National Epidemic

This intolerance for other people and other ideas has now assumed the dimension of a full-blown epidemic and can no longer be viewed as sporadic, lunatic-fringe activity 

Ratna Raman Delhi 

We live in a state of war in modern India although officially peace has dwelt on our borders for long years. In the early period of socialisation, we are taught to be wary of strangers and discouraged from striking up conversations with unknown people. So, while we learn the rules of our immediate community, suspicion pertaining to everybody and everything outside the community is normative social practice. 

Therefore, as an insular mob, we can concertedly set an unfamiliar Graham Staines and his young sons ablaze, take justice into our own hands for the acts of one Beant Singh and destroy innumerable unknown males from the same community. We can cut off the tufts of Brahmin priests in the deep south, torch remote churches, raze distant mosques, and vandalise beyond repair the Bhandarkar Institute of Oriental Learning at Pune. 

We can coerce and intimidate professors of art, dismember the limbs of same-sex practitioners and thoroughly butcher communities that are different from us; all this is done wordlessly under the sway of extreme partisan convictions. For all our claims of being the country where the apostle of ahimsa raised the bar, we are a violent, intolerant people. If an alien was to study us, little of the fact that we are a democratic society in peace time could be gleaned because facets of our plurality and co-existence, such as they be, are less visible in our daily life. 

Rage spills over onto our arterial roads from crowded markets and residential colonies and colours the asphalt red. Terror stalks our pavement-dwellers, our pedestrians, and our children in the absence of safe spaces to breathe and grow in. Fear crawls up the spines of women at the sound of predatory male footsteps.

Hunger and want ravage the poor while the remains of the depradations of the wealthy are stockpiled on garbage heaps beside slums. 

Inter-social skills are at an all-time low. At a crowded Noida mall, a young woman was asked why she was pushing past people to get into the lift. She retorted that she didn’t know why they were all standing there in the first place. A friend who made a similar observation at a cinema complex in South Delhi was told, “Shut up, you old woman.”

Such incidents are exponentially on the increase in our everyday lives. Should this be a matter of concern for us? 

These are exchanges with strangers whom we were warned about. Yet, such discourteous exchanges between privileged people, with access to reasonable standards of living, education, language and health provide important indices of the low thresholds of forbearance and tolerance in civil society. As my white-haired friend who was ordered to shut up rejoined sharply: “Yes, I am old, but what is your excuse for being ugly?” 

For all our claims of being the country where the apostle of ahimsa raised the bar, we are a violent, intolerant people

Ugly exchanges not only have a way of getting bloody, but also signal insularity and short -sightedness and offer clear proof that in our society the unfamiliar and the unknown are threats that raise hackles. Deep-seated prejudices compounded by ignorance also happen to be the hallmark of the way we deal with the unfamiliar, be it an individual or an idea. We bring the same attitude to ideas and concepts that lie outside the minuscule box within which we function. 

This intolerance for other people and other ideas has now assumed the dimension of a full-blown national epidemic and can no longer be viewed as a sporadic, lunatic-fringe activity.

People in positions of power and authority with inflated and aggrandised notions of the self are now a visible part of our national fabric. They bristle with an overwhelming sense of self-importance, are quick to take offence and unwilling to allow any debate or discussion. The possibility of a healthy exchange of ideas is no longer the concern of either our educational or political administrators. A debate is what students in public schools and prestigious colleges participate in, on increasingly puerile subjects. On important issues, the right to dissent and debate has been withdrawn altogether. This, perhaps, is the most frightening aspect of the lives we lead today. 

We have by now become inured to the arbitrary everyday behaviour of the nondescript individual. What continues to stun and shock is arbitrary behaviour on the part of persons vested with power. 

The Vice Chancellor of Delhi University rescinded the teaching of an essay on different versions of the Ramayana written by one of our greatest poets and litterateurs, AK Ramanujan (and you thought only politicians could think this up?). This was done on the assumption that undergraduate students were impressionable and therefore susceptible to injury brought on by the reading of literature. 

Scholars and academics worldwide proclaimed the brilliance of the essay to no avail. The fringe group that had vandalised the history department of Delhi University a few years ago on this issue was presumably appeased. 

This retrograde step only indicates that all is not well with the state of the university where ideas are to be fostered and nourished and the boundaries of knowledge meant to be limitless. It should be a matter of utmost concern that higher education in schools and colleges is being interfered with and is in grave danger, because, instead of igniting minds, partisan short-sighted deals by parties in power are the order of the day. 

