“The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.” – George Orwell
Salman Rushdie. James Laine. AK Ramanujan. Caravan Magazine. Mekaal Hasan Band. Evam Entertainment’s play. Taslima Nasreen. Wendy Doniger.
The parade of smothered voices followed by fleeting outrage is endless.
The growing intolerance in India is hardly news. It’s no insight to note that this is regressive. It is further futile to point fingers at appeasing politicians, meek judges, and publishers or organisers willing to compromise and knuckle under to avoid chaos. They have no one covering their backs and no intention of standing up to this darkness.
Those who protest are few and quickly sidelined. Those who don’t care are many and everywhere.
Why should a hassled housewife trying to run her household, bring up her kids, and balance her budget care about Wendy Doniger? Why should a young professional trapped in his cage of business schedules care about the pulping? Why should a grandparent? Wendy? Wendy Who?
“Hope you are right about the samudra-manthan that is going on in our country,” a despairing friend said quietly, “I worry sometimes about the vish that will flow out of it.”
Who will drink that poison?
I want to speak directly to the hassled housewife, the business executive, the students, the teachers who must know about this poison.
When a group of people gets away with silencing a writer because “he/she hurt their religious sentiments”, and you nod in secret or in pride, you tell the world that this is alright. But tomorrow, who knows who might point to your beloved religious text or favourite writer and claim that these hurt their religious sentiments. You raising your voice in protest will not matter then, because you didn’t stop the storm when you had the chance.
Believe me, there is much in every religious text that can offend someone or the other. You often see these cited in the comments section of any publication.
What if those people said you cannot pass on to your children the stories you heard from your mother and grandmother, stories of gods and kings, because they are offensive to them? What if they said you are making up the story your mother told you when you were a child, like I was told, because they have neither heard that version nor does it fit into their interpretation?
What if the history you thought you knew was overturned overnight and your children were taught things in school that you know in your heart to be false?
Where will you go to fight, if you choose to fight at all?
This is not about Rushdie or Nasreen or Ramanujan or Doniger or Laine. Those who seek to silence them are not really after them. Their goal is something else.
You don’t need to know anything about these writers or care about what they have written. What you need to realise is that their voices were silenced because the mobs are interested in you.
They want you to practice their version of faith and share their understanding of history. They want to leave you no choice in this. No matter what your faith is or how you practice it, someone somewhere is plotting to impose their will on you. You should care, right now, right this minute because someone is writing a narrative for you without your permission, because they don’t think they need it. Nor will they wait for your permission to force their narrative on you.
They could tell you that the version of the Ramayana that you learned in your mother’s lap does not fit their grand narrative. They will come after the character you relate to the most in the Mahabharata because he/she is not of a certain pedigree or repute. The beauty of our timeless classics is in the spaces between their stories that allow us interpretation. But because these interpretations can offend someone, it won’t be long before they are stained by petitions and stopped by law.
You should raise your voice, right now, right this minute, because someone (perhaps sitting in America) is writing a history that will suit their ambition. A tweak here, a book pulped there, a movie withdrawn, a play squelched – that is all it takes. In small, barely noticed cuts, they are slashing away at your infinitely diverse history and treasured myths. And defending it in essays, even denying it.
There is a calculated thought behind their seemingly petty acts of intolerance. They have a belief, a misplaced pride, and an unhealthy determination to shape a grand narrative for India because every great power must have one. Any idea or interpretation that challenges this must be crushed.
Over time, they want to turn us all into closed-minded drones with pride in only carefully culled out aspects of history and rage over everything that dares to be different.
Civilisations thrive and minds expand when there is a constant, healthy exchange of ideas and interpretations. Great conversations are made of the exactly these ingredients.
All that we can really be sure of is what we don’t know. And that we can be easily wrong in what we do know. How then can these mobs come at us with the arrogant certainty that they know what is right, and everything else must be silenced? They even want to take away our right to be wrong. Their having an interpretation is acceptable, imposing it on us is not.
In their myopic attempt to control our understanding of our world they forget that India doesn’t need a plastic surgeon to sculpt a perfect past. Instead, its confidence should come from the vision of where it is going. By deleting tradition, history and ideas that differ from artificial grand narratives, they are hobbling us on the journey we are on.
We should all care. And we should be worried. Because someone else is writing an alternate narrative for us.
Sameera is a media and advertising professional. She tweets at @Sameera22.