The last few years have been particularly noticeable for remembering dead and ageing parents. Not just any common garden variety ones, of course, but a very specific kind. These are the parents who, apparently, bequeathed a tolerant, liberal and non-majoritarian India to their children. They embraced religious diversity, resisted various forms of bigotry and promoted the values of constitutional morality. They instilled in their progeny the importance of imagining a post-colonial republic where differences of class, caste, religion and ethnicity would be unequivocally erased.
In media articles and social media outpourings, these parents – narrators of a tryst with destiny – are sorely missed. Over the past six years, everything that the immediate ancestors dreamt of has been, apparently, upturned. In around half a decade, centuries of Indian tolerance – the aforementioned parents being its clearest exemplars – has been wiped out.
The romance of Indian liberalism, fed by the ever-nourishing rivers of historical myth-making of recent origin, needs to be countered if we are ever to undertake the task of taking a good hard look at ourselves – and our parents. Liberal ancestor worship does not serve us well. It certainly does not allow for an understanding of the nature of Indian society either over the longue durèe or in the recent past.
The good Muslim syndrome
The most fundamental aspect of our recent past is that our parents were not particularly committed to the values of religious tolerance that they are frequently credited with as a pre-Modi phenomenon. Their relationship with their Muslim co-citizens was premised on a specific set of circumstances.
Firstly, it had to do with Muslims “knowing their place”. Muslims were to act as mascots of Hindu India’s tolerant culture, rather than exercise an identity that might assert equality with members of the majority community. This was the condition of Hindu contextualism where “secular India” was deeply rooted in the values and public symbolism of Hinduism. Our public functions began (and still begin) with lighting lamps, ships were launched by breaking coconuts and we sang (and now sing with greater fervour) Sanskrit hymns at various national occasions as if these were areligious markers of post-colonial identity.
That is the world our parents grew up in and subscribed to: the “good Muslim” was the one who knew his or her place in a society marked by Hindu contextualism. Even Nehru, perhaps one of the very few who might have understood the meaning of genuine multiculturalism, was not able to counter these tendencies.
Secondly, there was no India of our parent’s generation that seriously engaged with the caste question. Rather, if we have now come to believe that our parents decried casteism – and that its resurgence is linked to the break-down of their culture of liberalism – this is an entirely spurious view, nurtured by a very Indian culture of filial obligation.
Men and women of an earlier generation – the first and second generation of post-Independence parents – were as deeply casteist as their apparent antithetical contemporary counterparts. What was true of the earlier generation was that – like the Left parties – they pronounced that “in their circles” caste was not a problem.
There is a very common refrain among many now in their seventies and eighties that as school-going students, they had no idea about the caste of their fellow students. This does not, of course, prove that India of the 1950s and ’60s was not marked by caste hierarchies. Rather that in our parents’ generation, there was no occasion for encountering it as those among whom they moved were uniformly upper-caste. The comforts of caste-homogenous social circles ensured that there was no necessity of thinking about caste as a problem. This might only have been the case if different castes encountered each other in the same social milieu.
A soft bigotry
The fact of the matter is that neither was our parents’ time one of a golden age of tolerance and constitutional morality nor is it the case that we have now – in a space of six years! – dramatically changed. The first perspective is misplaced filial obligation and the second is a simplistic understanding of social and cultural change.
Our parents practised bigotry of a quiet sort, one that did not require the loud proclamations that are the norm now. Muslims and the lower castes knew their place and the structures of social and economic authority were not under threat. This does not necessarily translate into a tolerant generation. Rather, it was a generation whose attitudes towards religion and caste was never really tested.
The loud bigotry of our times is no great break from the past in terms of a dramatic change in attitudes – is it really possible that such changes can take place in such few years? Rather, it is the crumbling of the veneer of tolerance against those who once knew their place but no longer wish to accept that position.
The great problem with all this is that we continue to believe that what is happening today is simply an aberration and that we will, when the nightmare is over, return to the Utopia that was once ours. However, it isn’t possible to return to the past that was never there. It will only lead to an even darker future. And, filial affection is no antidote for it.