Take the instance of Mamata Banerjee who has been running amok in West Bengal, spewing and spitting great wads of the exaggerated intolerance that accompanies power. When infants died in abysmally antediluvian hospitals, Mamata was quick to remind everyone that these infants, conceived when the Left was in power, could expect very little from her as chief minister of the non-Left. Unable to accept that rape and ill-treatment of women happened outside of communist rule, she first accused the victim of lying. The entire police force in Kolkata followed suit. Losing face, it did not deter any of them. When the rape charges were proved by an efficient woman police officer, she was promptly shunted out.

Mamata went on to prescribe select newspapers for adults and imprisoned an academic for circulating a cartoon lampooning her. Sycophantic ministers in her regime have ordered zero tolerance as the new ground rule for socialisation with the Left. Meanwhile, Mamata appears on CNN-IBN, abrogates public responsibility and accuses young university students of being “CPM and Maoist” in the same vein, orders them to return to the jungle, and instructs the police to hound them. 

It is a good thing that Shankar is no more because we cannot subject him to the exile and death that we managed for MF Husain whose depictions of nude goddesses shocked us in a way murdered, mutilated and violated bodies of women and girls never have 

Mamata and her doppelgangers now occupy both houses of Parliament. Witness the hullaballoo in Parliament recently over solitary cartoon, originally in print in 1949. How does one explain the brouhaha over what depicts the writing of the Indian Constitution at a snail’s pace? (Maybe, it is a small blessing that mollusc rights activists have not been agitating over the illustrated whip-goading of the snail!) 

This historic cartoon drawn by Shankar, has been carefully documented by the authors of the textbook and is part of a heritage that we need to share with future generations. Instead, in the manner of the Red Queen in Alice’s adventures, Through The Looking Glass, everyone has been baying for poor NCERT’s head. It is in recent times that NCERT was freed from the mindless stupor in which it was churning out unreadable drivel. What we have now are intelligent, interactive texts produced under due process with assistance from the finest scholars Indian academia can boast of. 

The procedure under which Kapil Sibal and his ilk seek now to liquidate textbooks and humiliate their writers in the belief that cartoons are agent provocateurs is ill-conceived and points to the deleterious mental health of our political administrators. It is also a demonstration of the total humourlessness of the entire situation. 

Our politicians need to recall that the Anna wave that hit the country was set in motion primarily by winds of deep scepticism about politicians. In a previous century, George Bernard Shaw declared that politics was the last resort of  the scoundrel. Cartoons render invaluable service in their role as shock absorbers, making our public figures and their actions palatable. 

Education through cartoons has impact, is pithy and ideal for young adults, who have much greater exposure to the information highway than mere textbook fare. It is a good thing that Shankar is no more because we cannot subject him to the exile and subsequent death that we managed so effectively for MF Husain whose black and white depictions of nude goddesses shocked us in a way murdered, mutilated and violated bodies of women and girls never have. 

What is terrifying about this new intolerance is that it no longer stems from the lunatic fringe but from deep within our very core. As able citizens of a modern democracy, we have been entrusted with safeguarding our heritage, our plural histories, our diverse past, our right to dissent and our right to self- expression. This attack has been mounted upon the most valued and privileged traditions that we have inherited, by powerful people who ought to have known better. This clamping down on literature and political art will decimate and pulverise our cultural aesthetic far more insidiously than the renaming of roads and cities and the breaking of statues and monuments.  

It is not the inequality of difference that is being addressed here. What is being obliterated is our very ability to think and reason, ascertain points of view and perspective, and perhaps laugh at our own foibles. 

Rage spills over onto our arterial roads from crowded markets and colours the asphalt red. Terror stalks our pavement dwellers. Hunger and want ravage the poor 

Mesmerised by the speed at which technology becomes obsolete, we are now willing to deny that human beings develop in real time and that exposure to creative ideas in words and sketches, through literature and lampoon, are the life-blood of a thinking society. What is appropriate or inappropriate needs to be discussed and debated in larger fora and with due process. 

We cannot phase out our oral, written and illustrated histories, in the manner of old cars, cell phones, I-pods and computers. The high-handed clamping down on access to inputs that broaden our perspective is an attempt to wilfully herd us towards limited intelligence and distorted truths. 

The greatest political satirist of all time, Jonathan Swift’s invective and hard-hitting lampooning of the privileged in unequal England gains significance in our context. His understanding of the human condition also provides valuable pointers. Human beings, he clarified, were not inherently animal rationale but merely rationiscapax (capable of reasoning). If critical self-assessment, the objective of satirical art and literature, cannot be a part of the mental make-up of the privileged, maybe it is time they paid attention to Gandhiji’s well-articulated observation that he would have committed suicide long ago, were it not for his sense of humour.  

If our humourless elite were to put this into immediate practice, the rest of us could resume the frisson with less-than-ideal living conditions with cartoons, comedy and caricature.  

Dr Ratna Raman is Associate Professor of English Literature, Sri Venkateswara College, Delhi University

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: JUNE 2012