It was 5am and there was still work left to do. The weather outside looked lovely - I love the monsoon. So I decided to go for a morning "walk". I picked up the keys to my bicycle almost before the thought was complete. There is this thing about a bicycle. It is addictive. Regular bicycle riders no longer like to walk. Or at least that is my "this is how the world works" grade excuse.
Bicycling my way through our sleepy locality, I heard someone call out my name. It was the gym instructor at the gym I'd abandoned. He was on his way to open the gym for the day. Absolute eye candy and I had a crush on him till he refused to allow me to use the gym without wearing shoes (I HATE wearing shoes). I circled around and rode the bicycle slowly next to him, so that we could converse.
"You have put on weight," he remarked, eyeing my body with all the detachment of a butcher eyeballing a goat. "But you are a hard worker. You lose it just as fast. You should come. You are an inspiration for the other women."
I rolled my eyes mentally. If only the guy knew the number of people who try to talk me up into joining their cause because I'm good at things and an inspiration.... but I'd be returning to the gym only if I desired to regain that very enjoyable fit feeling. I have no sense of loyalty - whether for politics and ideologies or gyms. No amount of flab was going to shame me into hard work. My high is what I will get out of it. And I most certainly wasn't going to desire sweating unless the weather knocked off a few degrees at the very least.
I explained all this to him. He wasn't impressed. "The more you delay, the more fat you are going to get." he said, eyeing my generous tummy with no shame. There is something non-sexually creepy in the way gym instructors look at your body. I'm extraordinarily body shameless, but I can't pretend I wouldn't have simply preferred him looking at my body for the usual reasons rather than a muscle-to-fat audit that left him very underwhelmed.
The sky, nicely overcast decided to dump a torrent of water all of a sudden, and we rushed to the sole paanwala who is open this time of the morning. I wished there was also a chaiwala as I listened to the evangelist try to convert me into coming back to the fold of weight worshippers. The paanwala chimed in with an astute observation. "The weather is no longer cooling in the monsoons."
"That is true," Mr Eye Candy interrupted, completely missing the climate change angle. "But the gym has air conditioning."
But the paanwala was a veteran of streetside conversations with low comprehension. "That only throws all the hot air out and creates more hot air for the rest. The world is getting hotter." Quick and dirty gate-keeping, straight back to the point.
I studiously refrained from noting that my bicycle would count as exercising in hot air, if the alternative, walking in hot air weren't worse.
"This time the weather didn't cool much after the rains. " Mr Muscle had finally realized that the conversation had moved on on him.
"That is because all the rain goes straight to the gutters and then the sea instead of soaking into the soil. How will the ground cool?" Paanwalas are inherently wise. Particularly the middle age and above class. Must be all the different people standing and talking about diverse subjects all day, every day for years on end as they smoke. Probably gives a sense of perspective on not getting too involved in arguing with people who will only leave in a few minutes, but also probably gives a sense of skill on how to quickly score an indisputable point.
"Two months later, we will have water shortage again." gymwala sounded glum.
"In a few years we will start dying of heat" paanwala. "When I first came here, by this time, we used to burn garbage for some warmth in this weather. Our Nalasopara was like a hill station."
"We used to wear sweaters to go to school in the monsoon" gym guy is a local. "Now I'm losing customers because the weather is hot."
And so on. We talked for a while, then the rain stopped, so the gym guy left. He was the only one on a deadline. Paanwala could talk all day right there and I was in no particular hurry with work waiting for me back home.
The paanwala requested me to let him know if I came to know about a job for his son. "Anything will do. He is 12th class pass." Not wanting to explain to him that I rarely come to know about jobs that would fit that profile, I nodded along as he explained about the difficulty getting jobs. Another person from their area had decided to go back to his village in UP, except there was unlikely to be work there either. "Our home runs because of my shop. No matter what happens, addicts will want their tobacco, so we will survive. The profits are not so good, but business doesn't stop. Who says tobacco is bad? Our family would die of hunger much sooner than illness without it."
