Let me define who you are first, that is, whom precisely this letter is intended to.
You are a vocal, educated, tech-savvy Indian citizen. You are proud to be one. You are a die-hard fan of Indian cricket and a fan of Bollywood. You think India is yet to get the prestige that it owes in the world stage.You believe India is growing robustly and some way down the line, will catch up and hopefully overtake China. You think Nehruvian socialism was a disaster and the post-1990 reforms have come as a boon for India.
You do not support violence in general. You think you are a tolerant person and Indian society as a whole as pluralist and tolerant. News reports of public lynchings disturb you. You hate riots.
Glory and grandiosity. This is your vision and imagination for India. Whatever the remote or distant past, you want to see India counted in the world today as a powerful and glorious country to be reckoned with.
You think Narendra Modi is the right (and only) man to steer India to glory. You are ambivalent on his past and while you wish the 2002 Gujarat violence had never occurred, you feel Modi was unduly targeted and ‘smeared’ for something in which he had no active role. Even if he committed the crime of omission on failing to check the violence as the Chief Minister, you have an overwhelming sense that that legacy should not come between him and the opportunity to serve the country now and in the future.
You are a patriot but have no visceral hatred (some prejudice and hatred, I am unsure if you have) for Pakistan. You are not a particular advocate of an intrusive state but strongly feel that those who chant anti-national slogans should not be tolerated. Among people you dislike and detest the most are the leftists and activists who defame India while defaming the government. While you are not a climate change skeptic, you feel the zeal of environmentalists is misplaced and the burden of protecting the planet should lie more heavily with the developed countries.
You may not necessarily agree with Anupam Kher’s criteria that there should be tanks patrolling the streets and public gatherings taking place in dark basement rooms with hushed voices before the issue of threat to freedom of expression in India can be discussed but feel that the hullabaloo around intolerance in India is unduly amplified and there are people out to smear a government that is honestly trying to uplift India.
You may prefer that the singer Abhijit had not attacked a student activist by labeling her a prostitute in effect, but you are tempted to agree with the message behind his twitter post: that the leftist activists are unduly and selectively targeting the ruling party in India. While you were never animated by the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, you are happy that a party like BJP with a leader like Narendra Modi emerged from the womb of the movement. While you are not particularly interested in the temple-mosque controversy, you find it rather agreeable when Chetan Bhagat writes asking the Indian Muslims to agree on building of a temple for Ram where once Babri mosque stood.
And finally, while you are not particularly sexist, abusive or violent in your social media use in general, you are fine with people like Arundhati Roy and Shehla Rashid being trolled heavily.
While describing you like this, faces of many of my Indian friends are flashing in my mind. Most of them are my friends from the undergraduate years when three-fourths of the students in the Nepali college in a town bordering India were Indian, many of them NRIs. Almost all of them are now proud professionals, specialist doctors to be precise, in India, the gulf and elsewhere. Many of them were my intimate friends and before I left social media months ago, many used to regularly interact with me.
Now let’s come to the point.
I have felt compelled to write this piece for long. My intense interest in India started precisely during those undergraduate years. As many scholars have pointed, rest can be doubted but India is probably the most interesting country in the world to observe. May be, I have nothing special to tell or convey to you but seeing India from certain distance at the foothills of the Himalaya, I have the advantage of observing things from a distance. My unsubstantiated hope is that not being physically inside India helps me to get a perspective of the events in India that is slightly more objective than if I were living within. Please be sure that if any of the following lines sounds patronizing, that is entirely inadvertent. If indeed I believed that patronizing and sermonizing were worth attempting to convert people to one’s viewpoint, I would have never left social media. In any case, you have the right to be unreceptive to anything an ordinary citizen from neighboring country wants to tell you. But my belief that nuanced discussion and debate can help all of us think and see things better has prompted me to write this.
India is such a vibrant, and noisy if one says so, place that, I doubt I can add anything beyond which is already being said and debated. While Narendra Modi and Amit Shah may be strengthening their grip in power, their critics and detractors are as articulate as ever. But here I cannot resist the temptation to narrate a tale of three deaths with some similarities but many profound differences.
On May 26, two of the finest human beings to have lived during our times, Ricky John Best and Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche succumbed to stab injuries which they sustained while travelling in a train in USA. Barely a month later on June 22, Junaid Khan, an ordinary teenager died of similar stab injuries also sustained while traveling in the train in India. All three were dead before they could be treated at hospital.
It is here that the similarities end.
Rick Best was a 53 year old American army veteran who had three teenage children and a 12 year-old daughter. Meche was a 23 year old college graduate who worked as a consultant. On that fateful day, Jeremy Christian, a white supremacist who was also travelling along with them, started anti-Muslim insults at a black 16-year old girl and her 17 year old Muslim friend. Best and Meche were two of the three people who intervened to protect the girls and were attacked with knife by the assailant. The third one, a poet, was injured but was more lucky than the two.
Junaid was a 16-year-old student from the Kadhaoli in Haryana’s Faridabad district in India. He was pursuing Islamic studies in Mewat for the past two years. On that day, he was returning from his trip to Delhi where he had gone to buy new clothes for the Eid. After a petty altercation in the train, Junaid, along with his brother Haseeb and two cousins, was viciously attacked by a mob of passengers and his body was thrown at a railway platform.
