March 01, 2021
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Rethinking A Response

In the aftermath of the attacks on prayer halls and churches that took place in Karnataka, the main casualty was enlightened moderation. There was no statesman on the scene.

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Rethinking A Response

It is nearly a fortnight since the attacks on prayer halls and churches took place in Karnataka. For two consecutive Sundays they have taken place with some predictable and also some unpredictable vengeance across the state. What happened in the coastal districts of Dakshina Kannada and Udupi fall in the predictable bracket, while the spread of the attacks to districts like Chikmagalur, Kolar, Chikkaballapur and finally the Bangalore urban district have been somewhat unexpected. The coastal districts have been seen in the last decade or so as the den of fundamentalists of all religions and the site of some unholy human experiments. Because of the porous coastline, the whisper is that it also harbours dreaded men from the underworld. The coast, many people in Karnataka thought would explode around the time post-Godhra "riots" happened in Gujarat in 2002, but the districts had uncomfortably held fire. An uneasy calm prevailed, and one could well argue that the BJP's victory journey in South India actually began from the coastal districts of Karnataka.

Even as all these attacks have been happening in the last fortnight, Chief Minister Yeddyurappa and his 'Sancho Panza' Home Minister V S Acharya, have not only maintained their calm, but have also blithely maintained their party's traditional line of thinking that this is only an angry reaction to "forced proselytisation". It's been business as usual for them, like transferring government staff en masse for example, and people of the state have been shocked with their casual, even careless and cavalier statements. The home minister at one point even asked why there was so much of fuss "when no deaths had occurred" during the attacks. He of course also patted his own back by stating that he had brought the "situation under control within two days."  This last statement had provoked his 'dissident' party colleague H T Sangliana to say the home minister was speaking like a "fire brigade officer."

Some may cynically comment that all this is happening on expected political lines -- the attacks, the statements, the rebuttals, the scoring of points -- and none of this should be shocking after all, because one has seen far worse happening in other states. Well, that may be partially true but there are two things that I observed over the fortnight of attacks, which we need to worry about and should not pass as routine and usual. One is the indifference and silence of the other minority communities when Christians were being attacked. Two, the shrill pitch adopted by some venerable intellectuals. The casualty in the whole situation was enlightened moderation. There was no statesman on the scene.

First, let us examine the silence of the other minority communities in the state. Why was not a single statement issued by any of the Muslim leaders or Sikhs or Jains or Buddhists? Why did they not take out a peace march or sit in dharna under the Mahatma's statue in solidarity with the Christians? Why did they not come out of their comfort coteries? The same question applies to Christians. Why do they maintain silence when Muslims are unfairly targetted? Do all the communities have to wait until the attacks reach their doorstep? 

In some of my interviews with Christian friends during the attacks, I realised that the Roman Catholics would not have been too bothered had the target of the attacks remained evangelical organisations like the New Life. Apparently, organisations like New Life are perceived as a threat even to the mainstream church, because they wean away their followers or potential followers. But they had to come out against the attacks because, however "mistakenly," it spilled over to the mainstream churchgoers. The attacks have rudely made the Catholic Church realise that such splintering of causes or such fine distinctions in the ideology of faith do not last too long. The rioter on the street has no patience for such distinctions. A church is simply a church for him, whether run by Protestants or Catholics or by the New Life order. Similarly, a Hindu temple is a Hindu temple, whether it is worshipped by Vaishnavites or Shaivites.

Different communities keeping to themselves or just minding their own business is turning out to be a little like Pastor Martin Niemoller's classic poem written in Hitler's Germany:

"They came first for the Communists,
and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Communist.
Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Catholics,
and I didn't speak up because I was a Protestant.
Then they came for me,
and by that time no one was left to speak up."

So the division of interests and the splintering of causes is counter productive. It has to urgently end. Any attack by the loony fringe should be treated as an attack on humanity.

As far as the intellectuals are concerned their shrill tone and over-the-top reaction after the attacks has been surprising. Filmmaker Mahesh Bhatt was here to survey the wreckage and spoke of conversions as "India's contribution to humanity". Kannada writer U R Ananthamurthy likened the situation in the state to the one that existed during "Hitler's time". Girish Karnad again spoke of conversions as a "birth-right". What these learned men have said may be entirely true, but why make provocative statements when the need of the hour is calming of the nerves, reason and some reconciliation? Surely the intellectuals, at some point, are expected to distinguish their responses from say that of a Kumaraswamy or a Deve Gowda or a Mallikarjuna Kharge. Just because the actions of the Ultra Right were wild, our responses need not be equally wild and off the mark. They have to be calibrated and well-moderated. A wild response to a wild action may do more harm than good in a communally-charged situation (like we saw in the case of retaliatory violence by Christian youth in Mangalore). It is more alienating than uniting. In fact, one intellectual in the lot that reacted wildly, had called Yeddyurappa a "decent" man when he was sworn in chief minister. Such contradiction and reversal of opinion may diminish the value of one's protest and response in the public eye. So, isn't it perhaps time to introspect, rephrase and rethink our responses to difficult social situations?

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