The logic was warped, but I guess it was a perspective. We talked some more about issues in healthcare (people getting upset stomachs and fevers is normal in the monsoons) and how nothing can be trusted anymore.
After a while I left too. As I slowly cycled back home, I realized that I had just spent half an hour talking about issues that involved the world, the economy, the politics, inequality, environment, corruption, insecurity about receiving necessary services..... all without any mention of any religion or political party or Modi.
Brought a smile to my face, it did. While we are still able to talk about issues that matter to us and have opinions without fear or loyalties overruling our own interest, perhaps there is still hope for the country.
As I watch the Gorakhpur tragedy unfold, "Nero's Guests", a documentary by P Sainath, comes to my mind. It concludes with Sainath's speech where he shares a piece of ancient history involving Nero, the infamous emperor of Rome.
When Rome burnt and Nero could not control the fire, he decided to throw a party and invite "everybody who was anybody" to deflect attention from the fire. But there was no provision to illuminate the huge garden that was supposed to accommodate the laundry list of invitees. Which is when Nero had an idea.
He summoned the convicts in the Roman jail, particularly the ones about to be hanged or imprisoned for life, and burnt them alive in the periphery of the garden. The fire ensured there was no absence of light, and the party went on without any difficulties.
As horrific as it sounds, Sainath makes an important point. "The problem for me is not Nero," he says in the speech. "What did Nero's guests do? Did they speak out against it?"
The reactions to the Gorakhpur massacre and I use the word massacre with all responsibility, indicate we, as a society, particularly the urban middle class, have become Nero's guests. The government hospital does not pay 60 lakh rupees for kids' oxygen but spends 40 crores on cow ambulances. In the aftermath of what happened, the doctor who spent from his own pocket to save kids is sacked. One or two other people have been suspended, but the babus, and more importantly, Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath have shrugged responsibility when the buck directly stops with him.
Yet, social media is flooding with comments normalizing the incident. We are being told how people have died at the hospital in the past, and how Gorakhpur is an ideal town. The doctor who saved kids is sacked and we are told how he is actually an immoral man being accused of crimes in 2009. So when Times Now anchor Navika Kumar asks her guest to not "rake up kids' deaths and divert from real issues" while debating Vande Mataram, she seems to be a mere reflection of Nero's guests who watch her show.
When a man is killed in Dadri, we discuss whether the meat in his fridge was beef. When a man is lynched in Rajasthan, we wonder whether he indeed had a legitimate permit, as if it justifies the lynching if he did not. The way we, in the media, report rural India, and the indifference with which the urban middle class treats the plight of those who are not "one of them", are all examples of normalisation that establish ourselves as Nero's guests. However, If 60 infants dying due to criminal negligence does not disturb us, then nothing will.
The normalization has severely and successfully diluted the value of human life. As George Orwell famously said, "All animals are equal, but some are more equal than the others."
This is the second day in a row I've discovered something suicidally whacky on Twitter. The first was when I found a profile with a UID number on it. Today was crazier. Vivek Namibar, a journalist with India Today with a verified handle on Twitter, posted a series of tweets that can only be described as extremely disturbing. You can check them out here:
I don't know how many of you here have been thinking about the #bluewhalechallenge and talking about it. Here's why we need to.
The thread describes a "suicide challenge game" that involves the participants taking on various tasks assigned to them by a "curator" on the internet. Seemed complete nonsense, but the handle was a journalist and myth or fact, the tweet had already been shared almost a hundred times (and counting). So I decided to find out more.
Based on the myth that blue whales come to the shore when they want to die, the alleged game encourages participants to do various tasks that are depressing or scary or involve self-harm over a period of 49 days and they are asked to kill themselves on the 50th day. One person was arrested in Russia on charges of encouraging 16 people to commit suicide. Various reports and unsubstantiated numbers of teenagers who have killed themselves because of the game. Reports that it had spread to the UK, reports that French police were warning people. Vivek was warning that the game may have reached India with one death in Mumbai and another in Bangalore that he could not trace.
