Reading the snapshots

Print edition : November 27, 2015

In his work Shah of Shahs, the celebrated Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski reads the build-up to the Iranian revolution against Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi in a series of photographs, press clippings, television images and sound bites, dipping into the notebook kept by him to contextualise them as one of the few outsiders in the country at that time. A mix of the episodic, the anecdotal and the impressionistic gives him, and us the readers, a grasp of the unfolding events. The account thus brewed is at once experiential and intellectual. Even if it is with the benefit of hindsight, we see how uncannily accurate these spontaneous, as against concocted or planted, sights and sounds were in predicting the political transformation that was soon to take Iran by storm.

The snapshots that wrest our attention these days seem, similarly, to add up to something. Of course, there is no comparison between Iran then and India now. Nor is any revolution waiting to happen here. But these images are symptoms, even if early symptoms, of both the blight that threatens to overtake us and the churning in society against it. They point to the systematic attempts by those now in power to unwrite or rewrite our history, undo our syncretic culture and upend our secular values and the voices rising against these moves.

The faces of Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare and M.M. Kalburgi remind us of the price to be paid for daring to be rationalists at a time of rabid religiosity. The passport type photo of Mohammad Akhlaq, depicting a face with sunken eyes staring stoically into the lens, is inset into that of his wife and family members, despondency writ large on their faces as they struggle to make sense of his brutal lynching on the mere hearsay that the family consumed beef in their house in Bisara village in Dadri. A family album picture of the two Dalit children—Divya, an 11-month-old toddler with wondrous black eyes wearing a blue frock and a dandy faux straw hat and the barely older sibling, two-and-a-half-year-old Vaibhav with a protective right arm flung across his baby sister’s shoulder—who were burnt to death when, as news reports surmise, an upper-caste group torched their house in Faridabad while the family was asleep inside, and the news photograph here and now of their disconsolate father, Jitender, who barely survived the carnage, his hands swathed in bandage, form a diptych split apart in time and life but attached in pain and suffering to one another.

If you stay awhile on these images you are required to account for yourself. Did you feel as upset or indignant when somebody else was attacked, massacred somewhere else, sometime else. If not, you are being selective in your anger, in your remorse. Shock and disgust at inhuman acts cannot be absolute. They can only be comparative and relative. Else, you display your political prejudice. There are other images, too, that you cannot dwell on without inviting the charge of bias, of even being unpatriotic. That of faces being daubed in black ink for inviting a former Pakistani Minister to a meeting or for supposedly hosting a beef party in Kashmir. That of a demonstration outside Kerala House in Delhi against the police barging into the premises to ascertain whether the beef listed in the menu is that of cow or buffalo. That of artists, writers and film-makers across the country returning their national awards in protest.

Spokespersons for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) appear cosmetically indignant that the blame for all these criminal and intolerant acts are laid at its door. Many of the crimes, they point out, are perpetrated in States ruled by other and oppositional parties. How would the party or the Central government be responsible? Circumstantial evidence is against this naive logic. The Hindutva atmospherics and chest thumping incite State and non-state actors and anti-social characters to spout their venom, and do worse. There is obviously a feeling generated that the party’s response to such acts of religious rage would range from approbation to condonation and, at worst, where it proves politically embarrassing or counterproductive, to a mild rap on the knuckles. If the party and its government were anywhere near shocked by the killings and the lynchings and the attacks, they should be the first off the blocks to condemn these crimes, led by the Prime Minister himself. They are not. What they say invariably comes as too little too late. This may be a lapse or a deliberately calibrated response each time but becomes morally culpable in either case. Their sins of omission compound the sins of commission by those who owe allegiance to the Sangh Parivar or feel empowered by its exclusivist credo to attack, by word or deed, the other, the outsider.

We have been witness recently to the parody of the president of the party pulling up a Chief Minister, a Union Minister and a Member of the Legislative Assembly from his flock for their insensitive and aggravatingly communal constructs on what has been happening (although they blithely denied that they got any such dressing-down), and then going on to set a fine example himself by his Pakistan-will-burst-crackers-if-BJP-loses-elections-in-India remark in a last-ditch attempt to communally polarise the votes in Bihar. Arun Shourie, once a leading light of the BJP, upbraids this and speeches in a similar vein by the Prime Minister in his Bihar election campaign and warns that they are tantamount to making India like Pakistan.

