Take away his face and you can make a man whatever you want him to be. When the individual is gone, what remains is a sort of generalised persona. In advertiser’s terms we have a perfectly plastic shell that can be shaped to whatever end we have in mind. We can provide a set of attitudes and sell it, like Brand X, an inferior product against which the real thing shines, or the ideal towards which all should aspire. This is where iconic figures like Uncle Sam, John Bull, the American doughboy, GI Joe or the Tommy were born. This is also the dwelling place of the Sly Jew, the Bania Adulterator, the Manipulative Brahmin, the Conniving Marwari or the Thick Sikh. And, of course, the Infiltrator—whose faith is coyly hinted at without being stated outright—the Great Illegitimate of today.
We are talking here about craft, what a bit of imagination and great copywriting can produce to amplify appeal or opprobrium. But this sort of thing does not work in a vacuum. The advertiser is aware that his audience is not a blank slate but that they have preferences, prejudices and aspirations. In order to succeed, any message has to take note of these underlying factors while producing a campaign. It is a complicated business, like playing the piano. The pitch has to be right and the message simple and universally applicable. It must also massage our deeper neuroses; success depends on addressing all of these points.
Vegans might look more favourably at other vegans, beef eaters regard with a genial contempt someone whose religion forbids it.
As the marketing mastermind Don Draper says in The Madmen (TV serial), happiness is what you’re selling whether you’re flogging soap, high fashion or a fine watch. The buyer must want it and if he believes that is it, everything works out. It is this moment that every hustler, ponzi scheme operator, computer salesman or political activist tries to catch.
If all this seems far removed from our lived experience that is because we haven’t really noticed what we do in numerous instances every single day, in unguarded remarks or rebukes, in a vegetarian’s horror at a carnivore, or the converse. Vegans might look more favourably at other vegans, beef eaters regard with a genial contempt someone whose religion forbids it. In Chennai, even today, many Brahmin landlords make it clear that they don’t want meat eaters polluting the ritual purity of their kitchens. We like to think of ourselves as rational but many of our actions are dictated by impulse based on conditioning. We are more willing to judge from appearances than we admit to ourselves.
If all this seems a bit far-fetched consider a recent case like the jailing of a Tamil Nadu schoolteacher for making a pupil clean up human waste because he was a Dalit. Caste-based discrimination is a serious offence and the teacher could hardly have been unaware of the consequences. Moreover, it involved a child in her care. A teacher is expected to treat all children equally, at least not to differentiate on the basis of caste. But in this instance, it is as if when she saw the mess, the boy became his caste, stripped of his individuality. It is even possible that she did not mean to humiliate the boy. Maybe she just felt he would find the task less horrible given his background, displaying an unspoken prejudice of the higher caste. But she overlooked his feelings in the matter and displayed a possible subconscious bias.
Inter-faith marriage has never been common but it is not infrequent either. But nowhere in the country was it seen as a Muslim conspiracy to seduce young Hindu women into marriage and Islam.
A story like this in a newspaper excites our moral indignation, especially if we profess a liberal outlook. Others, however, might look at it differently, as an understandable oversight at best or a way of putting people in their place. We must understand that such tensions are common, everyday occurrences, especially in the smaller towns and villages where caste is taken seriously. In some states it may not even be considered worth a complaint or worth a newspaper report. Indeed, it is possible many schools assign menial tasks to menial castes as an unwritten rule. Whether this is an unthinking reflex or underpinned by a belief that people should know their places doesn’t matter. The point is that a lot of people think that way, and many of them are open about it these days.
Does it matter what people, even large numbers of them, think? At one level, it does not, or at least there is no way of doing anything about it. We have no business policing thought, so long as it remains there. But it does matter when what we think affects or starts to determine public policy. Take inter-faith marriage, for instance. It has never been common but it is not infrequent either, but no one kept any statistics. If there was heartburn over such an event it was usually a purely private matter. But nowhere in the country was it seen as a Muslim conspiracy to seduce young Hindu women into marriage and Islam.
