Sound of Silence

Manmohan Singh’s self-inflicted silence was the talk of the town in his last years as Prime Minister. It was the bane of his existence. It was half the reason Narendra Modi was chosen as his successor – after a PM who, no matter how strong the provocation, wouldn’t open his mouth, what a relief it would be to have one who couldn’t close his.

But when it comes to the really important things, Modi is no different.

The thing with Modi is, you can’t make him talk. Not with his mouth, not with his keyboard. It doesn’t matter what is expected, or even required, he will only talk when it is convenient to him.

It doesn’t matter if students are taken in on charges of sedition, or beaten up outside the RSS office, or if men are killed for storing ‘beef’, it doesn’t even matter if his own party members are on a verbal rampage, the PM will speak when he wants to.

Meanwhile? He’ll pretend the problems don’t exist.

Modi, it is impossible to deny, is a powerful orator. You may not like his style, or even the content of his speeches, but the impact he has on his audience is undeniable. He uses his oration skills to connect with people, and he uses social media more effectively than most men and women in his field. Yet, when he needs to talk, when people – minorities or otherwise – need reassurance from him, he is nowhere to be found.

Manmohan Singh’s silence became a burden for his people, so they chose Modi as his successor – a man who was as loud and talkative as he was fashionable. But soon after taking over, the latter’s silence became just as heavy a burden as his predecessor’s, if not heavier.

That’s irony.

But what do I know; I’m just a pseudo-intellectual/secularist who can’t digest the fact that a chaiwallah became PM.

Band, Beyonce, Bharat

Coldplay’s latest music video (Hymn For The Weekend) left my Twitter and Facebook news feed fuming. The depiction of India was seen as stereotypical, offensive and backward by the members of the very nation it looked to celebrate. But here’s the thing – not all stereotypes are false.

The video portrays one part of the country. It doesn’t matter how big or small that part may be, it is still a part. And it is a part that is unique to India, or to a few countries in the East. Other parts of the world have nothing like it – nothing like the colours that fill the air and grace the streets and pavements on Holi, nothing as eerie and fascinating as sadhus in saffron robes, nothing like the good, old fashioned black and yellow cabs with artistic interiors and that characteristic, Indian taxi smell, nothing like the dances that mark every single celebration. Hence, the fascination.

The problem, more than the fascination of the West with this ‘exotic’ aspect of the East, is the fact that we, in India, are so inexplicably ashamed of it, or embarrassed by it. We’re caught up with trying to imitate the west, as if it is the benchmark, a sign of being civilised and dignified. But at what cost?

We, as people of a large, secular, diverse country, have a lot that is uniquely ours, and deserves to be flaunted and appreciated. Not everything Indian is orthodox, or backward, or old fashioned. Development has nothing to do with Westernisation.

We’re offended that the more modern part of India isn’t being shown – the high rises and plush malls and big cars and metros. If we want all of India to be depicted realistically, we should ask for these, by all means, but we should also ask for the slums, and the children begging on the street, and the women being molested in buses and trains, and the communal violence and riots and rifts.

When Slumdog Millionaire released, a lot of Indians were offended, when they should have been embarrassed. The film showed a side of the country that even some of us weren’t willing to accept exists. It forced us to confront the harsh reality that a large part of our population lives in dire poverty on a daily basis, and the privileged lives we lead are exceptions to the rule.

I once read a paper that claimed one of the things that defines the line between offensive and inoffensive speech is the intent behind it. The intent behind depiction of people in several media productions is to get laughs through dramatisation or exaggeration, consequently creating cause for offence. The Coldplay video doesn’t judge, it just captures.

It sticks to the stereotype of the ‘exotic’ east. But the exotic east does exist in India, and the video celebrates it. It doesn’t judge, it doesn’t criticise, it celebrates. Holi is celebrated, children do dance on streets (and so do adults, because Baraats), we do have taxis with decorated (sometimes tackily) interiors, we do have sadhus wandering around with long, white beards and saffron robes, and we definitely have peacocks dancing in forests, and sometimes cities too. The video depicts a part of India that is uniquely Indian, and it communicates a spirit, albeit stereotypically in some senses, that is uniquely Indian. And that needs to be understood.

Rather than asking the western media to stop depicting the ‘exotic’ aspect of our country, we need to do two things – first, accept it exists, and second, understand that there are parts of it that deserve to be celebrated rather than seen as cause for embarrassment.

I believe, there are only two critical questions we really need to ask as far as the Coldplay video is concerned, and those are “what was infesting Beyonce’s face, and could she really find nothing better to wear?“

Capital and Compliance: An (Even) Odd Story

I have always believed Delhi is a city with a soul, and a conscience, as contradictory as this may be to the general perception of the city.