Given the gravity of the warning, I thought it was important to investigate and at least do some initial straight talking based on what I found.
There is no evidence whatsoever that the Blue Whale Challenge exists
While it is hardly unheard of that depressed teenagers (and even perfectly healthy ones as well as adults) succumb to undesirable influences on the internet, given today's modern world of technology, it is impossible that if an organized game involving interaction over the internet over 50 days existed as a link in a large number of deaths in multiple countries, goes undetected. In the event of a suicide, a person's communications will be examined. If the suicide is suspected to have happened because of influences on the internet, there will be an investigation and at least some kind of concrete information would have come up. Given that several of the tasks reported involve self-harm, including making cuts on the body, carving a whale on various parts of the body and so on, it would have been hard evidence linking various suicides - there is no such evidence. There would be statements from the family about this kind of self-mutilation happening before the suicide. There are no such reports.
The game seems to be some sort of an urban myth that originated in Russia. It is possible that there may have been communications or some interactions involving depressed teenagers who committed suicide and tasks and so on, but there is absolutely no proof that such a game exists. It is just that we tend to notice more what has been brought to our attention, so if such a link is heard about, anything that could remotely fit starts looking like it is true. If I told you a pimple was forming on your nose when we met in person, you'd touch your nose a lot more, exploring its contour to catch that pimple!
The only place where the game seems to have spread is in Brazil with several suicides and suicide attempts allegedly related with the game reported. yet there is are no reports of investigations or arrests.
What is the real danger of the Blue Whale Game?
Well, it is obvious. An urban myth that runs wild and gives people ideas. Ideas that exploit others, or seductive ideas for suicidal people to make one last statement and dramatic exit. Another reporter who tried to find out about the game and wrote about it found that a lot of the comments he received were from teenagers seeking the blue whale game! Needless to say, regardless of whether the game exists, it is providing a source of curiosity and potentially interesting teenagers with suicidal tendencies. He provided a button with his story that said "Start game" and over 9% of people who read his article and its warnings clicked the button anyway. The button led to a page where people were asked why they wanted to play the game and answers ranged from the curious to those really wanting to end their lives.
Sociopaths may see opportunity in the teenagers being interested and seek to harm them by engaging them in what they are seeking and expect. An urban myth that makes suicide sound like some kind of rite of passage may encourage vulnerable minds to lose objectivity and choose self-harm.
Malicious online entities could engage people in the game and provide people with links that infected their computers with malware. After all, a person looking to find a person encouraging them to commit suicide is hardly going to expect a hacker.
All the usual cautions about strangers on the internet apply.
What is the good news?
Is there a good news about the blue whale game? Well, yes. Given that the blue whale game involves tasks to be completed over 50 days, tasks that involve fairly conspicuous behavior, like going to the tops of building and standing on the edge, standing on bridges, cutting their arms, cutting designs onto their limbs - this behavior is very easy to notice and trigger concern. And the good news is that it must go on for almost two months before the suicide. I think it beats a teenager committing suicide on a whim and gives people a chance to notice the problem and gives them a chance to change their minds. 49 days of bizarre behavior has a much better chance of someone intervening than a teenager leaving for college and stepping in front of a train. There is no need for paranoia. It isn't true, and even if it were, it has a better chance of someone noticing it and putting a stop to it than an "unorganized" suicide, so to say.
How dangerous is the blue whale game?
This is tough to say. Given that there is no evidence the game exists, there is no "threat score" one can attach to it. I saw several videos said to be music shared as a part of the challenge and I don't feel suicidal at all. And I am someone who has no problems with suicide and have even been suicidal myself in the past. So if there were some mystical power that would make a viewer want to kill themselves, or at least depressed, I should feel something. Nope. Zero wish to kill me. Anyone who watched and did feel depressed probably was reacting to the title saying that it would make them feel depressed or something. There are no supernatural powers in the video.
