My mother slammed the phone down and came to find me. She’d been talking with an old college friend. This friend had been to some ashram recently and a VHP man had given a lecture, the gist of which she repeated to my mother. “Did you know how many Hindus are being killed in West Bengal, Karnataka and Kerala?” she said. “We’re going to become a Muslim majority country by 2030.”
My mother was fuming for hours, and then days, and I can understand why. Back in 1995, three years after the Bombay riots, I had been hunting for a place to rent with a friend, and all we could find within our budget were ratty, ill-lit places with poor water supply. The broker looked at our unimpressed faces and, as if finally finding something that would decide us in favour of that dismal apartment, he assured us that there were no Muslims living in that entire building.
In the liberal spaces I inhabit, offline and online, people tend to believe that things have become very bad in the nearly five years that Narendra Modi has been Prime Minister; that people are more polarized now than they’ve ever been; that it’s become impossible to talk to family or once-close friends, because they’ve become unrecognizably bigoted.
And certainly, the effects of Modi’s arrival at the Centre can be visible among one’s intimates, so it’s hard to dispute these propositions. And yet I’ve found it very difficult to explain why things are especially bad now.
Because I’ve tentatively concluded that, actually, things have been terrible for a long time. It depends on who you are and where you live, of course. If you live in Kashmir or Manipur, states still under the draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act, things have been terrible since Independence. Other places include, but aren’t limited to, Assam when the ULFA were active; the cow belt during the Ram Janmabhumi movement in the 80s and 90s leading up to the demolition of the Babri Masjid and the riots that followed in Bombay, Surat and other places; the Gujarat anti-Muslim pogrom in 2002; the anti-Sikh riots following India Gandhi’s assassination; the Naxalite movement; the Emergency; and, worst of all, the constant micro-aggressions and larger atrocities that dalits, bahujans and adivasis have faced forever.
These are just the greatest hits of our unquiet times, the big stories you can shorthand with the name of a region or an ethnicity or a political moment. But the little stories also linger.
A friend was recently recalling an incident, more than a decade ago in Assam, when an army officer came to question her family about someone; the man ran a finger down her mother’s cheek before leaving, and there was nothing any of them could do about it. I still get chills thinking about that.
That was then but it is also now; it’s just that, for many of us only now beginning to experience these last few years as especially bad, this is new.
This idea that things are uniquely bad now, well, it’s more complicated than that. But things are made worse by politicians and people in power no longer even paying lip service to the idea of a secular republic in which all are equal before the law. And things feel worse because it bleeds into our personal spaces: hate speech made and condoned by those in public life have given permission to otherwise quiet people to express their vile thoughts.
This is new for us, for people like my family and friends; we, the privileged, well-educated, upper caste, with a stable income, we were free from the fear that so many Indians lived with.
Reservations that made it possible for people from historically-oppressed castes to get an education and jobs were implemented so effectively in Tamil Nadu, a state in which most of my family lives, that many things changed for people from the upper caste. For most of my teen years, I heard stories about how Brahmins had to go to evening college, or to other states to study because it was simply impossible for them to get the kind of education they believed was theirs by right. To these kinds of people, the rise of Hindutva was a rallying ideology for their perceived grievances. No wonder, then, that their minds are fertile ground for malicious lies to take root. Like the things about Muslims that my mother’s friend believed.
Other things are different now.
Social media, for instance. It seems like a glib, facile observation, but everywhere in the world the rise of right-wing governments and fascism is linked with the use of targeted social media. We’re no different.
Those people in our lives who read and forward any rubbishy misogynist, caste-ist “joke” that appears on Facebook or WhatsApp would, earlier, have had no such opportunities to participate in a faceless spreading of rumour and lies. Sure, there was email, but with just the one method of interacting online, it was much easier to filter out aggravating content. For instance, when my cousin’s then wife wanted to send me videos of her guru, Nityananda speaking, I declined; and if you’ve seen even one you’ll know why. I’ll turn my brain to mush in my own way, thanks.
When we meet family or friends in person, it becomes apparent what all of that unfiltered social media combined with a loss of skepticism, has done to the minds of these people we thought we knew well. It seems like they’ve lost the ability to think for themselves. We could tell ourselves that this is new, that this is a result of the highly managed media machine that the government runs. Yet maybe this is what they’ve always thought? Maybe we’re only noticing now?
I’ve begun noticing and thinking about the conversations my mother and I have with other people. Anecdotes aren’t reliable data, of course, but they’re a way of plucking the grass to know where sits the wind. They show how people feel it’s okay to say certain things aloud, as well as the confidence with which they assume we must feel the same.