Whether it’s young girls giving up their seats in the metro for pregnant women or the elderly, or the assistance residents are willing to provide to physically handicapped people at a moment’s notice, or the inclination to think beyond themselves and venture out into the biting cold to make a case for providing justice to a 23 year old gang-rape victim, there is evidence to contradict the general belief that residents of the capital are brash, reckless, and selfish.

Even so, I never expected Arvind Kejriwal’s odd-even experiment to work, in the capital or anywhere else. The Chief Minister and his faith in people seemed misplaced. When I watched him talking of how students were going to persuade those who broke the rules to comply by appealing to their conscience and handing them flowers, I just wondered how a man of his age and with his experiences could be so naïve as to believe that would work.

“The people who will break the rules will do so knowingly, they just don’t care. What is your flower going to do?” I said.

The first surprise came when I ventured out of the house on the first day of the policy’s enforcement, and found myself afflicted with an obsessive compulsive disorder that made me look at the number plates of every single vehicle that passed me by. The second surprise came when I realised that there were less than half a dozen cars I could spot that broke the rule.

News reports over the next two weeks further substantiated this finding.

Much to the horror of skeptics, including myself, the residents of the capital actually did comply with the policy, voluntarily. The flowers and fines didn’t matter as much as they were expected to, enforcement didn’t play that big a role, because there was no need for it. And that’s been the best thing about the odd-even experiment.

Pollution was the central issue, the motivation behind the experiment, and while there is little consensus over how much of a difference the policy has made to pollution levels in the city, what it has revealed about the residents of the capital is important as well.

What started off as a measure to curb pollution has given people, or at least me, hope – hope that things can get better, that people are willing to make sacrifices to make them better – hope not just that problems like pollution can be tackled, but also that other social, political and ecological issues can be dealt with, because people, at least in Delhi, are willing to work towards their resolution.

This was seen in the protests that took place in the aftermath of the Nirbhaya gang-rape, and once again with this policy.

I never expected the people of Delhi to voluntarily comply with the odd-even policy and, rarely have I been so happy to say, I was wrong.

Rang De Siyahi

Earlier this week, while Turkey was shooting down a Russian warplane, all ‘patriotic’ Indians were verbally shooting down one of their favourite Khans.

The offence – admission of a feeling of increasing insecurity as a member of a minority community in a country, which, the ‘culprit’, Aamir Khan, felt was becoming increasingly intolerant. Furthermore, the actor had the audacity to add that his wife, concerned for their child, had actually considered moving abroad to ensure he would grow up in a safer, more congenial environment.

Following the statement, Aamir Khan went, overnight, from a much beloved star to an anti-national, anti-Modi one, and the sale of ink in Mumbai rocketed once again. Counter arguments, as always, were rational and well thought out – “we all spent money on his movies even though he is Muslim, we made him who he is, isn’t that proof of secularism?” “He was able to say what he thinks while union ministers sat in the audience and watched, where is the intolerance?” “Go back to Pakistan”.

While Indians defended their government, country and Prime Minister against a man who had considered moving abroad because of increasing intolerance, their Prime Minister stood on a podium in Singapore and lovingly wooed a crowd of people who had not only considered, but had actually moved out of the country.

If that’s not irony, what is?

Aamir Khan has been in the Indian film industry for decades now, and his name elicits a certain amount of respect and power today. That is a result of his talent and hard work, not his audience’s tolerance. If he is what he is because we allowed him to be, if he owes us something because we put him where he is, Modi owes Aamir Khan something as well because, as a citizen of India, Aamir Khan put him where he is.

And therein lies a long forgotten fact.

The current government and the staunch supporters of the Prime Minister have forgotten that Modi is the Prime Minister of the entire nation – this means he is responsible for and accountable to every single person in the country, regardless of where their vote went during the general elections in 2014. People may have spoken against him or for his competitors before he was voted in, but that doesn’t mean they should live in fear and suppress their grievances today.

In a democracy, dissent is not only allowed but is critical. Criticism creates conversation, and hopefully debate, and leads to improvement. The primary issue in the current situation is that the government and its supporters don’t seem to want to allow criticism to progress to the stage of conversation at all. If citizens have fears, the duty of the government is to eliminate those fears, and if those fears are unwarranted, to reassure them of the same. Attacks cannot achieve this – the government is not at war with those who voted them in.