That said, obviously, self harm is dangerous and suicide is fatal. So I guess, even if the game doesn't exist if people find the idea appealing and try to copy it, it is obviously dangerous. I imagine too many horror movies in the middle of the night on a sleep deprived brain would fry anyone's sense of well being. Nothing catching up on sleep won't fix, I imagine.
The real danger of such secret, coercive interactions would likely to be predatory behavior with teenagers. Online sexual predators, risk of malicious code being downloaded to computers, personal information breached or willingly given that can make someone vulnerable to blackmail... the sane thing to do here is to keep your computer's security updated and not engage in intimate conversations with strangers.
Some last words about this blue whale suicide game thing - try the pink whale challenge instead
The reporter who did that story on the blue whale game and found the teenagers interested created an alternative pink whale challenge. Not going to link to it. If you really landed here looking for something, it will satisfy your need to search for it and find it and you can play it.
With or without the blue whale game, teenage depression and suicides are growing. There is a need to be supportive of vulnerable people and to provide a compassionate listening ear. If you find anyone around you being unusually depressed, engaging in self-harm, withdrawing from the world, do take a moment to check on them, and if necessary, speak with their friends and/or families and see that they receive any attention needed.
If you find yourself interested in suicide, seek help. More importantly, seek information. When emotions are low, it is harder to be convinced that things aren't as bad as we perceive them. Hard facts devoid of positive or negative emotion can serve as an anchor for sanity and allow you to gain a sense of perspective. Contact suicide helplines (search for them). Talk about it with friends you trust to listen to you. Make an abrupt change in life. Quit an environment making you unhappy, try something altogether different. It is a sort of metaphorical rebirth, you know? The giving up of an old unsatisfying life and the trying out of something that appeals more. I have done that often in life. Change careers, live in a different place, break up or fall in love, whatever.
Remember, thoughts of death may be common, acting on it is not. There is no need to fear. It is better to empower yourself with information and pragmatic action. If you are happy, if you care for yourself and seek help when you feel low, you aren't going to want to die, and no game can make you want to do it. That is just the internet being what it is.
Update: After publishing this post, it has come to my attention that the one Mumbai boy's suicide is behind this speculation of the Blue Whale challenge. This is in spite of the police not finding any history of altered behavior in the boy or signs of self mutilation - both of which would have been present if this were a case of the alleged "Blue whale challenge". Regardless, an incredibly uncritical media has widely reported the death as a potential Blue Whale game suicide, Devendra Fadnavis has apparently promised an inquiry saying that if it is an online game, it can easily be blocked (compounding gullibility with rank ignorance of the internet). And to top everything, this was brought up in the Parliament and the government may probably be preparing to issue some kind of a warning on the issue. While they are at it, they should also warn people against trusting Lord Voldemort. The complete gullibility of the media and the state and center governments is staggering. This is what you get by promoting stupidification and superstition. Critical thinking goes for a toss.
Viral trends of this sort spread with panic and reach the fertile ground of the minds of those discontented with life who find them appealing. Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis, the media and the Parliament ought to show restraint instead of introducing Indian youth to such ideas made all the more melodramatic for the attention they get. There are countless suicides in India on a daily basis. While this one is very sad as well, there is no need to go overboard about it and jump to conclusions that have no evidence in the reported facts of the case.
“A man devoid of hope and conscious of being so has ceased to belong to the future.” ― Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays
Suicide is a subject almost everyone has thought of at some point or the other. Almost everyone has wondered what it would be like to end our own life or how it could be done without confronting the great fear - pain, suffocation or other discomforts. Yet suicide remains a taboo subject. The feelings behind suicide. What makes someone commit suicide. We can talk statistics or prevention or helplines, but in the face of actual pain that drives a person to suicide, we have no skills. There is a difference between contemplating suicide and planning to commit suicide. An important one. The first is a fairly common and natural response to unbearable negative emotions. The other is an irreversible action.
