We have to ask why our polity is obsessed with the past instead of facing a fraught present and building for the future.
It has been twenty-six years since the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya in 1992, the most defining political event of my generation, an event whose reverberations continue to ripple through the fabric of our nation. A key organiser of LK Advani’s Rath Yatra, the one that inaugurated this era, is our Prime Minister. The principle of using historical grievances to propel electoral success has been refined to the building of statues and the renaming of cities. And slowly, subtly, the name of the issue is itself morphing — we are no longer speaking of it as the Babri Masjid demolition; now it is the Ram Mandir issue.
For those of us who have grown up during this era, it has been a bewildering time. Children born before Babri were old enough to remember India before the other big event — the liberalisation of the economy — truly kicked in; we remember days of being modest and frugal and unambitious. That the orgy of high incomes and rapid growth came with the playing out of communal tensions feels disorienting and incongruous, and indeed leads many to draw the spurious conclusion — helped along by ideologues and propagandists — that one has somehow led to the other, that becoming a developed nation and a Hindutva nation are interlinked. It is the Vikas Purush who is expected to establish Ram Rajya after all. Failing him, there is always Yogiji.
Yogi Adityanath campaigned three days ago in Hyderabad. Among conflations of the city with terrorism, the promise he made to the people at his rally was that he would change the name of the city to Bhagyanagar. Name changes do not have the optics of the demolition — what poet Kaifi Azmi called the raqs-e-deewangi, the dance of madness, in his brilliant poem, Doosra Banwaas (A Second Exile for Shri Ram):
Raqs-e-deewangi aangan mein jo dekha hoga
6 December ko Shri Ram ne socha hoga
Itne deewane kahan se mere ghar mein aaye
When he saw the dance of madness in his backyard
On 6th December, Ram must have wondered
How have so many madmen descended upon my house today?
With name changes, there are no scenes of people standing with arms aloft over rubble. Instead, there are printed plastic sheets tacked on to name boards at railway stations. Most Indians are bemused by these measures, cracking jokes about them, but even if we see name changes as empty, these histories as imaginary, and these acts as merely symbolic, we cannot ignore that they have very real consequences. The first consequence is that, at least with a part of the electorate, these measures are effective: they both construct a vote base that cares about name changes, and galvanises them, getting out the vote. Why else would Yogi Adityanath, who is hard at work building a national profile, adopt this technique? He feels this kind of soft demolition will pay electoral dividends, much as Advani’s Rath Yatra propelled the BJP to national prominence in the polling booths.
But it is the other consequence that is truly heartbreaking. Kaifi Azmi knew that, while these lances were seemingly aimed at the past, the victims were very contemporary —
Shakahari thhe mere dost tumhaare khanjar
Tumne Babar ki taraf phainke thhe saare pathhar
Hai mere sar ki khata, zakhm jo sar mein aaye
My friend, your daggers had sworn off meat
And you had aimed your stones at Babar—
It is my fault that my head was wounded by them
For anyone who is targeted by these name-changes, who sees in it an erasure of their self and a desire to purge the idea of India of the notion of their existence, the effect is not dissimilar to the demolition of the Babri Masjid. The chill they feel deepens. It is our failure to make our minorities feel safe and included that turns what would otherwise be a superficial exercise into something poisonous.
The benefits of this strategy for the BJP are apparent, but we must ask how this focus on history does anything for us citizens. We have a fraught and challenging present, and a historic opportunity to build a future where less of us have to go hungry and without access to basic healthcare that we are squandering. Why are we fighting these medieval battles instead of facing present challenges and building for the future? Why is this strategy even effective and a part of our politics?
Why is a sizable chunk of our population reduced to looking for their pride, their self-esteem and their sense of achievement in the past? For those of us who are counted in the elites, the world is our oyster; we may want to discover our roots and take pleasure in imagining our history, but we do not rely upon it. We do not have a need for a glorious past; we do not fully get the logic of slaying these paper tyrants with real daggers, stones and legislative action. We have to ask ourselves how we can get the section of our population vulnerable to these arguments to a place where they have other avenues in which to invest their clearly bountiful energies.
And lastly, we have to remember that all this is not a victimless crime. Our fellow Indians, who have nothing to do with ancient history, are feeling like they do not belong in their own country, where they have built their lives and contributed to our shared and interlinked communities. In a time when our leaders are proceeding without regard for them, we must acknowledge the pain this is causing. On the anniversary of the Babri Masjid demolition, a syncretic site that stood as a symbol of the creative energy with which we wove together strands of different cultures, let us raise our voice to remind our leaders that we will no longer indulge these poisonous distractions.
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Updated Date: Dec 07, 2018 11:55:46 IST