As 2014 sighs to a beginning, the noise created by self-appointed ‘truth-screamers’ is deafening. Everyone seems to be searching for new passwords to an undefined hope.
The year will be as the previous year was: one of Narendra Modi and his spin doctors and the sanctimony of the AAP. The Congress and the UPA trail behind, reminding one of Kipling’s burnt fool, whose bandaged finger goes “wabbling back to the fire”. Calendars change, dates change too, but some lazy certainties are just carried forward. The question, then, is not whether India is going ‘Right’; it is whether India is going ‘wrong’. The quality of public discourse best reflects this scepticism as well as this not unfounded dose of pessimism. Three broad trends are worth considering.
The first is our love of simple binaries. These are formulated as: “If you oppose the BJP, you must be a pseudo-secularist and/or a lapdog of the Congress. If you argue for real equality and social justice, you must be a Communist, or worse still, a Naxal.” The second is the idea that two wrongs make a right. Those holding this view propose that to criticise the post-Godhra riots, one must make an inventory of all riots in India since the 1924 Kohat riots and earn the legitimacy to question the role of Modi in 2002. Questioning a particular event does not even have to be about comparison with similar events. The simple-mindedness that produces an argument of this kind can question your right to speak about the 2002 riots because you have not written about the growing hole in the ozone layer!
The third is a regular resurrection of the idea of the pure, upright, transparent, godly ‘us’ versus the evil, vicious, satanic ‘them’, with evil having to be fought like a crusade by ‘wise’, ‘virtuous’ men and women who are self-attested possessors of these sterling qualities. This smugness is legitimised by the abstraction of ‘the people’: people cannot and will not ever sanction tyrants, murderers, fanatics and self-serving moralists to govern; they always have their own best interests at heart.
Forget the dead and move on, they say—for we have here not a mortal, a mere politician, but an avatar.
All these arguments come together to produce the recently articulated banality of the need to give Modi a chance, forget the 2002 Gujarat riots. This is not a new argument. It has been variously articulated by positioning Modi as the messiah of development, a symbol of national unity, a remover of all our maladies, a statesman who will carry India to universal glory and a shaman and oracle with all the answers. We are made to believe that we are not looking at a mere mortal who happens to be a politician, but at something resembling the dashavatarams of Vishnu. This is underlined by a single idea: forget violence, forget the complicity of the state in its systematic aiding and abetting of violence, forget a few thousand dead and move forward. To be fair to Modi, this is not unique to him but part and parcel of a body of ‘ethics’ that a lot of us transcending political affiliations have consciously and unconsciously absorbed for centuries.
Where do we look for an explanation for our compelling need to condone and legitimise violence? Dr B.R. Ambedkar’s essay Krishna and his Gita has one of the most compelling arguments. Ambedkar argues that the Bhagavad Gita is nothing but a defence of war. Arjuna is against the war and the killing of people for the sake of property. Krishna offers a philosophic defence of killing and of war: the world is perishable and we are bound to die. Death is inevitable, so it should not matter to the wise whether one dies of natural causes or die as a result of violence. Moreover, it is a mistake to think of the body and soul as one entity; the former is perishable, the latter eternal. When a person is killed, his soul is not killed but it merely discards the body. War, killing and violence, therefore, ought never to be matters of shame and remorse. In other words, the whole edifice of the Gita is a way of arguing that the Kshatriya has the licence to kill without sin attaching to him because tradition and text sanction killing as his duty.
Ambedkar goes further. The legitimacy granted to fratricidal violence was a way of thwarting the centrality of non-violence preached by the Buddha and followed by a vast majority of people. The Buddha identified the exhortation in the Gita to action with a necessary selfishness and acquisitive instinct that motivated such actions. This edifice of duty and action born out of a call to duty was also a way of keeping the four-fold caste system intact and keeping the Dalits and women in their place.
It’s a path that does not relish canned ecstasy for demagogues and learns to laugh at the toys they offer.
What Ambedkar also offers implicitly is of great significance. Arjuna’s doubt and unwillingness had to be crushed. He had to be terrorised and awed into submission. Scepticism and dissent are merely seen as ways of transgressing an entrenched idea of duty and a calcified notion of action. In Ambedkar’s reading of the Gita, we learn that the street bully, whether he be a violent bully or a moral bully, will inevitably defeat the Buddha and his non-violence. Philosophical and metaphysical arguments of a higher order will always be summoned to justify violence and legitimise killing in the name of abstractions such as ‘nation’, ‘people’ and ‘patriotism’. Gentleness and empathy will be mocked as Arjuna was mocked for his refusal to fight and kill; he was, after all, called a kliba, one who is impotent and emasculated.
There are, then, two paths to move forward. One is a selfish path, impregnated with the acquisitive instinct, that leads to government honours, more wealth, greater greed, a rising Sensex and a healthy GDP. It may also lead some one day to the Rashtrapati Bhavan. The other path is one where doubts assail and scepticism mocks all given certainties. It is a path that does not relish canned ecstasy for a demagogue and learns to laugh at the toys he offers in the name of hope. This other path does not shun the Sensex and the healthy GDP but asks whether these will make us more humane. The first is a path of servility, slavery, obsequiousness, hypocrisy and betrayal. The second is a path of modesty, freedom, self-respect, honesty and sacrifice.
The second is also a path that believes that moving on and moving forward is an illusion. The destination is defined by the point of departure. It asks people who wish to forget murder and violence and move forward two questions: Move forward to where? Move forward to what? And it borrows from Sahir Ludhianvi’s immortal lyrics and asks the champions of moving forward: Yeh duniya agar mil bhi jaye toh kya hai?