HIMMAT is starting off as a blog by Rajmohan Gandhi who has written on the Indian independence movement and its leaders, South Asian history, India-Pakistan relations, human rights and conflict resolution. His latest book is Modern South India: A History from the Seventeenth Century to the Present (New Delhi: Aleph, forthcoming).

Kerala and more

Along with millions, I weep over the calamity of floods and torrential rain that has hit Kerala, taking a heavy toll. It requires a tough mind to live into the situation of the many devastated and others affected, including those precariously perched on trees and battered roofs in heavy rain.

My grief is sharpened by warm memories of a journey across Kerala. In March 2017, I travelled by road from Trivandrum all the way north to Kasaragod on the Karnataka border. I stopped in several places of history and charm, met old friends, made new ones, and tried to pick up pieces of Kerala’s amazing story.

I am saddened too, again like many others, by the passing, after a long incapacitating illness, of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, India’s BJP prime minister from 1998 to 2004. 

Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s observation in the Indian Express that ‘liberality of temperament and love of life and relationships’ often ‘transcend the limitations of the ideologies that trap us’ excellently captures a lesson from Mr. Vajpayee’s extraordinary life. 

My own interactions, always enjoyable, with the late Mr. Vajpayee (on a train, in Parliament House, and elsewhere) pointed to the same conclusion.

I offer him my respect and tribute.

What currently traps the people of India is an arrogant, angry and vindictive temper. It is a mood pushed by people with a wide reach and deep pockets.

Today’s climate feels worse than what Indians like me experienced and fought during the 1975-77 Emergency.

Forty-three years ago, the state’s coercive laws were not joined by threats from neighbourhood mobs. Street meetings were indeed forbidden. Yet one walked on a street without fearing the emergence from a side alley of a hysterical mob armed with lethal weapons.

The arrogance of these mobs is striking. Their defenders on popular TV channels and on social media also seem arrogant. 

What fuels the energy for beating the hyper-nationalist drum, and for physically beating up those who murmur dissatisfaction? 

Confidence that enforcers of the law will look the other way is certainly a big factor. Also bolstering the arrogance is India’s economic rise during the last 30 years, and the success of many Indians on the world stage.

Let me again recall the Emergency years, which had been preceded by significant feats. In 1971-72, India had defeated Pakistan and helped a free Bangladesh emerge. Indira Gandhi had stood up to President Nixon with defiant independence. 

However, the India of 1975-77 was yet very poor. Pushing the rhetoric of supposed resurgence in every village and locality was beyond the capacity of the Emergency’s defenders, even though Doordarshan tried its bureaucratic best.

Today, by contrast, even as hundreds of millions fail to realize their dreams, India’s generals of hyper-nationalism possess immense resources and battalions of combatants. 

They also have an irresistible urge to abuse ‘anti-nationals’. For them it is a bad day when they haven’t verbally slain a critic of the government.

One of their excited ‘followers’ may then implement the rhetoric with a physical weapon on a real person.

The picture is not uniformly dark. Recent weeks have supplied a little encouragement. Supreme Court justices have spoken out. 

‘What is more important for you? Saving lives of people or industry?’ Justice Madan B. Lokur of the Supreme Court asked the central government on 16 July, referring to the continuing import in India of hazardous petroleum coke. Added Lokur, ‘People are not supposed to breathe anymore or what?’ (The Hindu, 17 July 2018).

The Election Commission, on its part, seems to have resisted the government’s pressure for simultaneous elections for Parliament and state legislatures.

Police officers in BJP-ruled Maharashtra, acting on tips from the Karnataka government, have apprehended suspects and accomplices in the killing of Gauri Lankesh, despite the suspects’ apparent connections to extremist Hindu groups. 

One of Modi’s senior cabinet colleagues, Nitin Gadkari, has openly and frankly asked, ‘Where are the jobs?’ (Indian Express, 5 Aug 2018), thus bringing attention to the swelling ranks of the country’s unemployed youth. 

Heroes on horseback are not necessary for a spirit of fairness to replace arrogance and anger. Judges, policemen, public servants and legislators who remember their oaths would suffice.

Many of them quietly continue to do so. Thank God for them! 

India will be on its way back when more join their ranks.

The U.S. and India

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