Under a full moon, as a stream of air force transports from a nearby base drone overhead, I join an enraptured crowd of parents at my daughter’s school, as our children take the stage, bringing us music and messages, from new Indians for a new India. For four hours, they sing, reminding us of faith, discrimination, despair and the eventual triumph of hope.
They sing, in Kannada, keertanas of Kanakadasa, the 17th-century poet and musician who questioned the purity of caste. They use Bengali for Rabindranath Tagore’s Chandalika, the drama of an ostracised, depressed low-caste girl and a Buddhist monk who changes her life by accepting water from her. In Tamil and Malayalam, they sing and dance to a theyyam, a ritual form of worship, in which a Hindu high priest, a shankaracharya, is taught a lesson against discrimination. In English, they enact the story of Ekalavya, the boy from a low-caste forest tribe who bested Arjuna, the great warrior of the epic Mahabharata (with some writer’s licence: when a disciple of guru Dronacharya hears Ekalavya learned some archery from his mother, he asks, “A woman knows archery? Kaise din aa gaye?” The quick response from his friend, “Acche din.”)
For the last hour, a 65-student choir brings alive the soaring, sometimes depressing but always powerful songs of segregation-era United States of America, old African-American spirituals and modern variations, delivered under balmy South Indian skies. These are, equally, songs for India, delivered under the theme “Who tells your story?” The theme for the evening is discrimination – a timely reminder of our multiple cultures and stories and the battles fought over the rights of the marginalised.
In the country beyond, the war for rights has intensified. This is a country that increasingly struggles with discrimination and violence against its minorities and whose rulers are willing to subvert the rule of law and the Constitution to pander to virulent majoritarianism. The concert reminds us that there are yet questions that must be asked, hope that must be spread and songs that must be sung.
Those questions may well be addressing the head of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, Amit Shah, who said a day earlier (on Wednesday) that the “entire country wants a grand Ram temple” in Ayodhya “at the exact spot” where once there was the Babri Masjid – of course, he would not take its name. His friendly advice to the Supreme Court: the Ayodhya case can be finished in 10 days if the judges conduct hearings every day.
Messages of hate
To pick divisive issues – however irrelevant they may be to India’s national interests or public concerns – is now standard operating procedure for the BJP. The party’s chief minister in Uttar Pradesh, Adityanath, calls the murder of a police officer by cow vigilantes an “accident”, at other times a conspiracy. His fellow member of the legislative Assembly, Sanjay Sharma, in dismissing the demand from more than 80 former civil servants for Adityanath’s resignation – for perverting “fundamental principles of governance, of constitutional ethics and of humane social conduct” – says the “enlightened minds” could only see the death of two human beings and not 21 “gau matas” or mother cows.
From far corners of the country and the extended Hindu ruling party, the messages of hate and abhorrence of Muslims and Dalits pour out, intensifying as India stands on the threshold of its 17th general elections.
This is what India has come to – a grand idea of hope, togetherness and belonging, irrespective of caste and creed, reduced to the despair of divisiveness. In less than four years, the politics of development, sabka saath, sabka vikas, of being with everyone, of ensuring everyone’s progress, has crumbled to the politics of the graveyard – the word itself used as a warning – statues and temples.
The BJP and its yet-mighty master, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, may or may not survive the party’s politics of hype and hate, especially if the resurgence of the Congress and other contenders continues into 2019. But the messages that the BJP spreads in a desperate effort to realise Shah’s ambition of a 50-year reign will not disappear easily.
Congress president Rahul Gandhi does speak, occasionally, of love and compassion, but he acknowledges his subservience to the BJP’s message – by visiting temples, flaunting his sacred thread and tiptoeing around matters that test India’s Constitution, its rule of law and secularism.
A growing mob
There appear to be more pressing concerns, the most important being the decline of Indian farming, which supports more than 670 million Indians. But no administration can hold together and focus its attention on agrarian transition and unemployment when its attention is diverted by the howling mob and the prospect of anarchy.
The mob is, usually, the semi-educated, semi-employed, semi-urban youth frustrated by the death of dreams. To reduce his – the mob is almost always male – dreams to a temple and clear his path to getting it somehow, anyhow, is to frustrate him further and threaten the foundations of the republic.
The radicalised youth, brainwashed and filled with hate, defines himself by his religion, but he does not know its practices and its traditions. He does not know of its infirmities, the inequities it spawns; he does not see why hate must be discarded, and he has forgotten the true meaning of his faith.
In speaking for all of us and demanding nothing but the grand temple to Ram, Shah urges more young men into the mob. What he will not discuss is the other tradition of Ram, derived from the glory of hope.
“Not a grand Ram temple, not a Ram colossus,” the poet Ranjit Hoskote tells me on Twitter as I write this, “but that forgotten ideal of whom Surdas sang and Gandhiji spoke: Nirbal ke bal Raam, the Ram who is the power of the powerless.” These are messages that must shine through the darkness, that give us glimpses of the glory that could be, of the battle ahead.
And, so, they sing into the night at the school in Bengaluru. “One day, when the glory comes,” they sing, “it will be ours, it will be ours. One day, when the war is won, we will be sure, we will be sure.”