As a young Indian living abroad, I find the situation back home precarious and in decline every step of the way. The more I try to rationalize the debilitating environment young Indians such as ourselves are faced with, I shudder to think about the grimmer realities we will face, as ardent we are now to be vocal on our commitment to bring light to the nation on our terms of social justice. India has shown itself to be a potential ground for populism in the past, but the Modi government has succeeded in transforming our democratic heritage into a breeding ground for divisive politics and ethno-religious determinism.
Land of the Secular & the Free
At the strike of midnight 73 years ago, India anticipated to inherit a wholesome albeit flawed nation. Through the various leadership milestones and numerous changes in national interests over the decades, India as we know it today is very changed and quite the international show stopper on many ramps of global diplomacy, trade, economic performance and culture. But it also entails the inevitable off road questions that appear more frequently as we sail ahead into a new decade now plagued by the dangers of a pandemic. As we count down to the resonate day of celebration to reflect on a near three-quarters of a century of Independence during this time of crisis and uncertainty, we look around us to find many discrepancies, victories, illusions and possible answers.
The first appointed Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru had famously promised the newly free land of a ‘secular, diverse and unified’ nation to determine its destiny as a great priority, especially to the suitability of the non-alignment movement. This came as an impressive decision in the turn of enabling decolonization from the political facet, where imperial divide and rule was heralded to consolidate a hierarchy of class, caste and religion. Sure, the newly formed nation state saw the twin birth of Pakistan, scarring our narrative with division that has been intrinsically recorded in our quarters of history, but it also ushered in a metaphorical new dawn after a ruthless, drawn out period of colonial conquest. However, as India transitioned into being a settled and independent state with several capable leaders relaying the torch, India’s growth welcomed development in the spheres of political, economic and cultural power.
India has held an enviable reputation of producing intellectual giants throughout the decades, the country, however, is regrettably reckoning with the belligerent policing of young minds at present. The last year saw the uprising of the youth and citizens who carried the palpable anger towards the state’s amendment to the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), leading to a series of violent crackdowns on the nation’s capital and metropoles. As 2020 leads India stumbling into its own share of covid-19 related madness, countless accounts of harrowing and violating cyber bullying have made the rounds, leaving citizens fearing for their fundamental right to free speech. Ironically, these are the very ideals of a democratic constitution that solidified India into being a powerful post-colonial nation on its path to stardom. The India of today is seeing a thick cloud of notoriety stagnate around the spiral of hostile public outrage from fringe sects who seek to choke the egalitarian and secular ambitions of the rising urbane middle class. We are grounded in unbridled idealism that faces a daunting task of challenging the contemporary uproar of a divisive government. But we are also in the midst of experiencing a loss of self as we bear witness to the transformation of our ‘nation’ into unbridled ‘nationalism’, leaving some of us with no centre nor periphery.
Slaughterhouse of Free Thought
Covid-19 has unleashed a veritable Pandora’s box on a global scale, with every corner of the world having to deal with systemic inequality and gender disparity, which has amplified a thousand-fold in India. With one of the most haunting domestic migrant labour crisis picturized in the aching wake of the financial uncertainty brought by the pandemic, the eyes and lives of 1.36 billion Indians were on the government to act swiftly, making moral decisions that could deter devastating aftermaths. Identified as one of the biggest competitive economies in the world, India has exemplified its two-tier structure of functionality which may trigger a troubling reality for the masses who still suffer from morbid under-representation, poverty and marginalization that is pit against mega foreign investments in increased industrialization and infrastructure.
On my last visit to my native Kolkata amidst the chaos of routine demonstrations against India’s new Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) in December 2019, I felt odd and surprisingly anxious despite being at home. There was an unsettling vibe on the streets where many youngsters looked torn and tormented, terrorized by an ominous feeling dogging them should they dare make a detour to join the protests. The vintage gramophone speakers placed atop community centers and public cantonments were blasting political slogans, seeking to recruit new supporters. Auto rickshaws had either glued a picture of Modi or a figure in Indian politics that is affiliated with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Demure buildings in old clustered by-lanes in northern parts of the cities now sported torn posters of the services offered by a local municipality quarter, used as makeshift seals to cover the holes in the walls. Next to those one could find larger than life post-ups of how Modi is bringing ‘prosperity and development’ to the nation. It has always been a very politically vibrant city but this time the energy alluded to a feud that the rest of the country was also experiencing. A sort of tryst with asserting Modi's earned popularity while simultaneously questioning his methodology to disseminate his policy making.