Some 10 years ago, it made its way into public notice under the catchy phrase “Love Jihad”, thanks to the Kerala judiciary. In November 2009, the state’s director-general of police informed the High Court that police had found no organisation that might be involved in such activity, nor any compelling evidence to show that there were any cases of “Love Jihad”. Although the judge, K.T. Sankaran, refused to accept the report and said that it was clear from police reports there was a “concerted effort” to convert women with “blessings of some outfits”, he granted bail to two young men accused of “Love Jihad”.
“Love Jihad” entered the public lexicon both as a symbol of Muslim hostility and a rallying cry for Hindus to see the enemy in their midst.
During the hearing, he said there had been 3,000-4,000 such cases in the previous four years. Incredibly, neither the police nor the annual National Crime Records Bureau reports had mentioned such numbers of complaints, nor had academic researchers noted any tendency on the part of young Muslim men to seduce impressionable Hindu girls. In subsequent years, too, Kerala Police continued to deny the existence of such a phenomenon. In January 2012, they declared “Love Jihad” to be a “campaign with no substance” and began legal proceedings against the web site hindujagrati.org for “spreading religious hatred and false propaganda” but faith had apparently overtaken fact by then.
Everyone but police, who were in the best position to have such information, was convinced that “Love Jihad” was a real threat. The facts, such as they were, had no chance against this wall of conviction. It is as if people needed to believe Muslims were surreptitiously undermining the Hindu fertility pool to overtake them eventually as the majority. They could thus achieve the final aim of an unbroken Islamic arc stretching from Morocco in Africa to Indonesia.
So “Love Jihad” entered the public lexicon both as a symbol of untiring Muslim hostility and a rallying cry for Hindus to see the enemy in their midst. It fell on fertile soil in Uttar Pradesh where Hindu-Muslim relations could be described as “sensitive” in the best case scenario. It is an integral part of the so-called Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb (a syncretistic flowering that includes Kathak, cuisine, music, language and devotional poetry) as well as one of the places where the idea of Pakistan was born.
Even in September 2014, after the general election brought the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to power in Delhi, the Uttar Pradesh Police had found no evidence for “Love jihad” but BJP cadres and sympathisers were convinced that Muslims had evolved a new kind of “holy war” to regain ground lost in the previous 200 years. Along with various other artful dodges they had developed this particularly underhanded cut at Hindu manhood.
“Love Jihad” is widely believed though there is no corroboration of a conspiracy. In 2014, Yogi Adityanath (now UP chief minister) called it an international conspiracy.
The “Love Jihad” theme had not been corroborated by reporters either. Virtually every news outlet (including Fountain Ink) found a dozen rumours but no real proof of a conspiracy to convert Hindus. Indeed, the UP police chief said in 2014, “In most cases we found that a Hindu girl and Muslim boy were in love and had married against their parents’ will.” In its September 30, 2017 issue, The Economist said “Repeated police investigations have failed to find evidence of any plan of conversion. Reporters have repeatedly exposed claims of “love jihad” as at best fevered fantasies and at worst, deliberate election-time inventions.”
The problem was that there were few takers for this rather mundane view. “Love Jihad” has now become self-evidently true. It is widely believed though there is no independent corroboration of a conspiracy, even anecdotally. In 2014, Yogi Adityanath (now UP chief minister) called it an international conspiracy. Speaking on television he said Muslims “can’t do what they want by force in India, so they are using the love jihad method.”
