The death of Bal Thackeray on Sunday was marked by a deluge of encomiums from the entire spectrum of politicians, businessmen and the Bollywood-elite who found unparalleled virtue on everything he did. Even his strongest detractors searched for euphemisms to whitewash the fear-factor that he and his party stood for.
There were indeed attempts of muted dissent, but the commentators — mostly writers and activists — ensured that their words were nuanced and balanced with unqualified praise. Live telecast kept reminding them that 2.4 million people were on the streets of Mumbai “mourning” his death.
But a day later, things have completely changed, thanks to two faceless young girls in Mumbai who spoke their mind on their Facebook pages and subsequently got picked up by local police.
What followed was an epidemic of dissent.
With a single stroke, unrestrained adulation for Thackeray by people ranging from Amitabh Bachchan and Sachin Tendulkar to President Pranab Mukerjee gave way to an outpouring of dissent by common people.
Justice Markandey Katju, Chairman, Press Council of India, fired the first salvo by writing a powerful note saying he cannot pay tribute to the Sena leader for his anti-national “sons of the soil” doctrine and the hatred he spread. The Hindu, in a brilliant op-ed article said the Sena leader gave “voice to a Nazi impulse in Indian politics — one that poses an ever-growing threat to our Republic”.
“Thackeray will be remembered for many things, including the savage communal violence of 1992-1993. He was not, however, the inventor of such mass killing, nor its most able practitioner. Instead, Thackeray’s genius was giving shape to an authentically Indian Fascism,” the article said.
In an accompanying editorial, the newspaper further said: “But the Shiv Sena’s success came at a great price for not only Mumbai and Maharashtra, but India as well. Mumbai’s communal fault lines were thoroughly exploited by Thackeray and his Sainiks, especially in the weeks after the demolition of the Babri Masjid in December 1992. As the Srikrishna Commission documents, Muslims were systematically killed in riots engineered by Sena leaders. The brazen anti-minorityism of the Sena fed the BJP’s agenda in other parts of India too.”
Facebook status messages and twitter buzzed with protests against the arrest of the girls that also fearlessly ran down the leader’s legacy.
Journalist Seema Mustafa’s FB status message (as shared by one of her FB contacts) read: “They (read govt) arrested two little girls for posting their views on Thackeray when actually it is they who should have been arrested for insulting the indian national flag and burying Thackeray with state honours.”
On twitter, Newsweek International editor Tunku Varadarajan was blunt: “OK, I say what no mainstream Indian journalist has had the balls/cojones/tattey to say: GOOD RIDDANCE THACKERAY. India's now a better place”.
Another tweet, by Raheel Khursheed, said: “The message is clear: Indulge in violence, xenophobia, communalism — get a state funeral. Exercise ur right to free speech — get jailed.”
The status messages, articles, tweets and re-tweets were repeated a thousand, perhaps, infinite, times, expressing an alternative view of the leader and what he stood for. The torrent of adulation and fear-speech were reversed.
And this is exactly what popular writer Malcolm Gladwell called the “tipping point” in his best seller with the same title.
Unfortunately, the girls who triggered this tipping point will remain faceless. On Tuesday, when they were arrested on trumped up charges, which Justice Katju termed a criminal act, both had their faces completed covered. They also refused to speak to the media. Shaheen Dhada, the girl, who posted the commonsensical message that led to the “tipping”, subsequently changed her FB profile picture with a gagged, anonymous face.
But the change this gagged girl unleashed will be multiplied a thousand times in the coming days in India, however lumpenised its politics is and however brutal and rights-violative its law enforcement is. Every incident of free speech, and resistance to state brutality, however small it is, can now trigger a chain reaction.
The world has changed and the Indian politicians and governments will have to ultimately change. When nobody spoke against Thackeray out of fear, she did and the others followed. There will be a million Shaheens forcing this change in contemporary India.
Malcolm Gladwell concludes his book, although written more than a decade ago, on the same note:
“In the end, tipping points are a reaffirmation of the potential for change and the power of intelligent action. Look at the world around you. It may seem like an immovable, implacable place. It is not. With the slightest push — in just the right place — it can be tipped.
That is what Shaheen Dhada and her friend showed us with their simple free speech. These are the reasons for optimism for India.
(You can follow Pramod on twitter @pramodsarang)