Although West Bengal is famed for its cultural renaissance and its intellectual aestheticism, the brutal personal attacks endured by some of the most pristine minds of our times has caused me much distress. Renowned educational institutions such as Delhi University, Presidency College, the many campuses of Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), and Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) which bore the brunt from disgruntled right wingers, have pawned off safe spaces condemning fundamentalist thinking. More notably JNU was at the receiving end of a brutal attack in January 2020 by some 50 masked male strangers belonging to the Akhil Bharatiya Vidhyarti Parishad (ABVP), a student wing of the BJP. I woke up the following morning to an assault of attacks listed on the front pages of several newspapers, alongside the broken aspirations of my compatriots. I felt the death of free speech in my bones, the deafening cries of my age mates being beaten and burnt with acid shook me to the core. For the first time in my life in an ‘independent India’ I had remorse for being ambitious and my blood curdled at the thought of being violated if my opinion were deemed 'deviant', as they most likely will be. I imagined the ways in which I might be disrobed, publicly humiliated, unrelenting until I succumbed...my belief system broken and sense of safety shattered.
The once revered destination for knowledge, cultural advocacy and diversity is now a slaughterhouse of free thought, a resting place for live discourse and open debates that are meant to foster holistic habitancy. And even with the luminous and illustrious legacy Incredible India has carved out for itself, the present-day loggerheads weigh down the stupendous potential of this global powerhouse. India has definitely positioned itself as a solid regional contender for geopolitical affairs but domestic fault lines are growing deeper in her soil. The very specific challenges of the growing Hindutva narrative and widening economic divide makes this a presence to both reckon and question in our tricolor nation. The newfound Hindutva elitism survives on alienating non-Hindu minorities who are otherwise eligible citizens of the country. Besides the project to minimize minority rights, the Hindutva programme also seeks to silence members of the Hindu faith who do not conform to the overwhelming man-made sacraments that are now being held higher than the legal constitution.
Some of the most celebrated polymaths have emerged from West Bengal (namely Rabindranath Tagore, Amartya Sen and Abhijeet Bannerjee- all of whom are Nobel Laureates). The state itself carries a checkered past of urban communism coupled with a relentless trend of naxalism that tends to the rise of a leftist regime, posing a challenge to central governments since the independent era. Yet despite producing some of the pioneering architects of modern India, the Modi government leaves no stone unturned in leaving human needs unattended in the region, engaging in a constant turf war with the state Chief Minister Mamata Bannerjee who symbolizes her reign as the steadfast battalion of ‘Ma, Mati Manush’. The ‘mother, motherland and people’ which can be interpreted as the desire for a novel progressive nature replete with a distinct sense of inclusion and statehood.
Groundbreaking economists such as Sen and Bannerjee, who have locked horns in the past around the nature of their work, seek to unravel the multi-dimensional factors that proliferate poverty in India - something that has been proven and universalized but frowned upon by state-sponsored denialists and Hindutva supporters. Yet I see their critique of fervent intolerance and underdevelopment enrages the current government to the extent that they are branded as ‘anti-nationals’; an insult to their professions as well as their dedication to their chosen craft. Hence, even the most honest forms of knowledge production have now been reduced to being a political tool for Hindu Nationalists to deem unworthy or remarkably ‘leftist’ when swaying policy implementation in their favour. Such stunts hurt us as young aspiring Indian scholars who revere intellectualism as a means to theorize and implement progress. We are gaslighted, labelled delusional and accused of being out of touch with the cultural iconic nationalists, which is used as a defense to perpetuate this new state of fascism. Being called delusional or paranoid about the state of affairs has left a sour taste in my mouth to which I owe my adamance on speaking out as a citizen of the republic I love, in lieu of being a scapegoat waiting to be slaughtered by the masochist saffron wave that has become the dominant socio-political nexus. It is stifling to be under an oppressive regime and many of the former political prisoners, refugees, asylum seekers and activists will bear witness to how political violence will continue to alter the shape of our collective futures for the worse.
Unity in Diversity
I have a blinding fear that my home country, which was almost always perennially termed as a quintessential, multicultural and rich democracy, is declining into a non-secular hot belt of sectarian grids and cruelty. Such anti-secular sentiments are rotting the very roots I am so deeply attached to. But then I have to agree that the problematic strands of patriarchy and highbrow tendencies in the ‘Bhadralok’ strata have built a fortress around social and economic capital that is so familiar to the Bengali dispersal. This has muddled our own fortitude to transparency and egalitarianism, which is counter-productive considering we want to eradicate marginalization altogether. This is why I strongly believe that having more of an intersectional presence in voicing concern over the demise of free speech in contemporary India should help us to avoid returning to the demoralizing classist and casteist tropes we have internalized in our respective communities.