By this reasoning “Love Jihad” has to be secret, so its warriors are unlikely to leave any trace of their activities. So how do you prove it is happening? Well, you have only to remember that conversion is second nature to Muslims and if they can’t do it openly they will do it in other ways. That is a QED many Hindus seem willing to follow.
est we wonder how anyone can subscribe to this kind of narrative, a wholesale rejection of fact as evidence is not particularly rare or unprecedented. On September 21, 1995, a devotee at a Delhi temple held up a spoonful of milk to an idol of Ganesha. The milk disappeared soon after it touched the trunk, as if the stone Ganesha had drunk it. The story went viral and suddenly people all over the country were discovering that their Ganesha too was drinking milk and other things as well. The scientists were on the scene soon after, with explanations of surface tension and capillary action as the reason for the phenomenon. A lot of people, however, believed otherwise and for them what they saw became the truth. It was only a nine-day wonder as the hundreds of repetitions eventually cracked the armour of even the most devout, but for that period it had thousands of total believers.
We as Hindus seem willing to suspend disbelief when the patriotism of Muslims is questioned, and this has nothing to do with the rise of the saffron brotherhood. This feeling is more deep-rooted.
The difference between the two is that the Ganesha miracle was disproved often enough for people eventually to accept that it was a natural phenomenon. “Love Jihad” was more unyielding perhaps because it played so well into latent prejudices and beliefs reinforced by pronouncements from respected sections like the judiciary as well as the relentless amplification by the BJP and its proxies in an open bid to consolidate Hindu votes.
The question at this point would be, why repeat something that is common knowledge? The answer is that this is not so much about the party as the response its campaign has triggered from us. Why are so many of us ready to subscribe to these and other facile fictions? Remember, the audience of converted comprises not just the tribe of the unwashed but also judges, policemen, politicians, academics and activists, people whose understanding is better informed in terms of facts and their provenience. The tentative answer is not comforting to those of us pride ourselves on intellect and discernment.
The reality is our erstwhile Muslim overlords could not have ruled without the support of Hindu soldiers, landowners, generals, soldiers, merchants and administrators.
We as Hindus seem more willing to suspend disbelief when the patriotism of Muslims is questioned, and this has nothing to do with the rise of the saffron brotherhood. This feeling that they’re different from us, in some way our adversaries, is more deep-rooted. History has a lot to do with this, of course, together with the myth of “eternal India”, a land into which Hindus have a habit of retreating when faced with the fact of Muslim military and political dominance for over seven centuries.
It is a compound of shame, embarrassment, and anger that a small elite could exercise so long a dominance over so long a period. In this telling, the Muslim becomes a sort of malevolent other, racially and individually the villain who stopped a truly Indian nation from reaching its natural potential. It is likely that even the most rational among us have been prey to this feeling at some time in our lives. We rarely look at all the facts, however. The reality is more complicated. Many of our erstwhile Muslim overlords could not have ruled without the support of Hindu soldiers, landowners, generals, soldiers, merchants and administrators.
One example should provide some perspective. Chhatrapati Shivaji is one of the great icons of today’s Hindutva brigade. His father, Shahaji Bhonsle, was a general who “served the Deccan Sultanates”, changing his loyalties as circumstances changed. Shivaji himself was, for a while, a Mughal feudatory, brought to terms by the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb’s Rajput Mirza, Jai Singh. The point is that while power shifted the elite remained stable and comprised local feudatories whose faith was not usually held against them.
This is a fact that the Hindu first types either ignore or rationalise by selectively calling them traitors, overlooking the power equations of those times. They also fail to understand that the horizons of these feudatories rarely exceeded the far limit of their holdings and how to maintain or increase them. India that is Bharat was outside their concerns. But the saffron brotherhood rarely draws attention to these details, which provide a portrait of elite behaviour consistent with other societies in other places.
ot all differences are etched so indelibly that they become part of our cultural DNA but they do exist, and given the long history of minority rule across India, the ones at the community’s level are deeper. True or not is here beside the point. What matters is how many people believe despite the evidence. These differences mark us out, as individuals and communities with their biases and bigotries. I may not like my neighbour but if he follows the same gods, I am more likely to bond with him than with a person of a different faith. If he shares my caste and income status as well, a formal bond becomes more likely although an unspoken one may already exist. This is like bangle makers in the old city of Delhi being confined to the same street (Chudiwalan), where a common element accounts for their clustering. This was a city planner’s design, not an organic arrangement, but upper caste and lower caste neighbourhoods in towns and villages could be the result of preference as much as planning. Whatever was outside was usually considered the outsider, of no immediate interest to them. More than that, the outsider is often an undesirable.