I admit I have often considered suicide. I have written about suicide before too. From a perspective of statistics, from a perspective of understanding widespread distress needing political answers, from a perspective of empathy when I read about suicide, from a perspective of failing to support and grieving when someone I know commits suicide and I have also considered suicide as an option to end my own life when I was very sad. Yet, whenever I have tweeted about the subject, I have immediately got responses that amount to stopstopstopstopstopstopstopstopSTOP! It is so immediate that it would be hilarious if the subject were not grave. I have got helpline numbers as replies, I have got advice to not let dark thoughts enter my mind.
Hello! I write and tweet and comment and contemplate issues of human rights abuse. How in the world can one do that without having any dark thoughts? If I were planning to commit suicide, why would I be tweeting instead of finding myself a rope? I understand that it can sometimes be a cry for help by a distraught person, but if the rest of the words are perfectly normal, where is the harm in reading to find out what is being said?
Because here is the thing. Even if a person were tweeting about suicide publicly as a last ditch call for attention and help, the last thing they'd need is to be told to shut up or a sea of platitudes. What they would be needing is an empathetic listener who cares.
What exactly is this fear of talking about suicides?
“The thought of suicide is a great consolation: by means of it one gets through many a dark night.” ― Friedrich Nietzsche
I admit I have spent a great deal of time contemplating committing suicide over the years. As in killing myself. I have been in unhappy relationships involving heartbreak, I've been in an abusive marriage with an alcoholic, I've been a broke single mother of a disabled child. Despair and depression are no strangers. And yet I am here, typing this post.
I have actually found thinking about suicide in great detail helpful. Instead of fearing the pain of death (and thus possibly taking a rash step "while I have the courage" maybe after a glass or two of vodka), I've gone and researched methods of suicide. What would cause the least pain? What are the consequences of failure? What is the best method so that it causes least pain and least risk of failing and living with permanent damage? And anyone who knows me knows that when I say research, I mean obsessive information finding till I am convinced I know the subject in and out without actual experience. Enough to make a very well considered decision. On and off, when I'm in utter despair, I've gone and rechecked all the information. And yet here I am, typing all this.
Is this a guarantee I will never commit suicide? No. But it pretty much guarantees that I have given it thorough thought and not found it a better tradeoff for now. It guarantees that if I do it, it will not be a thoughtless impulse, but a decision I take about my life after considering all options I have.
So how has contemplating suicide helped me?
By giving me an option. By giving me an exit from the pain. By giving me the concrete information that if all this gets unbearable, I still have the option to exit. In the process, a miracle happens. I am no longer cornered by my despair. I always have the cheat route out. And because I know that, I am never out of options. I lose the fear of making attempts to change my circumstances that could fail. Just allowing myself to spend time thinking about ending myself is a catharsis. If no one else, at least I am acknowledging how bad things are. I am listening to myself. It helps me feel heard. It gives me a vocabulary for describing my situation when asking for help. No, I don't mean "I am suicidal, help me or else." I mean "This, this and this is the reason for my despair. I am not able to see functional ways out. I need help." - because hello, I've gone through all the reasons in my contemplation and have them now sorted out in my head.
And sometimes, in a very cynical way, the contemplations have saved me. If I don't care whether I live or die, why not try this one last thing or the other? If I hit a dead end, I can always die.
“Killing myself was a matter of such indifference to me that I felt like waiting for a moment when it would make some difference.” ― Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Dream of a Ridiculous Man
Here is an example how. When I was younger, my emotions were more volatile. Taking what I felt seriously and giving it serious thought helped me see things more clearly and invariably, I ended up thinking that if there was any hope, I could use it and if there wasn't, well, I could always die. But the well thought out option being there and not at any threat of being taken off the table gave me the confidence to know I could opt for it any time and there was no need to do it right now. I could afford to wait and see. I am truly grateful no one immediately tried to stop me at such times, or I'd have been tempted to use the opportunity before someone blocked it from me.
