By Deepak Gopalakrishnan Dec. 12, 2019
In 2019, an entire Indian region has been stripped of autonomy and the definition of Indian citizenship has been redefined. Article 370, Citizenship (Amendment) Bill and NRC are the highlights of the year, as we hurtle toward an economic slowdown. Where does that leave the well-meaning Indian?
There comes a point during a cricket match where you know your team is going to lose. It’s that point where even childhood-notebook-scoreboard-level fantasy will not work, and you resign yourself to an inevitable loss. For Indian liberals – and many on “Hindu centrist” bandwagon – the passage of the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2019 must feel that way. Until now, despite everything else, it felt like there would be some hope, some respite. Not any more. It seems like the battle is well and truly lost.
There are only two futures India can possibly have from this point. One in which we revert to our secular roots and show regret with how we treated certain communities, à la post-WWII Germany. The second is an unapologetic Hindu rashtra; whether it is a benevolent one or a bigoted one is for the intervening years to decide.
Let’s face it. Things don’t look too good for supporters of the former scenario, fondly called anything from “liberals” to “Commies” with several more colourful terms in between. It’s surprising how the ideals of the nation’s architects are being trampled upon with impunity, even as said architects are conveniently invoked for egregious PR stunts. How have we, as a country, reached a point where upholding what our bravest people fought for is deemed anti-national? Not only have we turned our backs on their legacies, some even go so far as to celebrate their killers and are rewarded for it. Look no further than Nathuram Godse’s greatest fangirl winning a seat in Parliament.
The year 2019 was when the Indian liberal lost all hope — not because the BJP won a re-election, but because of how emphatically it happened, despite hardships caused to the very people who voted for them. If the first term was an era of experimentation without explanation (“Let’s see what happens if we take away all their cash and offer some bullshit about it being fighting black money!”), the second innings is a display of bravado. Not just any bravado, but a special brand that comes with the confidence of amending the law books.
The combination of the devoted base, a robust PR machinery adept at equating devastation to development, a compliant judiciary, and an invertebrate opposition has led to body blows for whoever still believes in the idea of an India for all. An entire region being stripped of autonomy, the redefining of citizenship, validating a communal crime, and hey, for good measure, absolution for abetting a riot. It might be Donald Trump who famously said, “I could shoot somebody and not lose votes”, but it’s India’s current disposition who might be able to pull that off (and receive more votes in the process). You’ve got to hand it to the BJP for being a brilliant electoral machine.
I hate myself for writing this, but the irony is that as more of us become politically aware, we will also choose to become more silent.
It gets bleaker when you start looking at those who dissent. Anyone high-profile trying to make change is either mercilessly trolled (Atishi Marlena), those trying to raise their voices are intimidated. Ravish Kumar, winner of this year’s Ramon Magsaysay award, told Reuters that he constantly receives threats by pro-government activists. If you need more examples, The New Yorker has more in a fantastic recent long-read.
Given the above, could the rest of us be blamed if we don’t want to raise an opinion? India has reached the point where regular people are told by friends to be careful about what they post on social media, in case they’re being watched (if we weren’t, the upcoming Data Protection Act should take care of that).
So, where does that leave the well-meaning Indian who doesn’t have the stomach for a fight like, say, Rana Ayyub? After having lost all hope, will he or she just become more selfish? Probably yes and that, to me, is the saddest outcome of them all — a compliant kind of apathy borne out of self-preservation.
Take the case of Atishi. She worked selflessly to improve the standard of education in Delhi, and succeeded. But then she lost the election to someone with no political credentials (Gautam Gambhir), and to add insult to injury, was abused IRL with the kind of vitriol that seems to be the sole domain of the online troll. When this happens in broad daylight, what motivation is there for someone of lesser steel? Who would blame Atishi if she were to throw up her hands in despair, give up her career in policy-making, and decide to become an educational consultant? It’s something she now has excellent credentials for, and something that would compensate her handsomely, without any of the hate. She tried to do her job, but virtuously doing your job seems to be the best way to get punished in this new India.
We’re going to see many more Shahs, not more Atishis.
And it’s not the ever-complaining liberal who is flustered. Anyone who argued in favour of the BJP, saying, “Let them come to power, it’ll ensure they become more centrist” should now be eating their words. Even centrists who voted for Modi & Co with the hope that he’ll put India on the path of development seem to be losing all hope with the economy in the grip of a slowdown.
It’s clear that our country in 2019 is not headed toward any constructive change, and new political entrepreneurs are going to be those who realise that spin and optics are everything. We’re going to see many more Shahs, not more Atishis.
Increasingly, those with a liberal mindset will realise this fight is not just dangerous but pointless. They will look out for themselves, and I refuse to blame them for it. Devoid of all that’s happening, India is still a reasonably good place to live in, earn, and entertain yourself, provided you have the privilege and increasingly, a moral vacuum.
I hate myself for writing this, but the irony is that as more of us become politically aware, we will also choose to become more silent. People will increasingly say, “Hey, listen, I’m just here for my paycheque. I have no opinion on this, please let me live, here’s my Aadhaar card, BMKJ and all that, sure.” If 2019 was the year the Indian liberal lost hope, 2020 will be the year they will start losing out on the little optimism they had.
While I won’t blame anyone who decides to retreat into their bubbles and gated societies, I hope we appreciate and support those who do have the stomach for a bigger fight. It might not be on the streets, but it could simply be monetary support. There are lawyers. Fact-checking publications. Actual reporters. All potentially risking careers and lives by fighting the good fight. Giving them a shout-out is the least we can do.
Until then, all that we so-called liberals can do, as the tension engulfs Assam over the Citizenship Bill and with the NRC soon being rolled out in the rest of India, is to resign ourselves to the fact that we’re living through a pivotal era in the country’s history. Whether this era will eventually be looked back upon with regret or pride, is still undecided.
Deepak 'Chuck' Gopalakrishnan is a freelance writer and marketing guy who lives in Mumbai. He runs two podcasts (Simblified, The Origin Of Things) and a satire newsletter (The Third Slip). He used to work in advertising until his soul couldn't take it anymore, and now spends all his time annoying his cats, listening to prog-metal, cycling and writing bios of himself in third person. He has an irrational love for cold water and Tabasco.