It is not often that a writer hits the bestseller list with her first novel. Harper Lee achieved that with her masterpiece “To Kill A Mockingbird”, which describes the racism and social inequality prevalent in the 1930s in the American South. A black man, Tom Robinson, is falsely accused of raping a white woman from one of the most wretched white communities on the fringes of society. The prevailing animosity of whites towards blacks, seventy years after slavery was formally abolished, manifests itself in efforts of some members of the white community to lynch the accused. In the ensuing trial by an all-white jury, Tom is sentenced to death, despite a brilliant defence put up by his white lawyer, Atticus Finch. Atticus is able to discredit the evidence of the rape complainant very comprehensively, although this does not lead to a verdict of acquittal. Despairing of getting justice in a system weighted against his community, Tom is killed while trying to escape from jail. The father of the complainant, a down and out reject of society, seeks to avenge his humiliation at the trial by attempting to kill Atticus’ children, losing his own life in the process. What the novel highlights is the number of innocents who are caught in the web of this bigotry and hatred. The author likens these to mockingbirds, which cause no trouble to humans and give pleasure through their singing. Hence the injunction of Atticus Finch to his children never to hunt mockingbirds. Tom Robinson, like many others in the novel, is the mockingbird caught in a vortex not of his making but of which he has to reap the grim consequences.
Twenty first century India is in some ways (and unfortunately increasingly so) reminiscent of the American South of an earlier generation. In recent times, women, children, householders, truckers, scholars, writers and journalists have been at the receiving end of lynch mobs for just trying to live their lives as they deemed best, without in any way interfering in the lives of others. The provocation (as so termed by vigilante groups) can be linked to a certain worldview about “culture”, which gives no space to diversity of individual behaviour, intellectual thought and even dietary practices. Women in Mangaluru (and elsewhere) have been targeted for expressing their individuality in ways which in no sense constituted any violation of the law of the land but “offended” patriarchal mindsets of some groups. Violence against women has been a longstanding feature of Indian society (protestations of its veneration of women notwithstanding) – what is disturbing in recent years has been the concentration of violence against women seen as bucking traditional mores and behaviours expected of women – whether it is association with the opposite sex, visiting places (e.g. pubs) seen as male prerogatives or even establishing their financial independence through gainful employment. Freedom of expression (enshrined in Article 19 of the Constitution of India) has been sought to be curbed extra-legally ever since the forcible exile of M. F. Husain two decades ago. Then we had the unedifying spectacle of hooligans from the Nationalist Congress Party (in power in Maharashtra at the time) vandalizing the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute in Pune and destroying priceless manuscripts to protest the research support it is supposed to have given to a “controversial” book on the Maratha ruler, Shivaji. More recently, writers like Perumal Murugan in Tamil Nadu have been pressurized to disown their writings which some social groups objected to, apart from the as yet unsolved murders of three rationalist scholars over the past two years. The last straw on the camel’s back has been the recent incidents of mob violence against members of minority denominations by socially dominant groups enjoying political patronage, ostensibly on the grounds of offending religious sensitivities related to alleged beef consumption.
There are two disturbing aspects to these developments that make all right-thinking, sober Indians reflect on (and despair of) the direction that Indian society seems to have taken. The first refers to what the political theorist Hannah Arendt has termed as “tribal nationalism” in her book “The Origins of Totalitarianism”. As she puts it “(Tribal nationalism) can be easily recognized by the tremendous arrogance, inherent in its self-concentration, which dares to measure a people, its past and present, by the yardstick of exalted inner qualities and inevitably rejects its visible existence, tradition, institutions and culture…tribal nationalism always insists its own people is surrounded by “a world of enemies”, “one against all”, that a fundamental difference exists between this people and all others. It claims its people to be unique, individual, incompatible with all others and denies theoretically the very possibility of a common mankind…”. The concept of an Indian nation is barely seventy years old. National pride was sought to be rekindled during the two hundred years of British rule by hearkening back to a pre-Muslim conquest glorious past, as though to deny the existence of history after 1192 CE (the Battle of Tarain), which marks the start of Muslim political ascendancy in India. It is unfortunate that, today, history is sought to be rewritten on the same basis, ignoring six centuries of social and political evolution which influenced the mosaic that is present-day India. It is even more unfortunate that this ersatz history has had its impact on certain sections of society, especially those exposed to a limited worldview founded on prejudice and a marked sense of inferiority, leading to a conviction that the majority community must assume its “rightful” place in the country. The “other” then becomes a convenient scapegoat for all one’s shortcomings and no effort is spared to impose a majoritarian worldview on all other communities.
The second aspect, and this is one that can be fatal to the very existence of a democracy, is the lack of respect for and observance of the rule of law. The police and security forces have, on a number of occasions, been swayed by partisan considerations in the maintenance of law and order and in the prosecution of criminal offences. Matters have not been helped by a creaking judicial system that takes decades to punish the guilty, if at all they are brought to trial. It is not surprising, therefore, that two tendencies manifest themselves: (a) using every loophole in criminal investigation and judicial procedures, those with money, influence and power delay, or thwart, the course of justice; (b) in frustration, those denied justice take the law into their own hands. A sense of impunity develops where the absence of the fear of deterrent punishment encourages vigilante groups and mobs to go on killing sprees; India’s experience is testimony to numerous such cases.
All sections of the state and society in India bear some of the blame for this sorry state of affairs. Political parties in India have always operated on the basis of expediency and short-term political gains. Right from Indian independence, the political class has used divisions of religion, caste and language to further its agenda of survival. With the cynicism (or should I say, realism) of thirty years in government, I would say the Indian political class amply justifies Goethe’s description of “estimable in the individual and wretched in the generality.” While there must be many politicians who are unhappy with the state of affairs today, it is rather optimistic to expect a statesmanlike response from them to promoting communal harmony and refraining from using sectarian propaganda to further their political prospects. The media has tried to highlight the various instances of intolerance and hatred; unfortunately, in the babble of voices and utterances in print, electronic and social media, no reasoned debate on issues based on factual evidence is possible, with battle lines already drawn in advance. There are only two silver linings in an otherwise rather dark thundercloud: the judiciary and independent citizens in different spheres of society. The courts have upheld a number of individual freedoms and have, especially at the highest levels, sought to jealously guard their independence from executive encroachment and ensure that the basic structure of the Constitution of India is not tampered with. Even more heartening has been the fearless response from people representing a wide spectrum of opinion, cutting across gender, community, religion and caste barriers.
Ultimately, the India that the framers of the Constitution dreamed of (and that every right-thinking Indian aspires for) will be realised only when two prerequisites are met. Firstly, reason has to guide actions, rather than blind emotions arising from intolerance, hatred and a sense of inadequacy. Every Indian has to put the past behind and focus on the path ahead. Today’s situation has to be taken as a given, to be improved on, rather than ventilating past grievances and manufacturing unrealistic future scenarios. Secondly, every individual and institution in the country has to abide by and promote the rule of law. At the individual level, this requires adherence to laws and regulations. At the institutional level (especially the executive and judicial arms), this requires the fair and impartial administration of these laws and prompt delivery of services to the aam aurat/aadmi to address common needs that are often the source of frustration and anger. Above all, at a time, when the world is wracked by violence and destruction linked to religious and ethnic differences, there is a special responsibility cast on the inhabitants of the world’s largest democracy to set an example of compassion, love and humanity for their brothers and sisters in India and across the globe. In this context, it is apposite to end with portions selected from the masterpiece of the immortal bard, Rabindranath Tagore:
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.