The graphic picture of minority intolerance would make even a nominal Hindu indignant and a devout one enraged. This rage, constantly fed, could create a blindspot even in the most rational of persons.
But the result of such severing would not necessarily be violence but indifference, followed by ignorance on both sides. In such a scenario, despite living cheek by jowl, you might still regard the other as an exotic species. For the most part, however, such communities would be able to get along despite the frictions. But it would be a fragile veneer constantly in need of protection.
The gross differences that exist have been amplified by creating a behavioural contrast. Hindus are held up as vegetarians (for RSS types this is an article of faith) against the cow-eating Muslim. Even in the heart of RSS country there are any number of Brahmin communities that are declared carnivores, not to speak of the intermediate castes. Their deviations are usually glossed over or not spoken about. Many Christians also eat beef but that question rarely becomes contentious. Against the evidence, the myth of their non-violence and tolerance is repeatedly invoked. The ferocity of upper caste treatment of the lower castes is dismissed as a historical anomaly, as is low caste marginalisation even today. It is, of course, ritually condemned, but what is offered by way of Muslim intolerance is far greater and better attested. The resulting tale is a graphic picture of minority intolerance visited upon a peaceful majority, an account that would make even a nominal Hindu indignant and a devout one enraged. If this rage can be constantly fed by repetition and embellishment, that could be enough to create a blindspot even in the most rational of persons. This is the stage at which we could talk about tipping points.
Civilisation, the British political writer C.P. Snow suggested, is a coat of varnish over more atavistic impulses. The frequency of communal riots in India strengthens his thesis. These atavistic impulses seem to be more compelling than we had imagined. After every incident there are voices expressing puzzlement and anguish, articulating a dozen variants of “it’s always been so peaceful, everyone got along, so where did this come from”. The likely reason is the misreading of indifference as amity. From that to hostility is one long step.
hat step is neither easy nor quick, given men of sense on both sides, the presence of an alert administration or the rule of law. The men of good sense are still around, but the other two seem to be missing. Rule of law has increasingly become something of a joke in recent years, with the higher judiciary pronouncing liberal and often impeccable constitutional judgements and the administration either ignoring them or flagrantly violating them. UP chief minister Adityanath is a particularly virulent example, with statewide curfews, internet bans and threats to use sedition laws against protesters. The Centre has made no effort to arrest this virtually singlehanded trashing of constitutional spirit and letter, signalling its tacit approval.
But probably none of this would have happened without public sanction, as manifest in two general and dozens of assembly elections in the last seven-eight years. It could be argued that voters did not endorse any of this but the popular mandate came in the face of police-backed vigilante violence directed against Muslims for alleged trade in and slaughter of cows, as well as several cases of lynch mob justice across the Hindi belt. It is no wonder that the government felt empowered.
It is worth noting that there have been protests against these Hindu Taliban, as it were, but no political party in the country has provided a counter-narrative, not even the Bahujan party of Mayawati. Needless to say, they are all Hindu-dominated though they don’t all make a special virtue of it. The best they can do, however, is a soft version of the BJP original, indicating either they are being politic or they approve of it. None of this is any comfort to the non-Hindu for he can at best expect more civility, less abrasion. So we may be seeing a new definition of secular, where religious identity is not flouted but it is not repudiated either as being irrelevant.
What we are seeing today is no overnight rise in intolerance but a decades-long process aimed at deepening the existing alienation of communities. The undertaking has been expertly marshalled by the saffron brotherhood and exponentially amplified by the use of social media, in which the ruling party has invested heavily. The dividend has probably exceeded even their expectations, but it would not have been so successful if so many of us, initially tacitly and later openly, had not supported it. The toxins that have been released are the product, conscious or subconscious, of our own unspoken preferences.