The words fill my head / And fall to the floor /That if God’s on our side /
He’ll stop the next war. Bob Dylan.
This past week or so has witnessed members of leading political parties, not just leaning towards one political ideology or the other, as in left or right of centre (that’s old hat), but also implicitly or explicitly promoting one religious cause over another and going hammer and tongs at each other. So what else is new? In so doing, words have been exchanged which, at best, can be described as incendiary. In India politics and religion are inextricably joined at the hip. Usually, such differences of opinion are expressed on our so-called television debates. These cacophonous exchanges can get incoherent, raucous and unpleasant, with the programme anchor making futile attempts to keep a lid on things and on an even keel; futile being the operative word. Oftentimes, the anchor himself or herself is the cause of the unseemly flare up.
However, things have never gotten completely out of hand, necessitating the party bosses to step in and take action against the errant loose cannons, namely, some of their garrulous spokespersons. That part of the script has now undergone a sea change as India’s ruling party has suspended two of its members for making utterances they would have been well-advised not to, over the airwaves. Or anywhere, for that matter. A couple of members from rival, opposition factions are also in the dock, presumably for retaliating in kind. Predictably, supporters of the ruling party claim that they were the ones retaliating under extreme provocation. Ultimately it all boils down to ‘your word against mine,’ or in the current Indian parlance, ‘tu tu mein mein.’ Whataboutery rules the day. Notwithstanding, we are probably in for a long battle in the courts, and violent threats to life and limb, even beheading, being a constant refrain on the streets. In India, we regularly face such powder keg situations given how our politicians and populace react to religious tensions, each vying to take advantage of the fraught situation, and the latest cause of trouble has seen the ruling party take the extreme step of suspension. And not a moment too soon, many would aver.
A troubling sidebar. As if not to be left out of the action, a DMK politician in Tamil Nadu has decided to add fuel to the fire by calling his brethren to eliminate the already dwindling and, by and large, peaceable Brahmin community wherever they may be found. Apparently, he is seeking revenge for all the suffering the non-Brahmin lot allegedly endured historically under the ‘superior’ caste members. This fire-breathing activist goes by the improbable name of Rajiv Gandhi! When it comes to wreaking vengeance or inciting violence, it looks as if there are no half-measures to be entertained. The thirst for blood is insatiable. Not surprisingly, BJP firebrand lawyer and politician, Subramaniam Swamy, himself a member of the Brahmin denomination, has moved the Election Commission to take the strongest possible action against this misguided individual and his party, which has thus far maintained a stoic silence on the matter. Mr. Swamy, a feisty lawyer who will not hesitate to take any issue to court at the drop of a veshti, has threatened judicial action if he does not get satisfaction from the Election Commission. To be fair to Mr. Swamy, he is not playing the Brahmin victim card to gain sympathy. His position is simple. You cannot go around threatening mass extinction of communities in a civilized society and he now seeks that the political party that supports such statements themselves ought to be in the dock. The days of pogroms are a thing of the past. Or so we hope. We shall eagerly await further developments.
To revert to our original subject, the BJP’s action of suspending two of its spokespersons has been characterized cynically by the opposition parties as pandering to international criticism, particularly from the oil-rich Islamic nations in the middle-east. They have reasoned, with some logic, that when similar critical noises have been confined within the borders of India, the ruling dispensation has tended to look the other way. The Government, in turn, could riposte by saying ‘you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t.’ As objective outsiders looking in, most of us are left in the dark because we have not been clearly told precisely what the two spokespersons said that has so incensed the opposition and the minority community. And in what context? Suffice it to say that serious offence has been caused, taken and suitable punishment meted out. Apparently, Nupur Sharma of the BJP allegedly said some unsavory things about the Prophet, though what the provocation was is not entirely clear. That was enough for those who felt grossly insulted, to bay for her head. Quite literally. The television and print media have been scrupulously silent on the specifics of the issue, though the argument rages across all media channels. This means those who actually heard the remarks have spread the message about, with suitable ornamentation and the rest have been left to speculate on what might have been. In such an event the social media that thrives on canards, comes into its own and all hell breaks loose. Samuel Johnson once described patriotism as the last refuge of the scoundrel. He could so easily have been talking about today’s insufferably self-righteous social media.
At the end of the day, I am left scratching my head wondering why human beings find it impossible to live with each other without polarizing themselves into all kinds of binaries – race and religion, to name just two. This is by no means a new phenomenon unique to India. The problem goes back several hundred years and never looks like coming to any kind of sensible and amicable end. Whether it is the Bible, the Koran or the Ramayana and Mahabharata, battles have been fought and blood spilt in an infructuous effort to arrive at any solution, leave alone the Final Solution. This continues even as I write this piece, and one must wonder how something sacred like religion, which is meant to guide humans towards leading a decent existence and point them in the right direction, should in fact be the cause of so much strife. I am reminded of King Henry II scolding one of the senior bishops from the clergy in Jean Anouilh’s play Becket – ‘All wars are holy wars, Bishop.’ Staying with historical literature, Queen Margaret’s ‘off with his head’ command in Shakespeare’s Henry VI can hardly find resonance in the 21st century. And so say all of us, but medievalism exists in the hearts and minds of so many constituents around the world and they wouldn’t bat an eyelid carrying out such barbarous deeds under any pretext they deem offensive to their tenets. Never mind the laws of the land and civil codes. It is an appalling situation because so many people are not really appalled by it.
Whether it was Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo’s and Denmark’s Jyllands-Posten cartoons on the Prophet, the simmering anger of Islamic fundamentalists has frequently taken a violent turn. The question of tilting at windmills, against the inalienable right of freedom of expression, struggles to meet at the crossroads. Perhaps the twain shall never meet.
I return to the here and now, when religious and political differences have become so toxic that even family members have to mind their Ps and Qs at social gatherings lest they commit an unpardonable solecism, without intending to do so. Bones of contention are crumbling through an irreversible case of osteoporosis. We keep treading on hyper-sensitive toes and are unable to put forth arguments without offence, intended or otherwise, being taken. In a recent television debate (a misnomer if I ever heard one), while the participants appeared to lose their cool and their heads, my old friend, the multi-faceted speaker and brand-builder Suhel Seth, who is never short of a word, appeared to be the lone, sane voice. As he tellingly and gently chided, and I am paraphrasing from memory, ‘let us agree to disagree, but let us not become disagreeable.’ Seth might well have been echoing Paul McCartney’s famous lyrics, ‘speaking words of wisdom, let it be.’
Karl Marx’s memorable quote, ‘religion is the opium of the masses’ rings true today in ways he may or may not have envisioned.