Heeding August Lessons
On the 5th of August, the foundation laying ceremony for the Ram temple in Ayodhya took place. This auspicious act was done on a day that had little religious significance. In a country where timings, of events little or large, are decided through complex astrological calculations, the date for such an important event was aligned to the date of the abrogation of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution. A political act was dressed in the garb of a social or religious one.
The very next day was the 6th of August. It is a day which possibly does not mean much anymore but is a day of immense significance in the history of the 20th century. This year the 6th and 9th of August marked the 75th year of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Two nuclear bombs with the quaint names of Little Boy and Fat Man were dropped by the US on these two Japanese cities killing hundreds of thousands of people. This bombing is considered to have hastened the end of the 2nd World War. A war which over five years killed over 50 million people and included a deeply divisive ‘religious’ question. Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the overall experience of the 2nd World War, was expected to teach us humans a lesson in respect, solidarity and above all humanity. But any lesson that may have been learnt, seems to be rapidly receding from our collective memory.
The celebrations in Ayodhya on the 5th were subdued but ostentatious. The television channels endlessly streamed images and the social media was agog with clips, news, and congratulatory messages. As is the wont in social media there were a few contrarian voices. I read questions on whether it was appropriate for the Prime Minister of a secular country, to perform such an obviously religious function. I also heard some dissenting voices. They were worried that this would now create a stronger divide among the different citizens of the country. A few others felt that while they were proud to be Hindus, this celebration of a specific north Indian version of Hinduism did not resonate with them.
For each such question there were strong counterarguments. Even those who did not agree to the timing of the event, felt that the Government was justified because this was part of their election manifesto. Others asserted that for too long had politicians played the ‘minority appeasement’ card, and it was time that the government unequivocally establish the Hindu identity of the country. In one of the groups I am part of, there were members who had vivid memories of living in a Muslim majority town in UP during the 1992 Babri Masjid demolitions. They shared their experiences of the rioting and deaths they had seen up close, but these recollections did little to diminish the overall mood of celebration of the majority.
I saw little mention of the devastation of the atomic bombs in the media. It is perhaps too much to expect from the mainstream media which celebrates war in graphic details. India was earlier known as a broker of peace and balance in the international arena, but in recent times there is news of disputes with almost all of our immediate neighbours. India is often valorised as a peaceful nation. I have heard many repeat the official line that India has never invaded a foreign country. Of course, these same people exult when they see the open temples of Bali and the grandeur of Ankor Wat or Borobodur. Seldom do they wonder whether the ‘Indian’ influences in East Asia were the result of proselytising monks, or also the result of Indian rulers who sailed across the Bay of Bengal, through the Indian Ocean and into the South China Sea. But facts are not always necessary to promote a ‘particular’ narrative.
These ten days in August were not only about religious assertion and violence and intolerance and death. These days also included the day of Rakshabandhan or Rakhi Purnima. This year a campaign called #RakshaBandSahayogShuru was launched, calling brothers to be supporters of their sisters rather than protectors. There was another remarkable campaign started on Rakhi exactly 115 years ago. The British rulers had just announced the partition of Bengal separating the largely Muslim Western areas from the eastern largely Hindu areas. This division along religious lines was not welcome by the local subjects. Rabindranath Tagore led a movement on Rakhi calling upon Hindus and Muslims to tie the bond of friendship and solidarity on each other’s wrist. A letter from those days making this appeal also circulated on Social Media, but I did not hear any comments on this post. This small act led to a mass movement against partition and the rulers had to reunite Bengal in five years. This is an important lesson for the present times.
There have been may lessons for me in these ten days in August. One lesson is that we must find ways of resisting the strong and stifling forces of homogenisation that are all around us. Homogenisation by harking to strong common bonds of history and culture and religion create a false sense of security and pride. I call it false because it not only creates a division but also creates an ‘enemy’ of the other. As Indians we often fall prey to such divisive visions because we are of a deeply hierarchical society. Caste for example, is embedded in our everyday life and in our festivals and rituals without us realising it.
