes so critically and courageously about the sad state of affairs in his country. During the course of the interview, the Indian journalist interviewing him referred to a poem written by a Pakistani poet, Fahmida Riaz, who sadly passed away a few days back. The journalist quoted a line from her poem, “Tum bilkul hum jaise nikle”. [You turned out to be just like us].

Mohammed Hanif’s response was, “How different could we be? We drink the same water, eat pretty much the same food, we breathe the same air...” And, finally, he added, “It’s horrendous here, it’s horrendous there.”

It hurt to read this. It shocked me. However bad things were in our country, how could anyone say we had become another Pakistan? We had our courts, sentinels of our democracy. And a free and enormously alive press. But both Mohammad Hanif’s words and Fahmida Riaz’s poem were couched in tones of such regret that I thought we needed to take a long and hard look at our country. What I saw was not very reassuring; in fact, it filled me with dismay.

Era of mobs

After the 2014 elections gave the BJP a clear and strong mandate, for which many of us were thankful, because we were tired of corruption and coalitions and hoped to settle down to sensible governing, to the progress that had been promised. We were sadly disillusioned. We entered the Era of Mobs. Mobs came out of nowhere, it seemed – mobs who indulged in lynchings, in barbaric killings in the name of the holy cow. Who turned into moral policemen in the name of “our culture”. Mobs who attacked people in the name of patriotism and nationalism. Who imposed a kind of unofficial censorship, so that they decided whether a book, a film, a play, a painting exhibition or a musical performance was fit to enter the public domain. These mobs seemed to have some kind of a patronage for very rarely were they punished for their crimes.

On an official level, there has been, apart from a clamping down on dissent and interference with institutions, a rewriting of history, an attempt to create a narrative of the past in tune with the ideology and desires of the ruling party.

Now, with elections approaching, we are back to vote banks and voter appeasement, which have always been the name of the game of politics in India. But the promises being made now – of a quick resolution of the Ram Janmabhoomi issue, in favour of Hindus, of course, the construction of a Ram mandir, of a great statue of Shri Ram in Ayodhya, making it a symbol for the entire country – makes it clear that Hindutva, which was toned down in the 2014 elections in favour of development and progress, is to be a major issue in the coming elections.

Sadly, the Congress has jumped on the bandwagon, grasping for more Hindu votes. Though, one hopes that for the Congress it is just an election strategy. But for the ruling party, these slogans are in pursuance of their goal, which is the conversion of India into Bharat, a Hindu Rashtra. Something very hard to approve of for someone of my generation, we who accepted the mantra in which Pandit [Jawaharlal] Nehru believed lay the magic of India: unity in diversity. This mantra, along with Pandit Nehru himself, has been consigned to the dustbin of history and the 2019 elections have become a crucial test for the country. Will India become a Hindu nation and will non-Hindus become second-class citizens in their own country? Will Article 14 of the Constitution apply only to some Indian citizens, not to all? This will have consequences that will change the shape of this country, indeed of the subcontinent, forever. And, therefore, something that should concern all of us deeply.

In all fairness, I have to ask myself whether those of us who have such fears are being unduly alarmist. Possibly none of these things will happen. Hopefully, voters will reject the idea of an India of intolerance and hatred. I also think it will not be easy to convert India into a Hindu nation. Hinduism is, by its nature, not a religion that lends itself to becoming a monolithic dominating institution. And yet, when I see mobs inflamed by politicians demanding a Shri Ram temple, when I read of leaders exhorting the masses to agitate for the temple, I am frightened. One cannot but remember the post-Partition violence and carnage. What is more ominous is the polarisation that happened during the 2014 elections. Independent India has held many elections, but there has rarely or never been such open and ugly hatred between political parties and politicians. We have experienced the residue of the bitterness of the 2014 elections during the past four and a half years. We have seen it in the way social media is used to troll enemies, in the shouting and ranting on TV, in the way abuses are traded, wild personal charges that should never be part of a political debate are made and so on.

The polarisation that happened after 2014 meant that not only the country, not just politicians, but even families were divided by a sharp clean line. I know for a fact how much bitterness developed between friends, within families. There never was a midway meeting ground; the general understanding was that “if you are not with us you are against us”. This has left its mark on the country and I fear it will be worse after the coming elections. My great anxiety is: will we be able to come together again? Will we be able to live in harmony as we once did, each religion, each culture having its own place in society, none threatening the other? Once the elections are over, will we be able to forget the hatred, the seeds of which have been sown so generously? Or, will the nation continue to be divided by a most dangerous divide – a divide based on religion. Politicians in India have consistently followed a policy of dividing people, but for the first time the divide seems alarming and threatening as it never was before.