Jeremy Christian, who killed Best and Meche, was soon nabbed by the police and is now facing a murder charge. All the assailants of Jundaid except one who identified himself as Ramesh are still roaming free a week after the attack. What is more disturbing, however, occurred during that day itself as the four boys were assailed and stabbed after an argument that apparently arose over seats in the train. According to the surviving brothers, as Junaid lay bleeding in the floor the crowd kept thrashing, abusing and taunting them, and refused even to lend a scarf so that his bleeding could be stopped. In desperation, they had to snatch scarf from someone. In the meantime, many of the passengers were busy taking photographs of the gruesome scene. As the kicks and slaps rained on the four boys, those who were civilized enough not to do the dirty job themselves were doing their patriotic duty by calling the boys Pakistanis and encouraging the assailants. As the terrorized boys tried to run towards the gate at Ballabgarh station, they were pushed back inside to continue the ordeal.
The scene was altogether different in Best’s and Meche’s case. As soon as Meche was down with his stab wound, Rachel Macy, another passenger, a stranger, held Meche and told ‘You’re a beautiful man. I’m sorry the world is so cruel.’ Meche replied before lapsing to final spell of unconsciousness: ‘Tell them, I want everybody to know, I want everybody on the train to know, I love them.’ With Meche’s life dimming, Macy took off her shirt and covered him. As Nicholas Kristof has written in a poignant New York Times column, another passenger stanched the bleeding of the student poet Micah Fletcher who had also sustained stab injuries and called his mother to tell her to go to the hospital but played down the injuries to avoid terrifying her. The heroics of the random citizens are now proudly juxtaposed by Americans with the rhetoric and behavior of their president which veer close to being outright racist and supremacist.
Please note that at some time in the past, before the snake of bigoted Hindutva politics reared its ugly head in the subcontinent, the diverse, pluralistic and tolerant tenets of Hinduism used to be contrasted with the indoctrination and dogma of other religions that often led to intolerance.
If you think Indian society is fine, with its glittering cities of high-rises and spot-clean metro-trains that you see around yourself, I think it is time to give a second thought.
I know many people like you will reflexively pose two questions to me after reading the comparison between the two incidents. One, how can you generalize the brutality of a small group of people in a train for a diverse country like India populated by more than a billion? Two, how can this ever be the fault of our Prime Minister, or the state, if some people resort to this sort of violence?
While it would be absurd to claim that the mob that killed Junaid and grievously injured his brother and cousins in the train is representative of all Indian citizens, it is amply clear that the bigotry and the tendency to resort to violence at or even without slightest provocation is not limited to any part of India. The poison of hatred that flows beneath the surface and explodes from time to time, and the communal polarization that gives rise to it, is now palpable through wide swathes of Indian territory. Tragically, not every member of the majority community in the society need to be bigoted to make it intolerable and hellish for the besieged minority members of the society; even a small number of miscreants can do that with indifference of the rest including you.
The argument scholar Ramchandra Guha made in a recent article that, despite the lifeless opposition in the political front, the ordinary Indians will save Indian democracy from the threat of bigoted majoritarianism is rather assuring and I am inclined to believe his assessment. Indeed the ripples now created by the lynching of Junaid, and the voices against the brutalization of society like the #NotInMyName campaign, after so many similar incidents in the past, are noteworthy. My fear, however, is that, how many Akhlaqs and Junaids will have to be sacrificed before people like you lose the somnolence and say ‘enough is enough’?
On second question, Narendra Modi and Amit Shah, or Subramanian Swamy, Yogi Adityanath and Mohan Bhagwat for that matter, may not be directly responsible for the lynchings that are so common place now in India. But which is the spring of poisonous hatred from which it is flowing to swamp the Indian society today?
And finally, you may argue that so long as Modi delivers on financial reforms and growth, the rest is immaterial. Please note that the world and the modern economy is a huge and unpredictable thing and I doubt Modi is master of everything. An apparently mundane issue like increasing automation at work can jeopardize his plans to increase employment despite a robust economic growth. The extremes of weather leading to prolonged drought can wreak havoc in people’s lives spreading panic and fury. Pollution and depletion of water resources can add troubles to that. All these problems, already plaguing many parts of India to variable extent, can accelerate sharply at any time in the future.
And if the power that rules India today chooses, as often is the case, to rachet up the rhetoric against certain minorities and deliberately directs the public ire towards them instead of looking for real, time-consuming and complicated solutions to individual problems, can you imagine what will happen to India?
Dear friend, you may not admit but I doubt you are emotionally disturbed by Junaid’s horrific death. (If that were the case, India would be in different shape today as Junaid’s is not first death of its kind.) I may be wrong in doubting that and I hope I will be proven wrong. But please think about the tragic deaths of Ricky Best and Taliesin Meche and the lesson they taught the world before bravely embracing death for sake of strangers. To me, their sacrifice is more significant than the whole might of America’s economy for the mankind. I think it is high time for you to re-examine the evolving legacy of Narendra Modi in India. It is fine to have high-rises, bullet trains and expressways but if poison of hatred and smell of death resides and travels there, such a society becomes a developed hell. I am now terrorized that a mammoth country that borders Nepal from three sides is at the verge of precisely transforming itself to that. And I sincerely hope you will do your part to avoid that tragedy.
Your loving friend and neighbor Jiwan Kshetry .