Now I am older. I have a young disabled child. Whoever knows me knows that I'd chew my arm off before I allowed anything to harm him. Well, losing a mom would definitely harm him. So suicide is totally not an option any more. At least while he is alive. He needs me. Period. Again, if I hadn't thought this through, I could have been at risk of giving up without considering the impact.
In some of my more selfish and melodramatic ways, I've even thought "What will be, will be" If I am not there, someone or the other will care for my son, though I can't imagine who, right now. But then, in such a melodramatic moment, the desire is also to leave a lasting mark on the world when I die. And oops, it is not "orphaned kid in moment of despair". I'd like to be remembered for something better, thank you very much.
Whatever it is. Others may have their own reasoning. Still others may come to a well considered decision that suicide is actually a good choice for them, When my father was dying of Parkinson's, he had the option of looking forward to an indeterminate bed ridden existence with little control over his body, being bored out of his wits and too exhausted to do anything about it but to wait to die. He begged me to kill him almost every week. It is illegal and I have two more dependents, or I would definitely have arranged for him to be freed as per his will if it were legal. Others do it out of poverty. Starvation. When the alternative is to live in debt and watch your family suffer with no hope of ever providing for them in sight, it can be a brutal life to look forward to, and death may simply be a matter of running out of the ability to fight.
“Let them think what they liked, but I didn't mean to drown myself. I meant to swim till I sank -- but that's not the same thing.” ― Joseph Conrad, The Secret Sharer and other stories
Whatever it is, however it plays out, a suicide is not about dying or exiting the world, it is about escaping unbearable torment. A person who feels unheard and uncared for, is unlikely to respond to a panicked flood of platitudes that s/he has heard a hundred times that drowns their voice all over again, even in the contemplation of death.
How agonized we are by how people die. How untroubled we are by how they live. ~ P. Sainath
My suggestion is that we all examine what this fear is that stops us from listening on hearing that word. Because the lives of many around us could depend on how we respond to their pain. If someone has made a well considered decision to die, there isn't much we can do about it, but if someone is screaming into a void of despair, perhaps us offering a listening ear will give them the space to be heard, and in the process get a clearer view of their situation.
Why is it becoming more and more uncomfortable to live within one’s own country, among people that we took for granted shared our view of the world? 2014 marked the year in which family and friends turned into aliens and opponents. Conversations invariably broke down at the point where Narendra Modi was seen as the great white hope for India. No logic worked against a recitation of the wrongs of UPA 2, plus AAP not being mature enough or ready, plus the magic word – ‘Development’ that a likely BJP government was going to deliver. One’s misgivings about Hindutva had to remain as mere mutterings, among the pitying looks of cousins and siblings.
Now 2017 has arrived as the year in which it is impossible to be in a crowded airport or railway station without wondering how many of the people around you will look on with interest at a mob lynching some innocent, and perhaps even justify the act with arguments if you dare to protest. After all, on social media, it is educated and articulate people who are trolling any criticism of hyper-nationalism or Gauraksha. The deep discomfort in crowds of any sort makes me wonder if I am having a serious mid-life crisis, or my country has changed into something so unrecognizable that I have begun to believe the worst of my neighbours and acquaintances.
My being a believer has fed much of my work, producing books on pilgrims and seekers, and finding faith resilient in the poorest toymakers and street vendors. Yet, today, I have also become uncomfortable with the religion I was born into because I feel no identification whatsoever with those who are making loud claims in the name of that religion with no regard for facts, truth, or the feelings of their fellow citizens. And, although this is a mere blip in our ongoing relationship, I have also begun to express increasing discontent and despair to my personal God in the face of what I perceive to be evil getting increasingly rewarded around me.