One cousin, a Modi fan from back when Modi was Chief Minister of Gujarat, said only half-jokingly that a small-time politician who used to be a popular film actor and whom he liked once upon a time, must have converted to Christianity. The actor had protested something Modi had done; only a converted Christian would object to Modi, clearly.
A visitor said to my uncle, in casual conversation, that a nearby temple was no longer allowed to use a loudspeaker because residents were complaining about the noise. To which my uncle said, “If it had been a masjid, they would have kept quiet. It’s only Hindus who have to keep making way.” He would never have said such a thing to us directly; but even though my mother was present, he was able to say what he did because he was speaking to his friend.
A group of my mother’s friends, who’ve met once a month for lunch for the last forty years, were very upset about the recent Supreme Court decision to allow women of menstruating age to enter the Sabarimala temple (dedicated to a celibate god). Based on a rumour that they took to be fact, they believed that some Muslim women were carrying used sanitary napkins into the temple, and were outraged.
Another friend, after a recent talk by retired Justice AP Shah, where he enumerated all the ways in which things have got worse in India since Modi, asked us, “What did you think of his talk? So partisan, no? I mean, he should have given both sides’ views.”
I replied that it was a talk, and he was under no obligation to “give both sides,” as she put it. “I’m afraid I disagree,” she said huffily, and went back to her seat. My mother and I looked at each other and said, ‘What’s the “other side” of “lynchings are terrible and must not be condoned”?’
Sometimes my mother pushes back; when she’s outnumbered, she remains silent. I, on the other hand, just cut people out of my life if they display their stupid bigotry. That accounts for why I have so few people I can actually talk to.
A couple of years ago, when Kashmir was on the boil because the army had shot Burhan Wani dead, and used pellet guns on protesting civilians, this couple from Jammu, parents of my son’s classmate, claimed that little children were being paid Rs. 500 per day for throwing stones at the army. “I’m telling you,” the woman said when I laughed. “If they have good aim, they get paid a thousand bucks.”
It’s silly but it’s not funny. None of it. How did people become so credulous? When did we begin to occupy mutually inhospitable worlds?
Most of the things that bother people aren’t even the really disastrous things this government is doing. Like a newspaper reader grabbing at the gossip pages for the glitz, the people around me seem to be absorbed with the relatively trivial, while the real news is buried deep inside the paper where it’s all daunting walls of text and no photographs.
Consider the things the Modi government is responsible for:
Demonetization and the consequent distress in the unorganized and agrarian sectors of the economy; Aadhaar and its role in creating a surveillance state, while simultaneously robbing the very poor, whom it was supposed to help, of the food, health care and subsidies due to them; the dismantling of independent institutions like the CBI and the RBI; the damage done to public universities; the arrest of activists and students under draconian laws; the assassination of journalists and rationalists by right-wing groups; the “beef lynchings”; the targeting of dalit activists after Una and Bhima Koregaon; the diluting of environmental laws.
I could go on.
But these are not the things that get talked about between family and friends. Perhaps because none of these things have touched or affected people like us directly. Perhaps because these things are hard to defend. Perhaps because it’s easier to keep harping on things other governments have done wrong than concede that this one is not all that they had hoped it might be.
“Yes, but what is the alternative?” people will ask. “Anybody but Modi and gang” is apparently not an acceptable answer. To say such things means we must be Congressi, we must be urban naxals, unpatriotic anti-nationals, or even (gasp) communists.
To be fair to my family—and to what friends I still have—they haven’t actually called my mother or me “urban naxals” or anything like it. But these days—and again, this feels new—I suspect that if someone, unrelated, should publicly fling those words at us like stinking mud, they would secretly agree and let it stick.
I am suddenly recalling the time my mother groaned at having to stand for the national anthem, which is now played before every film in theatres. “I’m not going to get up,” she said.
“You’d better,” I hissed, pulling her up. I remembered the times people were arrested for sitting through it.
As we approach elections in 2019, things appear to be getting worse. Right wing organizations affiliated with the government are already putting their weight behind building a temple at Ayodhya, where the Babri Masjid used to be. This threatens to open old communal wounds and the possibility of riots and religious tensions is real.
But I don’t think my family and circle of friends will care enough about the religious, regional, and caste violence that is bound to attend the lead-up to the elections; I doubt they will act by voting this government out, because, actually, much of what this government does is acceptable to them.
And I still don’t know how to talk to them about any of this.