People who hesitate in criticising the government because they feel they wouldn’t be supporting it if they did so are not doing the government, or their country a favour. As informed, responsible citizens and voters, it is our duty to look at things objectively, not follow people blindly, or force others to do the same. This means you should be able to see the negatives of the politicians or parties you support, and should be able to accept the positives of those you don’t.

Furthermore, it needs to be understood that no matter how hard we try, in the global, media saturated world of today, the truth and grievances of Indian citizens will eventually reach the ears of people beyond our borders. Covering things up can only get you so far. The solution, then, is not to hide what we feel, whether it is regarding intolerance or injustice, but for the government to address those feelings, so that the image that the Prime Minister projects of India becomes its reality, instead of its reality becoming its image.

Bhagat and the ‘Bourgeoisie’

During the 2014 general elections, I heard a lot of people countering arguments against Narendra Modi with the claim that those criticizing him only did so because, being snooty and elitist, they were naturally terrified by the prospect of a mere tea seller getting elected to the high post of the Prime Minister of the nation.

India’s bestselling author suggested the same in a newspaper column recently. A man who believes the Twitter mafia needs to get a girlfriend in order for the social platform to become a more congenial place, who reveals his ignorance by  belittling the work of historians, also imagines that all the writers, filmmakers, scientists, and members of the general public expressing concern over the increasing intolerance in the country are only doing so because they feel their intellectual or financial position is in danger.

Chetan Bhagat has been repeatedly stating this point of late, declaring that if Modi and Amit Shah “attended Doon school, spoke impeccable English and were spotted with their English girlfriends”, no one would be pointing fingers at them. I have never been a fan of Chetan Bhagat, or his writing, and I doubt anyone, including the man himself, can explain why he imagines girlfriends will solve everything.

But for him to trivialize what his own contemporaries have been doing of late – returning awards or protesting vocally against the increase intolerance in the country- in such a blunt and unapologetic manner is a new low for him.

He accuses “liberals” of being motivated by selfish concerns, and of being elitist in their thinking and lifestyle. He holds their education against them while criticizing them for holding other people’s lack of a similar kind of education against them. He places them as a single selfish, greedy body by virtue of the class they belong to, while criticizing them for looking down upon people who do not belong to their own class.

To claim that people with money or an English medium education can have no one’s interests at heart except their own is the same as saying that everyone without money is irrelevant. There are all kinds of people in all classes, religions, nations, and societies, and to generalize so strongly is perilous, especially when a man with the kind of influence and following that Bhagat has does it.

Apart from being appalling, his claims are also untrue. The people protesting don’t necessarily come from privileged backgrounds. Several of them, in fact, have worked their way up to get to where they are today, just like Bhagat or Modi have done in their respective fields.

For example, Ajmer Singh Aulakh was born to a family of farmers, while his fellow Punjabi writer Baldev S Sadaknama worked as a taxi driver, truck cleaner, and truck operator before he began writing. To overlook the struggles and achievements of these artists, and declare that anything they may have to say is irrelevant because of the position they hold in society today is disgraceful, and ironic considering the grounds of criticism against them.

Bhagat goes on to say that these “liberals” who are protesting look down upon vernacular languages. That is a loose, uninformed claim, if not a stupid one, considering several of those protesting make a living off those very vernacular languages. The writers in question, for example, turn out work in Urdu, Gujarati, Marathi, Malyallam, and Kannada amongst other languages.

In addition, he claims that these “liberals” are only speaking out in today’s situation because Hindu fundamentalists can be blamed – “They claimed to be modern and fair, but one would rarely find them speaking out against Islamic diktats that militate against gender equality. Liberal discussions on Godhra riots never touch on how Islamic fundamentalists burnt trains with passengers inside.”- hence turning the protest against communal intolerance into a communally motivated one itself.

Chetan Bhagat accuses anyone speaking out against increasing intolerance of some of the worst ideological crimes possible in a diverse, secular country like India, and he never once actually addresses the point of intolerance himself.

Bhagat, regardless of what I think, is a well-known and much beloved writer for most of the people in this country, and he, as a writer, wields the power of the pen in a way that few people can. To criticize a manner of protest, or to deny the issue entirely is one thing, but to accuse those who are giving up much treasured possessions- awards that are a sign of success and a source of respect- of being selfish and inconsiderate, apart from labeling them as greedy and insecure, is disgraceful and, considering Bhagat’s influence, dangerous.

For Chetan Bhagat, intolerance doesn’t exist. It is just an issue that the “liberals”/elites are cooking up to protect themselves, fearing they will lose their position in society. But he is privileged – what with his money and the books he writes in English – what does he know.


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