So many questions confront me on any given day. Was a bottomless reservoir of hate and bigotry always present amidst our people? How do today’s lynch mob leaders tap into this with a single WhatsApp message and collect an instant crowd? How many who go by the label ‘Hindu’ actually rejoice at the wounding or death of a Muslim fellow citizen in our country? Visceral questions, with no easy answers.
Till a few years back, crowds meant something else for me. As I walked with Varkaris to Pandharpur, joined the immense human congregation at the Mahakumbh in 2001, met kaanwariyas at the Haridwar Shravan mela and at Deoghar in Jharkhand, climbed to Tirupati and Vaishno Devi, I saw the transformative power of collective faith. Caste distinctions recede on such pilgrimages, when the fellow believer begins to be called by a generic name – ‘Mauli’ on the way to Pandharpur, or ‘Bam’ on the way to Deoghar. Sharing of resources, helping others when they are weary or tired, breaking into a song of prayer together, all this is behavior that is par for the course on such journeys. All the years when I walked alongside them, I never saw the crowds of the faithful as potential murderers.
And yet, from recent events, it is obvious that some of the killers of Akhlaq and Pehlu Khan may also have been pilgrims at some point. As I think of the kaanwariyas carrying water and walking hundreds of kilometres, I can’t help but wonder at whether the ordinarily devout, the Durga Puja attendees and katha organizers have become members of predatory mobs?
Any attempt to answer this question must undoubtedly make us reflect on why we have failed to strengthen the secular fabric of India. Prof. Ashis Nandy, who wrote An Anti-Secularist Manifesto in 1995, and who writes in his seminal essay The Politics of Secularism and the Recovery of Religious Tolerance, “I call myself an anti-secularist because I feel that the ideology and politics of secularism have more or less exhausted their possibilities”, has unpacked the concept of secularism painstakingly in the Indian context. Pointing out that religions in our part of the world have become split into religion-as-faith versus religion-as-ideology, he describes the latter as a “subnational, national, or cross national identifier of populations contesting for or protecting non-religious, usually political or socio-economic, interests.” For me, the religion as faith that I encountered as a pilgrim was distinct from the religion as Hindutva ideology that I abhor. The fudging of both by the SC verdict in the Manohar Joshi vs. N.B. Patil case in 1995 made it appear as if Hindutva was the sum of many cultural practices and beliefs, posing no threat to non-Hindus. But as we have seen so clearly in recent years, de facto Hindutva means aggressive posturing on the ground to pursue a nationalist agenda and protect distinct political and socio-economic interests.
If secularists have been unable to make such distinctions clear in the minds of citizens and voters, it is futile to once again hold Amit Shah and Narendra Modi responsible. Instead, it is clearly a result of secularists’ refusal to engage with questions of faith and identity in any meaningful way. To many, religion and the way it is expressed around us seems too messy or backward to bother with. When I wrote in my books about the visible expressions of faith I had experienced first-hand, I often had friends wonder why I found the melas and the kaanwariyas so fascinating. Modernity, a desire for development, and a secular outlook means for many in my social milieu a complete disregard for the inconvenient, bedraggled, jugadu hordes of poor pilgrims struggling to reach temples and deities and holding up traffic in the NCR.
For such people longing for a ‘developed’ India that will leave all such messy struggles behind, a vote for Modi in 2014 actually meant a vote for an increased role for the private sector without the ball and chain of environmental safeguards dragging down corporate India. The rights of tribals and displaced communities, the increased disparities of income and the contrasts in urban India between utter comfort and utter despair didn’t cause upper middle class urban Indians to lose much sleep. As a society we have lived for far too long with the twin evils of entitlement and deprivation, and nothing in our environment encourages us to think beyond the interests of our family, caste, or class. Protecting secular discourse was not a priority for too many, unless it represented an attack on their own personal freedom.
