In two years of the Modi government, a vocabulary reconfigured and routinised, that threatens to pit Indian against Indian — till the last election is won.
By Amrita Dutta, The Indian Express | June 15, 2016
How many men were in the mob that killed Mohammad Akhlaq in September 2015? The chargesheet says 15.
How many people, Union minister and BJP MP from Muzaffarnagar Sanjeev Baliyan wants to know, might have eaten a cow alleged to have been slaughtered in Bisara village, Dadri, Uttar Pradesh, around the time of the murder? “A cow weighs nothing less than 150 kg and one person alone cannot consume it. There should be a probe into what happened and who were involved in the crime,” he said. The party’s general secretary Kailash Vijayvargiya has sought action against the murdered man’s family, because “everyone is equal before the law. You cannot have privileges simply because you belong to a minority.”
The sum of the BJP’s response to the definite murder of a 50-year-old Muslim man has been to equate it to the hypothetical slaughter of a 150 kg cow. How did we get here?
If politics is the art of the possible, in a democracy, language is the politician’s most important tool. It is how the demagogue whips passion, and the wise leader brokers peace. It is through the thrust and parry of debate that a leader puts forth his worldview, persuades his voters and brings around his rivals to a pragmatic compromise. In the two years since the Narendra Modi government came to power, the consensus that underpins the language of public life is in danger of breaking down, one toxic statement at a time.
Modi is, by far, our most verbal prime minister, continuously engaged and committed to communication. (The BJP president, Amit Shah, last week congratulated his party for giving the country a “speaking prime minister”.) The prime minister is masterful at the sharp slogan, the inventive catchphrase or the snarky put-down. From Make in India to Swachh Bharat, the promise of achhe din to the incantatory call of Stand Up India and Start Up India, Modi has framed his vision of #TransformingIndia in a language of aspiration.
And yet, many of his ministers and partymen have embarked on a mission to speak what was once the unsayable, to articulate the hatred that lies buried at the cusp of our many prejudices. There was Union Minister of Culture Mahesh Sharma, who certified that former president A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, “despite being a Muslim” was a nationalist and humanist. He is also on record saying that while he respected “the Bible and [the] Quran, they are not central to [the] soul of India in the way Gita and Ramayana are.”
Many BJP leaders twisted themselves into impossible asanas after the Dadri lynching. It did take some contortions, verbal and moral, to justify a village turning against its own by invoking the wounds of “Hindu hurt”. Haryana Chief Minister M.L. Khattar was one of those who were shocked at Akhlaq’s death. He also announced that “Muslims can continue to live in this country, but they will have to give up eating beef. The cow is an article of faith here”. The mild-mannered Bihar leader Sushil Modi outlined the us versus them binary more clearly during the assembly polls: “The election is a choice between those who eat beef and those who would ban cow slaughter.”
In this parallel, businesslike campaign of defining and demonising the other, a new vocabulary has sprung up. You can chart the recent political flashpoints simply by the labels the BJP has hurled at the inconvenient. P is for presstitute, the honourable V.K. Singh informed us early on, choosing not to go down the conventional route of countering journalists who ask uncomfortable questions with facts or even prevarication. L is for love jihad, once the paranoid mutterings of old men in Nagpur, now a political strategy in Uttar Pradesh. G is for gau rakshak, a new, armed constituency of the faithful, who will think nothing of breaking a few bones to profess their love for the gau mata. Not to forget the sleight of hand by which Christmas turned into Good Governance Day. Last heard, the BJP spokesperson Shaina N.C. had nearly made up her mind on the vexed question of whether H is for Hitler or Akbar.
The brief, sordid history of “A is for anti-national” began with describing a protest by Dalit students against the hanging of Yakub Memon at Hyderabad Central University as such; and descended into charges of sedition against slogan-shouting students in the JNU. It is now a catch-all term that comes in handy against condom-using JNU students, those who will not say “Bharat Mata ki Jai”, and to drive tourist traffic to Pakistan. Poet and writer Sumana Roy calls “Go to Pakistan” a modern Indian proverb, even if it is a petulant, “teenage parody of ‘Go to hell’”, wielded against an Aamir Khan who voices his apprehensions of intolerance or writers who return awards in protest against a growing majoritarianism. In the echo chambers of Twitter — where the unfettered id of a Hindu rashtra finds home — people are not so polite. There, rape threats abound, as well as routine denunciations of “sickular” media and the “appeasement” of Muslims.
All of this reflects that, despite the PM’s stated objective of sabka saath, sabka vikas, many of the fundamentals of Indian society and politics are up for bitter contestation, from the place of minorities to the breathing space for dissent and the nature of citizenship itself. It flows from the powerful mandate to the BJP, a party that is welded to the idea of Hindi, Hindu, Hindustan. There are some on the right who counter that saying the unsayable is par for the course in a democracy committed to freedom of expression. But language does not only refer to a pre-existing reality, it also creates and shapes it. Naming and renaming are political acts that influence what we see and how we act.
In a complex country like India, politics and rhetoric have to play an accommodating and mediating role. Pushing the polity onto a path of constant polarisation and confrontation, through a language of divisiveness, will pit Indian against Indian — till the last election is won.
It is a path that will lead down to Bisara, where language has broken down so utterly, where the fault lines are so gaping that while a man has been murdered, it is a cow that is being accounted for.