Sabarimala and #MeToo

For me, as a writer and a person who has been keenly alive to the injustice women have had to suffer, almost, perhaps, since time began, there is another matter of great concern. I am referring to the issue of women’s entry into the Sabarimala temple. I have to wonder why at such a time, in the 21st century, when it should [be] impossible to deny women their constitutional rights, the entry of women between 10 and 50 [years] is being so fiercely resisted? Why, day after day, mobs surround the temple and chant, not with devotion but with a kind of ferocious frenzy to keep women away. Why they behave as if the temple is under attack. I am mystified that women themselves are part of this opposition. In fact, at times, they are more fierce than the men. And I have to ask myself whether they have been so conditioned by society that the idea of entering the temple fills them with a superstitious fear. And how can they regard menstruation as something unclean, not a normal physiological process? Simone de Beauvoir, in her book The Second Sex, speaks of menstruation as life constructing a cradle in the body every month. A beautiful concept and a truth. Yet, people are so determined to keep women out of the temple on the basis of the fact of menstruation that they defy a Supreme Court judgement.

Talk of tradition, of a god who does not want women of reproductive age near him, rouses a suspicion that the men are imposing their own misogyny on god. So is it merely anti-women? Or, is it what it has now undoubtedly become – a part of the political game politicians always play, both major parties brazenly disregarding the Supreme Court judgement and backing the traditional stand so as not to lose any votes?

Whatever it is, it seems both unbelievable and sad that at a time when women have been steadily making headway in their struggle to assert themselves as an equal half of the human race, they should be regarded as lesser human beings. In fact, looking at the unrelenting opposition, a suspicion dogs me: is the anti-women campaign in Sabarimala connected to the #MeToo movement, is it a backlash to that movement? I get a hint of how the #MeToo movement is regarded in the words of a famous and popular actor in Kerala, a man who is obviously not constrained by political correctness. He calls the movement a fad, a fashion, which will soon die out. These words for a movement in which women are trying to reclaim their right to their own bodies. For a movement in which two women in the United States of America have taken on two of the most powerful men in their country. In which Indian women took on a minister in the Central government. But trivialising anything associated with women is a response which I, as a woman who writes about women, know, sadly, only too well. Yet, even as I write this, I read of large demonstrations by women in Europe against sexual violence. No, Mr Actor, this agitation will not so easily go away. I think at the very least, women will no longer be complicit in the wrongs being done to them.

Breaking the silence

More than 30 years ago, I wrote a novel, That Long Silence, which was about the breaking of women’s silences. To me, the breaking of silences is the beginning of a revolution. And now, here are women breaking their silence about something that had remained secret and unspoken for centuries – sexual assault. I am very pleased that this has happened, I am pleased that the world is listening to women’s voices and taking them seriously. I am pleased that whatever the outcome, one thing is true: men will now be apprehensive about forcing their attentions on a reluctant woman, even if the woman is in their power. Hopefully, no man will ever be able to exploit any woman and get away with it. Above all, I am pleased that, finally, shame has gone back to where it belongs – to the perpetrator of the wrong. The strangest thing about crimes against women was that, unlike all other crimes, shame was attached to the victim. And therefore the silence. No longer, I hope.

Yet, I have some anxieties. Will the movement percolate down to women in small jobs, women who face harassment almost daily in their working lives? Women for whom their job is of such vital importance that to speak out would be to endanger that job and make life harder for them and their families. And once again my great fear is, will the #MeToo movement make the two genders always suspicious and fearful of each other? Will there be another polarisation, and will we have to live in a world of men against women? Will men and women be able to live together in love and harmony after women have asserted their right to be equal under the law? I think that the answer to this can only come from men. The ball is in their court.

One of the questions asked of the women who named men who had sexually harassed them was: why were you silent all this time, all these years? In reply, I give a quote from Caroline Norton, an Englishwoman who lived in the 19th century, at a time when married women had no rights at all. She fought a bitter legal battle with her abusive husband for the custody of her children – which she lost – in the course of which she wrote a letter to Queen Victoria in which she quoted these words:

“History teaches that in all cases of great injustice among men, there comes a culminating point after which that injustice is not to be borne.”

I believe that the culminating point for women has come.

Behind these two issues looms a bigger one, a threat to the shining promise of equality before the law given to all citizens by the Constitution. The Sabarimala issue is an indicator that women still have to fight for that right. And the threat to all non-Hindu citizens of becoming second-class citizens looms before us as a dreadful possibility. A country in which some citizens live with fear is a failed state. I am hopeful that the gender divide will not become a big issue, because, a cynical thought, we need each other. But the divide caused by religion is more dangerous; we have only to look at the various bloody civil wars being fought in the world to see what can happen. All those who want a Hindu state must think of the consequences of establishing it. Perhaps we need to go back to Rabindranath Tagore’s well-known poem and think of the “heaven of freedom” that he prayed for, which we can enter only when all of us, whatever our religion or caste, our class, gender or language, are equal. Considering the human track record, this seems almost impossible. But the fact that so many of us continue to love, support and cherish the people in our lives should give us hope. All that we need is to do is what Arjuna did on the eve of the battle of Kurukshetra – we only have to expand the range of the words “my people” to embrace all Indians.

This is the full text of the keynote address delivered by writer Shashi Deshpande at the ninth edition of the Goa Arts and Literature Festival on Thursday.