Today when I share with my journalist friend Rahul Pandey a frustration with the lack of any political opposition to the tactics of the BJP, he says, “Na Ram hai, na Bam, sab chhalava hai.” (There is neither Ram, nor the Left, it is all wholesale fraud and deception.) He refuses to accept that the BJP is winning elections only on the basis of their WhatsApp armies. “Why would WhatsApp work without any real work being put in?” he asks me. “The VHP have gone door to door, in village after village in UP, and tied dharm-raksha-sutra (Save your faith bands) around the wrists of lakhs of people in their homes. Which party can claim such cover? The Sanghis have conducted Swachhata Abhiyan (Cleanliness campaigns) in village after village. Their workers and volunteers remain visible to the public at all times. This is what makes their WhatsApp mobilization work.”
The Sangh and its affiliates have also perfected the art of silent communication at religious events with a cultural significance. My activist friend Arvind Murti says, of a recent event around the Thrissur temple “I was there recently on an occasion where at least fifty thousand people were present, and a host of cultural activities were being put on. Not a single political leader from either the LDF or the UDF was present. The only visible leaders were from the Sangh umbrella organizations. It made me acutely conscious of how secular parties are missing important opportunities for communication by disregarding such occasions and festivals.” I knew exactly what he was talking about because I have been at the chariot festival of Chennai’s Kapaleeswar temple, when thousands of people converge in Mylapore in a completely apolitical celebration. However, the volunteers of VHP are still milling about among the people, distributing water and butter milk sachets. Somewhere, in interpreting secularism as a lifestyle that shuns the mention of God or religion, secular parties and leaders have distanced themselves from cultural practices that deliver their countrymen to the Sangh without protest or effort.
For Prof. Ashis Nandy, secularism and tolerance can only be recovered by re-connecting with the ideals of faith, not by denying them. He points to Gandhi as the believer whose compassion and tolerance stemmed from his religion, not in spite of it. For millions of poor Hindus, who have felt excluded from the prosperity of their secular, modern fellow citizens, the Sangh gives honorifics and titles that bring a role of prominence as an anti-Romeo squad member or a Gau Rakshak. Such actions may actually be bringing these people a legitimacy whose importance we are unable to comprehend from a position of eternal privilege. If secularism’s goose is not to be well and truly cooked in India we have to prepare to move once more among our people and ask them the questions that matter. For this, it seems, we can depend on no political leader or party.
So if we are to reclaim the ground we have ceded to those who always talk of ‘hurt sentiments’ and explain each violent mob attack as an expression of the people’s emotions, we need to attack the idea of Hindus as victims. We need to bring such questions as the ones below in the public domain, whether through Whatsapp, social media or conversation. The idea of the majority community being victims in their own homeland is the biggest falsehood of the Sangh, being used to perpetuate fear and hatred in equal measure. ‘Have you ever been stopped from worshipping your favourite deity, or doing pooja in your homes?’ is something we can ask fellow Hindus. ‘If not, why do you feel insecure in your own home and country?’
‘Who are the people telling you your homes are in danger, your women are in danger? Don’t you believe your God is powerful enough to protect you and your family? Why then pick up arms and who do you want to attack?’
‘When you rush to attack and kill, whether for money/recognition/reward, don’t forget that you will have to account for it before your God. Yeh kaun sa Bhagwan hai jo kisi insaan ko maarne ke liye majboor kar raha hai? ‘
No great knowledge of religion or scriptures is needed to counter the majoritarian poison of the Sangh. All it needs is nudging the people to tap into their own faith of God being their protector, not the other way around. After all, in the crowds of pilgrims I used to travel with, each was seeking his or her own liberation, however hard and arduous the journey was.
Unfortunately, around a bend in the path and in our nation’s history, many of these seekers met not the God who would provide ‘mukti’, but the politician who demanded eternal slavery of mind and soul.
So are we, privileged and educated Hindus, up to having these conversations among ourselves?