I and many among my friends, strongly believe that we do not believe in caste and we do not practice any discrimination along religious lines. However, the larger virus of divisiveness grows unchecked. My lesson this August is that this divisiveness is spreading not because all of us are practicing ‘active’ divisiveness, but because our social circles are too limited, too circumscribed, too similar. We are not sufficiently familiar with those who are not ‘like us’.
When I look around, I see that I am amidst people who are more like me than ‘unlike’ me. We stay in groups which comprise of family or friends, neighbours and colleagues who are mostly like us. When I see my friends, most if not all, are like me, from a middle-class upper caste Hindu background. There aren’t any active Christian classmates in our school group even though ours was a Christian school. If there are Muslims and Dalit members, they remain mostly silent trying to fit-in or adjust or disengage and leave. If we look around in our social media circles, we will mostly see people like us who are visible or vocal. And this is not because we have shunned the ‘others’, but because our social spaces are becoming progressively exclusive not only due to our similar class, caste and religious backgrounds but also because of our ‘homogenising’ conversations.
Today jingoism is being passed off as patriotism, fiction is being passed off as fact, doctored videos and similar social media artefacts are being served as fodder to a large gullible ‘public’. A ‘particular’ kind of homogenised vision of the future recalling a mythical glorious past, which was destroyed, is being used to create a ‘bogey’ and an ‘enemy’. Some of us debate and disagree when such material is served up in conversation or on the social media. These debates are necessary but are they sufficient to challenge the overwhelming narrative that is being promoted?
My lesson from August is that if we want to avoid the large-scale human tragedies of the past, we need to celebrate difference and diversity rather than homogenise it. But to do so we who belong to the more privileged and comfortable ‘majority’ need to reach out to those who are more ‘unlike’ than ‘like’ us. Today more than ever, we need create conversations and opportunities to celebrate our common humanity through the ‘rakhi’ of friendship and solidarity because discussion, debate and dissent may not be enough.
The last lesson from August is one of sacrifice, the lesson I take from Id ul Zuha. The celebration of sacrifice in Id ul Zuha is not only about the goat or lamb or camel and the party that follows. It is also about being able to give up something we hold very dear. Abraham was asked by god to sacrifice his son, but the challenge before us may be a little more complex.
Many of us have personal grudges against individuals and institutions which are not necessarily social or structural to start with. We did not learn this through ‘socialisation’ but some personal experience or incident leads us to think this way. Let me explain this. Those of us who are doing reasonably well in life, enjoying many social and economic benefits and privileges may have been through some situation where we feel we did not receive the ‘right’ or ‘justified’ deal. We then build a generalisation from this one experience. For example, there are many ‘broad minded’ people I know who feel that caste reservation in education is deeply problematic, and this is related to their children not getting into the institutions of their choice. A similar situation arises where men start generalising that women waste their time in the workplace when they see one woman knitting in the office. People like us who have taken many privileges for granted often cannot reconcile with those situations where such privileges are denied. We need to careful that we do not let these disappointments build up into to a sense of ‘structural’ resentment against any caste, gender, religion or ethnicity.
These ‘resentments’ get reinforced when they resonate with the more prevalent social prejudices that are being promoted today. We need to recognise and sacrifice these resentments. This sacrifice is extremely important if we consider ourselves progressive, scientific, and forward looking. Today progressive social and humanitarian values are being undermined not just by the ‘crazy’ godmen-political figures we can ignore, but also by a subtle colonisation of the discourses in social spaces occupied by chartered accountants, businessmen, scientists, and doctors. The popularity of social media, and more so during the Covid enforced physical distancing has facilitated this process. A ‘particular’ version of what is normal and acceptable is being relentlessly promoted through what appears to be a carefully crafted approach. When the more progressive among us also contribute opinions influenced by our ‘resentments’ we unwittingly reinforce this discourse. Without meaning to we can end up contributing to a majoritarian view of society, a view that at a more fundamental level we may not believe in.
These are some of the lessons I take from the first ten days this August.