By Ajaz Ashraf
The social dynamics of Indian democracy has begun to resemble in its functioning a menacing road-roller, perpetually threatening to crush the spirit of the individual. Driving the road-roller relentlessly and remorselessly are myriad community leaders, often quick to claim their sentiments have been hurt because of a book or a film or a public discourse articulating views contradictory to theirs.
This is ironical because democracy is supposed to celebrate, as well as continuously facilitate, the rise of the individual. In India, though, he and she are compelled to eschew independence in thought and action and become subservient to a collectivity, however small or large.
This contradiction underlies a chain of recent happenings, usually categorised as attempts to curb the freedom of expression. Muslim organisations set the tone for the year 2013 through their demand for imposing a ban on Kamal Haasan’s film, Vishwaroopam. Then the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) clamoured for disallowing a clutch of Pakistani writers from participating in the Jaipur Literary Festival. Imitating the BJP were Muslim outfits, which wanted the same treatment reserved for authors who had publicly supported Salman Rushdie last year. Joining the slug-fest at Jaipur were also the representatives of Dalits, Other Backward Castes and tribals, who demanded punitive action against political psychologist Ashis Nandy for making a statement which the media had palpably plucked out of context.
These were all instances of attempts at defining community identities and creating homogeneous social groups. These share certain common features.
For one, the endeavour is to anchor community identity to the idea of victimhood. Leaders seek to portray that their community has been wronged, or that there is a conspiracy afoot to malign and marginalise it. It seeks to fan insecurities of community members and consequently band them together for countering the threat. This process almost always entails identifying the other, the enemy. It also presumes a belief among community members about their own righteousness, that their conduct is beyond reproach and criticism.
Examine the recent controversies against this backdrop. Muslim leaders take objections to what they believe are portrayals of the community as culturally backward and inclined to terrorism, their belief system questioned with malicious intent. Around this sense of victimhood they seek to create a monolith social group, given to emoting and thinking in one way.
The BJP seeks to create a Hindu contrast to an Islamic Pakistan, which is forever projected as conspiring to undermine it. Similar is the narrative of Dalits, tribals and backward caste leaders, whose experience of discrimination over centuries has made them extremely sensitive to criticism of their conduct.
In their quest to create monolith social groups, their leaders disallow possibilities of creating alternative identities. It consequently makes it imperative for them to silence voices articulating ideas about the community contrary to theirs. To accept multiplicity of views is to weaken their own stranglehold over caste and religious groups to which they belong. It militates against their project of creating homogeneous social groups. Thus, the dissenters from inside the community are dubbed as the enemy within and ostracised; the opponents outside are often projected as conniving in the Great Conspiracy to marginalize the community.
Since books, films and other modes of public discourse function as vehicles for promoting alternative ideas on community identity, they are frowned upon and opposed, at times even violently. The painter MF Husain, therefore, must be hounded because he challenges Hindutva’s notion of religiosity. It is the reason why books on Shivaji, projecting him as other than a Hindu hero engaged in battling the ‘Muslim invader’, are sought to be banned, under pressure from chauvinist political groups. This is precisely why Salman Rushdie has to be banned, lest his religious irreverence afflicts the community.
The increasing marginalisation of the individual is indeed tragic, more so because of the pivotal role assigned to him and her in the Indian Constitution. During the acrimonious debates of the Constituent Assembly, there were some who wished to make the village the basic unit of governance and, therefore, politics. Instead, in consonance with the democratic principles extant worldwide, it was the individual who was chosen for this purpose. It was on him and her rights were bestowed; he and she were granted equality of status and empowered to vote and participate in democracy.
The primacy accorded to the individual sought to undercut the power social groups wielded over him and her, as also weaken and dismantle the social hierarchy. No doubt, the rigid rules of the caste system did relax considerably, particularly in the cities, where it became increasingly difficult to adhere to the ideas of purity and pollution. Yet, simultaneously, competition for power triggered mobilisation on the basis of caste and religion, prompting politicians to reinforce primordial identities, often to the exclusion of other competing ideas.
In this scenario, the individual has been subordinated to the group, as has been his independence to promoting the solidarity of the group. This trend isn’t confined to the realm of arts and ideas. For instance, the group and its tradition are invoked to annul and punish couples who decide to marry on their own, or who dare to choose partners from castes and religions other than their own. Again, group consolidation and mobilisation inspired some backward castes in Tamil Nadu to stage a rally early December, decrying inter-caste marriage involving Dalits.
Indeed, it is through protecting the individual from the group we can ensure the liberal space in India doesn’t shrink any further. It is only then can we save books and films from the fury of the mob.
The author is a Delhi-based journalist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org