Rightward shift in discourse

What has happened imperceptibly behind these images is that the fulcrum of the discourse has moved sharply to the Right in the ideological spectrum. L.K. Advani and Arun Shourie, even K.N. Govindacharya in a pinch, appear moderate voices, and Atal Bihari Vajpayee becomes to the BJP almost as inconveniently liberal and progressive a figure as Nehru has been for the Congress, Rajiv Gandhi onward. The way this pans out must please the thinking elements in the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), because the Right, rather than the Centre plus the Left, would occupy much of the road in this scheme. Already the BJP has been drawing on Gandhi and Vallabhbhai Patel often and sufficiently enough to make them non-exclusive to the Congress. Already, the soft saffron long tail of the Congress has merged seamlessly into the Hindutva part of the BJP programme. With the tail thus compromised, it is not surprising that secularism that is the visible head and face of the Congress finds it difficult to shake off the crude prefix “pseudo” that the BJP has contemptuously stuck on it.

The rightward shift in sensibility, the clever rendering of secularism as an interrogated term, makes the truly secular voice sound like it is anathema. When the reputed historian Irfan Habib draws a parallel between the quality of the “intellect” that rules the Islamic State and the RSS, it is considered no less than blasphemy even in some liberal quarters ostensibly because the fact that the BJP is in power ipso facto provides the RSS a good degree of political legitimacy. In this new climate, any argument on secularism quickly descends into the low depths of identitarianism.

Who says it is more to the purpose here than what is said—the creed the name evokes (even if the person in question may be an avowed atheist) determines the politics that follows. Shourie’s comment on India turning into Pakistan courtesy the communal election rhetoric of the Amit Shah-Narendra Modi combine in Bihar is pertinent. You can discuss and debate it.

Irfan Habib’s comparison of the intellectual equipment of the Islamic State and the RSS is impertinent. You cannot say it, period. Hypothetically, and purely as a counterfactual exercise, if the roles were reversed, and it was Shourie who said what Habib did, it would arguably have passed muster at least to the extent of being put on the table for contestation. But if it was Habib who had invoked Shourie’s Pakistan simile, someone from the Right fringe would, as sure as hell, have twisted it out of shape to insinuate that the historian’s heart was not in the right place.

Shah Rukh Khan has been damned for far less, for merely smelling intolerance in the air. His heart is in Pakistan, is the ominous diagnosis of a BJP leader and former Minister. Another serial foot-in-the-mouther compares him to the Pakistani terrorist Hafiz Saeed. A sadhvi rants that he is a Pakistani agent. The mistake the star made was to open himself up for questioning about secularism in the television interviews he gave as part of the media splurge marking his fiftieth birthday. The mistake the television worthies Barkha Dutt and Rajdeep Sardesai made in their separate interviews with him for their respective channels was to persist with a line of questioning about his Muslim identity, into which, for anyone watching the interviews, he was palpably reluctant to be drawn. He did indicate to both his interviewers that the subject was sensitive for him, that he had the experience of being at the receiving end of communal frenzy and that he preferred to be silent on the subject. But they would not let him be, and eventually he mumbled something about the atmosphere becoming intolerant. He has, as was only to be expected, been promptly censured for it, and finds his heart consigned to Pakistan.

An awkwardly defining moment in the interview with Sardesai was when Sardesai referred to what he called the “paradox” of the three Khans ruling Bollywood, meaning, no doubt, that the communally vitiated atmosphere has not come in the way of that accomplishment. Shah Rukh, who otherwise tends to respond to a question with a stream-of-consciousness prattle, was quick to spot the unintended irony in the question and to point out that what was paradoxical was that that fact (of the three Khans being at the top in Bollywood) should be seen as a paradox in the first place. The well-intentioned liberal journalist was nevertheless slipping into the political framework and formulation of the discourse set by the Right. The moral of the story seems to be that in the beef with the majoritarian discourse one man’s cow can be another man’s buffalo.

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