Shrinking space for dissent
Were we always like this? I don’t think so. As the disgraceful episode of the Three Hundred Ramayanas played out, I happened to be reading a set of essays from another time. The Best of Quest is a collection of writing from the now defunct magazine of that name. It stopped publication at the time of the Emergency. Were the pieces to be published today, the magazine’s office would need a constant supply of windowpanes.
This is Hamid Dalwai on Muslims, in an 1973 essay on Jinnah (A Study in Hatred): “Wherever the Muslims lack a decisive majority and cannot monopolise state power, they refuse to identify with the nation. Thailand, Ethiopia and the Philippines, all of which have a sizable Muslim minority like India, face the same problem of Muslim separatism… refusing to accept any national identity based on secular or non-communal principles.”
Critiques of a religious group weren’t out of bounds and neither were iconic spiritual leaders. In Sri Aurobindo: Superman or Supertalk (1975), Claude Alvarez executes a detailed takedown of the sage and his French consort, Mira Richard (the Mother). Both made bizarre claims. Aurobindo said he could write “perfect” poetry and offered his ‘Voice of a tilted nose’ as an example (this is not a joke). The Mother told a gullible band of devotees that a “supramental being” had descended on to the earth in 1956. The essay goes on to meticulously illustrate how the Pondicherry Ashram enriched itself and practiced a form of apartheid: its opulent estate was off limits for locals unless they needed work at exploitative wages.
The late Dilip Chitre, the writer who features most in the collection, seems to have gotten away with articles that called Indira Gandhi (then PM) a “gatecrasher” into politics, labeled Bal Thackeray the “Fuhrer of the Shiv Sena” and observed that Maharashtra suffered from a “surfeit of Shivajis”.
Quest was a product of its time. Launched during the Cold War, along with UK’s Encounter, its sister publication, it was designed to use intellect as the weapon to protect liberal values. That it survived till the Emergency suggests that India had room for it. Nowadays, we don’t seem to have the space to accommodate a (brilliant) essay as part of a history lesson. As the Mumbai academic R Srinivasan writes at the end of the volume, Quest existed in an “intellectual climate that has passed us by.”
Raising the violence bar
The “intellectual climate” is informed and defined by the political climate, which steadily deteriorated in the Emergency and its aftermath. By ’89, the defining year, the Cold War had been settled, and it’s byproduct was a burgeoning insurgency in Kashmir. Ram Rajya was the winning slogan of the day. By the end of the year, the BJP had won 85 seats in the general elections, shouting about Hindutva and a uniform civil code. This result was an astounding improvement from the 2 seats it secured in the previous poll. Even accounting for the sympathy wave in view of Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984 (which cost them), it was an exceptional achievement and it spoke to the spirit of the time.
The period post 1989 saw a crucial change: an enhanced disposition towards violence. This revealed itself in killings in Kashmir, the destruction of property (God knows whose) in Ayodhya, bombings in Mumbai and many riots. In the years that have followed, the ‘violence bar’ had been raised: damaging property or sending individuals to hospital was ok. Sort of acceptable, because it wasn’t as bad as killing — which is also justified in certain cases.
It is this raising of the violence bar that middle-class India — the chaps who learn history or decide syllabi — cannot handle. To them (or us) it is like the invasion of Hijras when there’s an addition to the family. You do your best not to provoke their ire. You just pay whatever it takes to make them go away.
Writing in 1969, in the context of ‘Hindu Society’, Dilip Chitre said there was a “pact” of “non-interaction” and “non-confrontation” that existed between the believers and the “dropouts” from faith. There was an understanding, therefore, that led to dignified mutual coexistence, an understanding that allowed the small, significant space that Quest occupied.
This has ceased to be the case post 1989. The middle-class that allegedly learned to turn the other cheek from their parents (who learned it from Gandhi/the Bible) has a contemporary understanding of the metaphor. Their non-violence is of the preemptive kind aimed at avoiding that slap entirely.
This brings me to my final point. If the liberal middle-class has been so pushed, isn’t it time that we, “after tea and cakes and ices”, found the strength to “force the moment to its crisis?”