The secular heritage we have nurtured over the years is frighteningly fading at the cost of human rights and lives. I grew up outside of the country while remaining deeply rooted in an Indian culture that is liberal, cosmopolitan and tolerant. So for me to see this crackdown on India’s historic religious plurality is disturbing and traumatic. Even in the predominant multi-ethnic diasporic communities I have been present in, we fear the demonization of free thought especially since we are drawn towards being exponents of the arts, culture and academia, which in turn becomes our bread and butter. Separatists amongst us far and wide strive to curtail our perspectives and question our authenticity and patriotism. Yes, unfortunately some of us do find ourselves in the category of citizens whose discord regularly attracts torment from gatekeepers of fundamentalism in a populist era where our affiliations, lineage, citizenship and loyalties are all up for public scrutiny as frenzied leaders hunt for allies and the masses scramble for security.
The anger that I feel when I am in touch with my fellow compatriots is visibly growing as we seek to redefine our activism against the brutality of our state. This is not cause for anxiety but fear of possible retribution lest we are asked to cut ties or ‘go to Pakistan’ if we find ourselves in disagreement with the manner in which our secular ethos are vehemently being harassed. To fear for my opinions or ideological leanings is unfair and uncalled for, deviant from an upbringing and belief system where I learnt the value of my voice holds a space for an equitable future whose foundation is contingent free speech. We have always valued the grapevine of knowledge production in our traditional formats of educational pursuits so now to regress on rationality, and on being secular and tolerant citizens is highly intrusive on the part of nationalists because no one should be able to attack the personhood of another based on propagandist material.
We are being grouped as ‘Hindus’ and not as Indians which sorely misses the point of the temperament of ‘unity in diversity’ etched in our freedom. I find it absurd that I would be identified as a part of a certain faith before my nationality. The compounds of socio-cultural heritage that founded the world’s largest democracy, to which our very vast international diasporas still remain committed to are being defied in exchange for a new nation that gives way to bigotry and hate as symbols of ‘Bharat’- the new India. As we speak now, counting down to Independence day, the entirety of Kashmir remains in darkness for over a year and a mega temple is being readied on the bloodshed ground of Ayodhya which bore the ruins of Babri Mosque in the guise of liberation, but for whom we ask? It is this cultural hostage that we question time and time again, that during the dangers of a pandemic we see more precaution in laying a foundation for a temple rather than emancipating those who lie lifeless on the surface of our nation.
In the present landscape of an India governed by communalism and religious prejudice, critical thinking is under attack. It has been branded ‘anti-national’ to think independently and differently because your perspective is unsettling enough to upset the nationalist agitator sitting across their screen preparing to attack you. Your disapproval of the Modi government earns a red card and further questions your belonging to the nation as if it were never yours. After 73 years of a free nation, I refuse to be patronized by extremists who may not even be sure of what these scriptures they constantly refer to, ask from them. Instead I urge the government to build resilience against poverty and illiteracy rather than torching down sites of worship for the erection of a so-called religious reparative prism that entangles itself with the Hindutva narrative.
My growing appetite for social justice in the Indian context is met with apprehension, whether it is towards my gender, my ambitions and sometimes even my ideology or background amongst a crowd of grueling dissent. We are not delusional and we are not ‘privileged tourists’ who are accused of knowing too little of the on-ground context; we are the future and what happens now affects us tomorrow. But this is not to ridicule my heritage or criticize my own inhibitions towards my country. Underdevelopment, prejudice, casteism and the sore lack of accountability plagues us openly. But I am proud of my nation nonetheless and as a concerned citizen and lover of my motherland, I do reserve the right to question the government and partake in speaking up, wherever in the world I may be in. This was what was etched into our constitution the very moment we breathed the air in a free India. The generations during the freedom struggle eons before were told not to query their identity and it is the duty of my fellow comrades and I continue doing the same in honour of their spirit. More than anything, I am optimistic for change and confident that as a global crisis of extremism unfolds so is the opposition against it, revealing itself in worldwide demonstrations.
In the words of Rabindranath Tagore:
If they answer not to your call, walk alone
If they are afraid and cower mutely facing the wall
Oh you unlucky one,
Open your mind and speak out alone
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