Saturday, December 22, 2012

An eye for an eye

While the US is struggling with the aftermath of a gruesome massacre at Sandy Hook school in Newtown, India deals with a horrific gangrape in a Delhi bus. In both cases, the responses from right-wingers are comparable. In the US, the National Rifle Association wants more guns in response to this violence. Meanwhile right-wing bloggers have tried to argue that guns don't kill people but everything else kills people. Except for a few professional ideologues, the right-wing (anywhere in the world) doesn't have a lot of intellect on its side, as exemplified by the statement of a seriously confused US congressman (posted by my friend Ajit Sanzgiri on Facebook):

Radio host: Congressman, what is the New Testament justification for carrying guns ?
Congressman: Do unto others as you would others do unto you.

This person did not pass any course in basic English or basic Logic.

Meanwhile, the loony right in India wants more violence in response to the rape. There are calls for capital punishment for the rapists. The parliamentarian Sushma Swaraj (never known for her rationality at the best of times) has said : "The 23-year-old girl was with a male friend and it was not too late either. It was 9:30 p.m. And if a woman is not safe even then, then it is a shame. If this girl survives, she will be a living dead. These people should be given capital punishment". This is full of subtext: had she not been with a male friend, or had it been 1 AM... somehow it would be OK??

In a truly thoughtful, and blunt, article in Mid-Day, Shilpa Phadke has exposed much of the subtext and immature thinking that goes into such raucous cries. She makes the point, so often missed, that "more stringent punishment has never meant more conviction". If you consider yourself a thinking Indian, please do read that article and reflect. When this rape case hit the news we all enjoyed shouting that the perpetrators must be hanged. But were we thinking of the future of society, or merely indulging our childish lust for revenge?

If you are unable to gain any perspective, try remembering what Gandhiji said: "An eye for an eye will make the whole world blind". And if that doesn't help, transfer your attention to the US and imagine schools of the future where every man, woman and child is carrying a gun. In that world, the type of kid with whom you had a friendly scuffle in your childhood would shoot you dead. Or the teacher would shoot you both dead. Or the security guard would shoot both of you, and the teacher, dead.

On these issues, the New Testament and Gandhiji are perfectly convergent and perfectly correct. Do unto others as you would have others do unto you. If you oppose violence, don't support violence.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Bigots under the skin

Today is the twentieth anniversary of the demolition of Babri Masjid in Ayodhya. By chance, tomorrow I am to visit  Ayutthaya, in Thailand, which is in fact named after the Indian original. There's enough to do on vacation that I normally wouldn't bother to blog. However this fateful day still resonates in my mind after twenty years. Not because I was personally impacted, or anyone I know was personally impacted. But because this is when I saw the appallingly foolish and self-destructive fascist agenda unfurl before my eyes for the first time.

As of that date it suddenly became fashionable, even in a place like TIFR, to whisper (or hint) unpleasant things about Muslims. This is particularly strange because on December 6, 1992 Muslims did nothing at all, except stare in horror at the TV set, as I did along with close friends, while a militant Hindu mob climbed all over the mosque and brought it down even as the police watched and did nothing. This was in pursuance of an agenda promoted by BJP leader L.K. Advani and his followers, according to which Lord Rama was born on the precise spot where the mosque stood, and building a Ram temple on the site (after demolishing the mosque) would somehow make India a great land again.

While withdrawing cash at the TIFR bank one suddenly started hearing strange comments exchanged between bank staff. The same was true in the canteen and I would struggle to find a place to sit where I would not be nauseated by some insinuation about Muslims. The apathetic-progressive atmosphere of academia was not immune to this infection. The day after the demolition a faculty colleague could not suppress his delight and assured me "the structure will never be rebuilt". He was right, as it turned out.

But the single most memorable comment came from a very well-known person at TIFR whom I will not name. While we were collecting used clothes and money to take to the refugees whose homes in Bombay had been plundered and who were cowering in shelters, this person stopped me in the colonnade at the point where Brahmagupta meets Bhaskara (for those who know TIFR). "I think religion is a personal matter" he started. "We should try to keep our views to ourselves". By then I had seen enough to know that this innocent-sounding statement was a prelude to something, and I was right. "Just one thing I've noticed" this gentleman continued. "Whenever there are riots, it's always Hindu women who are raped by Muslim men, never the other way around". I did not have the stomach to confront him with facts or even to continue the discussion. But today reading Bachi Karkaria's blog entry on the occasion, I was struck by her line "People I had known closely turned out to be unmitigated bigots just under their sophisticated skin". It's been exactly the same for me.

These "sophisticated bigots" did not personally bring down the mosque, nor would they ever engage in manifest politics. Their opinions surface only when they feel the atmosphere will tolerate it. Today the agenda of building a Ram temple at Ayodhya, and thereby miraculously converting India into a great country, is in shambles. This agenda has done terrible things to our social fabric but not one good thing for the nation's structure, morality or self-esteem, forget social or economic development (how could it possibly??). So at this time the bigots are hiding their views. But I don't intend to ever forget who they are, or what damage they did by conferring legitimacy on such an aberrant movement in India's history.