Over the last few years, newspaper headlines and TV debates have been dominated by increasingly bigoted remarks by politicians. Given their stature — or at least the stature of the offices they occupy — this is understandable. India is no stranger to politically organised mob violence, but it has historically been a covert activity, with leading politicians trotting out incredible-to-believe stories of how they just managed to be there when the mob assembled, and that they were ‘misquoted’. So the interest, and horror, is understandable. Nevertheless, what it obscures is the main actors in the violence that follows; the faces in the mob become one hateful whole, driven by mad passions that we are unwilling to understand or examine.
The press and their readers — you and I — contribute to this obscuring. From our place of privilege and comfort we never ask the key question: how is it that so many young men are willing to take part in such heinous activities time and again? With signals of support from the very top, we understand they have much to gain, but don’t they have anything to lose? And why is this anger so easy to tap? What is driving it?
We accept, without question, that the hinterland is a tinderbox; that people like Ajay Bisht — better known as Adityanath — are popular because of the bigotry and hatred they espouse; and in the process, ignore the distress and hopelessness of those that such people count as their followers. In this, we ignore the agency of the people involved, and the narrow scope of their choices.
Speaking of eastern Uttar Pradesh alone — although this is a problem of far wider scope — there has been a radical narrowing of opportunities for the urban, aspiring young men. That the agricultural sector has been in distress for decades is not new knowledge, if the many protests and suicides had not already brought it to our notice. But those no longer on the farm also have few choices. In Gorakhpur, my paternal home, the sugar mills have closed down, as have fertiliser plants. For those looking for dignified jobs in the agriculture-allied sector, there are just too few available.
What does that leave us? We spent greatly on education in the first few decades of our existence, and created a number of colleges and universities (and jobs associated with them). Many of these are now in distress, whether Allahabad or Benares or Aligarh, the huge universities are now resting ground for those coming out of small town and cities, but with very few job opportunities thereafter. A degree means little, as it is now accompanied by little training, and everybody has a piece of paper but nowhere to go with it. An inability to fund, or manage accountability, has meant the quality of teaching staff has also gone down, thus those degrees no longer carry the value that they once did.
There are, of course, the government jobs. Gorakhpur is plastered with ads for them, as well as coaching centres to help you get into the banking sector, the railways, medical institutions, the military, anything. But the public sector can only employ a few. That leaves the private sector, which is deeply underdeveloped. If your family has a small shop or business, you have a leg up, but most people do not have that option.
What this leaves is millions of possibly educated (with a very unclear value of what education has achieved) of young men with little in their hands, and little offer of hope in the future. They see their lives as ones of worthlessness, with no clean way to better themselves. Many also come from heretofore ‘privileged’ communities — not so much that they had wealth, but that their families enjoyed some social position because of caste or family position. In a hyper-competitive environment, they see people from heretofore less visible communities who succeed not only as competition, but as active threats to their standing.
Taking part in violence that may — if they get noticed — get them a leg up in some political party and therefore get a share of the ‘spoils’, maybe a job, and which may also teach ‘others’ ‘their place’, is not an unattractive prospect. Does that make them bad people, especially if there are no other realistic options of escaping a life of intense frustration and humiliation? Is a chance at dignity that great a crime?
At the cost of somebody else’s life, yes, of course, yes. And for the dedicated criminal and violent thug maybe the only answer is jail, but given that we have rewarded so many of these with a life in politics, there is a great incentive to be part of it, and given our criminal justice system has rarely delivered justice, little disincentive against that.
Not all these people are looking to kill and loot, however. They are in distress, and find meaning in groups that take that distress and give it some meaning. In the bleak world they live in, they look for a saviour, almost all who disappoint. Ajay Bisht, for instance, spent 19 years as an MP promising that “jab humaara raj ayega…” Now that he is Chief Minister he has, of course, failed to deliver on that vague promise. Is it any surprise that the BJP lost the MP seat in Gorakhpur for the first time in decades?
Disappointment in one rabble-rouser does not mean that the anger and distress has gone away; in a way it has only increased. People in pain will visit their pain on others, usually on those less fortunate than them, less able to defend themselves. And this is what we are seeing.
None of this is new, or special to eastern Uttar Pradesh, or even India. A great deal of the racial tensions in the US after World War II were set off by returning white soldiers finding that, in their absence, factories had started employing African-Americans (and women). The resultant tensions reached their peak in the late 1960s with fears of a “race war”, and intense violence across the US fanned by demagogues. We have seen a replay of some of this in both the UK and the US recently, with the loss of well-paying factory jobs and the crisis of middle, and lower middle-class families being harnessed for the politics of bigotry.
While the bigotry must be confronted, we must also look to the people in distress, and offer them some hope of finding a life of dignity through peaceful means. This is a big task, and one that means we must confront the crisis in agriculture — exacerbated by climate change, the destruction of our small cities on which our vampiric large cities feed, and a political system that rewards cronies with large helpings from public wealth, stealing the future of the public in the process.
It is not going to be easy, or quick, but those who cannot see a dignified future for themselves in the country will not hesitate to burn it down. We can call them all the names we want, but if we do nothing to ease their distress, what difference does it make?
Updated Date: Dec 16, 2018 10:52:40 IST