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Can India survive if it continues to fracture along communal lines?

Do you spend as long reading the newspaper in the morning as you used to say, ten years ago?

Do you settle down to watch the news channels in the evenings, the same way as you did a decade ago?


I’m guessing you don’t. You may still look at the papers but you don’t read them with the same interest as you once did. As for news TV, you may surf through the channels but there is much less appointment viewing. And you find the content far less compelling than it used to be.


   I know. Because this is exactly how I feel.


   I have made my living as a TV presenter for decades so I find it strange to turn my back on a medium that has been good to me. But I honestly cannot watch most news channels any longer. First of all, there is very little news. And even the few crumbs of information they carry are only used to display extreme bias. Most of the programming consists of shouting matches between various non-entities while the anchors take sides; well, the establishment’s side anyway. (There are honourable exceptions. But this tends to be the norm).


   As for newspapers, they are on a downward spiral everywhere in the world. Research tells us that fewer and fewer people (and almost no young people) bother to read newspapers any longer. This is especially sad in the Indian context because in the ocean of fake news, papers are the only rocks that you can use to steady yourself, by holding on to something solid and substantial.


   For me, however, there is another reason why I no longer look forward to the papers every morning as much as I used to: the news is just so depressing. And it is not depressing only in a ‘50 people killed in a road accident’ sort of way; it is depressing in a way that makes you wonder about the future of our country.


   I am writing this on Tuesday, 1 August. Here are some of the headlines from today’s front pages. “Communal Clashes in NCR: 30 injured, two killed”; “SC: Crimes against women in Manipur are unprecedented”; “Gyanvapi should not be called a mosque, says Yogi”; “RPF cop guns down senior, 3 passengers in running train.” And so on.


   Let’s put to one side the terrible tragedy of Manipur which I wrote about last week. Focus on the others. You will find they are nearly all about Hindu-Muslim conflict. At a time when we talk about India becoming a global superpower, our own society is bitterly divided on the basis of religious conflicts that date back to medieval times.


   It is nobody’s case that this government created the differences or that Hindus and Muslims lived in peace till the BJP took office. This country was born in communal bloodshed and the fault-lines have always existed. Both communities must share the blame for this. As must most political parties.


   However, the claim made by those parties that espouse religious politics (the BJP, the Shiv Sena, etc.) used to be that when they are in office, there is less communal tension and fewer communal riots. That claim has now been forgotten; it is rarely advanced these days. Not just because it is no longer true but because I don’t think the BJP is as eager to portray itself as the party of communal harmony and law and order as it once was. As communal tension rises, the government does not seem overly concerned.


"It is difficult to explain why a constable would want to shoot random passengers whose only common characteristic is that they were all Muslims unless he had a communal agenda."

   I don’t take the line — which many people do — that the rise in the communal temperature is centrally controlled from the very top. India is too complex a society for one man or a central establishment to control the environment all over the country.


   Rather, I get the sense that nobody can put the genie back in the bottle even if they wanted to. There is now so much poison in the system that it is almost impossible to restore some measure of communal harmony. All of the headlines in the papers relate to different people, different parts of the country and different incidents. It’s hate that unites them all.


   Yes, some do have a few things in common: the usual suspects. In UP, the decision by the Chief Minister to refuse to remain above the fray in a mandir-masjid dispute that is before the courts will surprise nobody who has followed Yogi Adityanath’s career. In NCR the riots were linked to the role played by Bajrang Dal ‘activist’ Monu Manesar who is already wanted for the murder of two Muslim men.


  The case of the railway constable who killed four men is different. As far as we can tell, he first shot his superior officer in a moving train and then went through the train shooting and killing three random Muslim men. Some reports say that the men stood out because they had beards.


   The constable then went on to deliver a rant which passengers recorded on their mobile phones. He linked Muslims to Pakistan, complained about the media and praised Yogi Adityanath and Narendra Modi.


   Long after the video had been shared widely on social media, the government asked Twitter to take it down. It was said that perhaps the audio was fake which seems hard to believe but it is not impossible. Either way, it is difficult to explain why a constable would want to shoot random passengers whose only common characteristic is that they were all Muslims unless he had a communal agenda.


   The official story now is that the constable was ‘mentally disturbed’ which he might well be. But it only illustrates the depths to which we have sunk if psychos (assuming he was one) are allowed to wear uniforms and carry guns with which they kill members of minority communities.


   In a sense, the hatred that came out of the barrel of the constable’s gun is a sign of the times. We live in an era where communal issues are constantly raised, where old wounds are re-opened, where people who disagree with a majoritarian agenda are told to go to Pakistan and where the government spends tax payer funds to hire young social media influencers who then discuss who should be thrown out of India.


   Confronted with this atmosphere of divisiveness and murder, many people ask: “what must it be like to be a Muslim in today's India?” It must be hell to live in times when a uniformed policeman can pull out a gun and kill innocent people only because they are Muslims.


   But we should also be asking: “what does it feel like to be a Hindu in today’s India?”


   For decades now, Hindus have been proud of our pluralistic society, among the most liberal and diverse in the Third World. While Pakistan has lurched from crisis to crisis, Hindus have been proud to claim that one reason why democracy has triumphed in India is because Hinduism, the religion of the majority, is a tolerant and secular faith.


   Is that all going to go up in smoke in this decade? And if India continues to fracture along communal lines, can it even survive? Can any society flourish while alienating 15 per cent of its population? Will the victims of the oppression and the discrimination continue to keep turning the other cheek? And if they don’t, can a stable, prosperous India continue to exist?


   But, of course, nobody is asking these questions. Instead we wonder if a mosque used to be a temple centuries ago. We ask why Muslims are allowed to eat beef. And when we see a video that confirms our worst fears, all we are told to ask is: “is it morphed? “


   So it is not just about what it feels like to be a Hindu or a Muslim in today’s India. It is about something more fundamental. What does it feel like to be an Indian when each day brings sadder stories and more depressing headlines.


   I really have no happy or reassuring answer to that question.



Posted On: 03 Aug 2023 11:00 AM
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