This article is not so much a complaint as a cry of anguish. What is happening to the Bombay, nay India, I grew up in? As I witness the rising intolerance, tacitly encouraged by the government, both at national and state levels; as I watch the majority systematically attempting to dominate and even ignore minorities, without a thought to the latter’s aspirations and mounting frustrations; as I lament over the inexorable stripping away of our constitutional rights of free speech and freedom of expression in the spurious name of pseudo nationalism, I can only watch in helpless horror the deterioration of the nation’s core values and ethics.
Chacha Nehru and Beti
To be sure, the India of my childhood and adolescence – dominated by Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi – was far from perfect. Nehru was a towering personality and an inspiring revolutionary leader, but his grand vision for independent India often lacked practicality. In a world dominated by two superpowers, his insistence on non-alignment was somewhat utopian. It was also a bit hypocritical, since his fascination for an idealistic form of socialism led to a definite tilt towards the Soviet Union. His insistence on India becoming self-reliant was well meant, but ill thought out in a land that had been exploited and denuded by 200 years of British occupation. An almost total ban on the import of consumer goods gave rise to a monopoly of shoddy manufacturing and chronic shortages of almost everything.
Those below 40 probably cannot imagine a country where one had to wait years for a new World War 2 model automobile, or a telephone connection, but for many old timers like me it was a distressing fact of life. I remember when getting hold of a bar of foreign Kit-Kat chocolate was considered a major accomplishment. Most disastrously, Nehru’s insistence on going it alone created the bloated, inefficient, self-serving and corrupt bureaucracy whose vestiges still plague us today – even during the reign of a progressive Narendra Modi.
Indira Gandhi largely continued her father’s legacy, except for the brief period when power went to her head and she imposed the unconstitutional Emergency.
The Good Old Times
In spite of these tribulations, the people for the most part breathed free and easy. I am not talking about the so-called lower castes who continued to be looked down on and shunned, as they had been for centuries. In general, however, people went about their business happily grumbling about government restrictions and bureaucratic high-handedness; about the sloth and corruption in government offices; and sundry grievances. There was no internet back then and no Twitter or Facebook, but people vented their spleen in letters to newspaper editors without fear of being labeled anti-national, or being picked up by the cops for “defamation”. Religion entered into the picture only in the form of corny Sardarji jokes or mocking ethnic traits like “mad bawas”. It was received in the sense it was meant; and no one took offence. Lynch mobs were unheard of, and so was jihad, love or any other kind.
After Manmohan Singh ushered in economic liberalization in the early 1990s, people were thrilled at the sight of new cars on the roads; at the prospect of being able to buy foreign goods without patronizing the neighborhood smuggler; and getting a new telephone connection in a week. Otherwise life went on much as before. After the Babri Masjid demolition, sectarian violence flared for a while, but soon became monotonous. Besides, it was fairly localized and did not affect the majority of the population. Even after the BJP assumed power and Vajpayee became Prime Minister, there was no real apprehension in the minds of the general populace. BJP’s close association with the RSS was known, of course, but it was downplayed and did not have any significant impact on the daily life of the common man, so nobody bothered about it.
The Modi Era
When Manmohan Singh became Prime Minister, nothing really changed until a firebrand Narendra Modi latched on to corruption in the Congress and created a national furore. In truth, the corruption was at the top and had minimal impact on the lives of ordinary citizens, but Modi cleverly managed to demonize the entire party and convinced the populace that it was unfit to govern. The rest, as they say, is history.
During Congress rule, BJP spokespersons on talk shows stoutly denied that they took instructions from, or were even influenced by the RSS. After Modi’s ascension however, the close RSS association was freely, even proudly, acknowledged. Modi openly identified himself as a kar sevak; and the rest of the party took their cue from him. The RSS had never made any secret of their belief that they considered Bharat to be a Hindu nation; and that those professing a different faith lived here at their sufferance. After Modi engineered a string of victories in state elections, the RSS felt emboldened to enforce their philosophy.
Freedom of the Few
In a free country, everyone, even political outfits are entitled to hold their views and expound their philosophy. The problem occours when the said outfit, aided and abetted by the government of the day, tries to ram this philosophy down the throats of unwilling participants. The BJP/RSS believe that India is, or should be, a Hindu nation…fine. Let them try to convince the sizeable percentage of the population that does not share their faith, through reasoned arguments. Even a bit of propaganda would be tolerable. What is not acceptable in a free society is for the ruling dispensation to turn a blind eye while their cohorts and self-styled “defenders of the faith” go on a rampage and indulge in physical violence and even lynching. What is not acceptable is for these hooligans to be let off with a slap on the wrist after a token arrest – usually prompted by media pressure. What is not acceptable is for elected state Chief Ministers to pander to a lumpen vote bank by trampling on our constitutional right of freedom of expression by arresting individuals for posting something critical of BJP leaders; or by outlawing a commercial movie.
With distressing frequency, we read reports of mob justice, of lynching individuals – usually belonging to the minority community – for allegedly possessing beef. How can a nation which has the word “secular” in its Constitution impose a set of beliefs peculiar to a particular religion on the entire population? We read about law abiding citizens being coerced to prove their “nationalism” and being pilloried by pseudo-nationalists for frivolous reasons like not being willing to shout platitudes like “Bharat Mata Ki Jai”. True patriotism has to come from within; it cannot be forced. Unfortunately, these “super-patriots” have turned it into a tamasha. What is equally disgusting is the way political parties of all hues extend tacit support to these vandals; for reasons that should be obvious. An atmosphere of fear is being created in our so-called democracy, where creativity and original ideas are being stifled; where one has to think twice before voicing one’s anger or frustration in a Facebook post; where you can be arrested for merely forwarding a post that the government deems offensive. Is this the freedom our forefathers fought for?
The Modi era was ushered in with a lot of hope and promise. The people of India soundly rejected politics as usual, where the interests of the common man were accorded the least priority. Here, they thought, was a dynamic leader who would shatter the comfort level of entrenched and self-serving political parties; who would lead the nation in a new and positive direction. Modi has largely delivered on his promises; by cutting red tape; by curtailing traditional avenues of corruption; and by displaying a genuine concern for the poor. Without openly admitting it, he encouraged a cult of personality, but the people forgave him because of his development agenda that was actually improving their daily lives.
Then came the Gujarat election. Modi began to display signs of desperation highly uncharacteristic of a self-confident individual. Winning in his home state became a prestige issue; and somewhat diminished his image as a leader who put his country’s interests before his own. The development agenda was virtually ignored; and Modi reverted to personal insults on the opposition, that were reminiscent of the politics of old; which many Indians thought they had left behind. A case in point is the Mani Shankar Aiyar episode. Aiyar is an established motormouth who, in his zeal to prove his loyalty to the Gandhi family, sometimes resorts to intemperate remarks. He deserved condemnation, but for Modi to make it a caste issue and play the victim was unworthy of him. So was his ham-handed attempt to paint Aiyar as a Pakistani agent. This is the sort of behaviour we expect from our run-of-the-mill netas, not from Modi.
So I ask again, where is the India I grew up in? For sure, it was an India where the people grumbled incessantly; despaired of their politicians; and cursed the bloated and corrupt bureaucracy. But there was an air of freedom that somehow compensated for the travails. That freedom is being gradually and inexorably denuded. If we remain complacent, a time may come when we actually long for the bad old days.
Mr. Firoze Hirjikaka, a retired civil engineer and freelancer, writes regularly for FF Digital on topics affecting the common man. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org