THE Uber ride was smooth despite the rain-clogged roads, and I was thanking the driver with a heartfelt smile when the frail and vulnerable-looking fellow burst into tears, crying unconsolably. A recent migrant to Delhi, he had travelled some distance from the tribal state of Jharkhand to find work in the big city. Between the sobs, he asked if I knew any pandit in the area who could read his horoscope. I told him I knew no such person and wouldn’t have directed him to one anyway, adding gratuitously that horoscope readers were merely spreading ignorance and blind faith among gullible Indians, including the educated and illiterate kind.
“Everything I touch turns into mud,” the man sobbed. I offered him a tidy tip, which, to my surprise, he declined. I decided not to probe into his personal life. He seemed to be in considerable distress. It could be money, or it could be a greater loss. A frightening thought would occur a bit later. The emotional wreck was a great candidate to be led astray, I thought.
The story of Ashok Parmar came to mind. Also called Mochi, the saffron bandana-wearing cobbler became the poster boy of Hindu fanaticism during the Gujarat violence in 2002. Recent reports said he was unhappy with the unending rule of the Bharatiya Janata Party.
At his tiny shop on a footpath in Old Ahmedabad, Parmar, now 48, was disillusioned with the politics of violence. “That photo went viral and brought a lot of problems in my life. I even could not get married because of the situation created by the photograph,” he was quoted as saying during the recent Gujarat elections that the BJP won.
Suppose the tired and harassed cabby finds himself in a communal maelstrom while looking for the end to his misfortunes. Suppose he meets the BJP’s chief minister for Assam. He was blaming the skyrocketing price of tomatoes last week on Muslims in his state. Reports say Himanta Biswa Sarma told his followers to clean Guwahati of ‘miyas’, a derisive name for Bengali Muslims, and take their jobs.
The prejudice is decades old, but the context to express it has transformed into a vote-rich electoral strategy. It was a black-and-white TV in Delhi on which I remember I saw a patently communal 1950s movie, cleared by L.K. Advani when he strategically became the information and broadcasting minister in the Janata Party’s short-lived government. The RSS had penetrated the JP movement against Indira Gandhi, and Advani grabbed the key job when the time came in 1977.
The movie was about a village woman in distress, much like the cabby one met the other day. Her husband had become suddenly very ill, and the village doctor gave him only a few days to live. The desperate woman found advice from a Brahmin priest. The village had many Christian missionaries polluting the culture, and their presence caused the husband’s illness. Armed with the insight, the woman mobilises a mob to evict the missionaries. The village was cleansed of the evil spirit, and the husband began life anew, completely healed. Sarma’s hateful conclusions go back to at least 100 years of manufactured bile. The target of the contrived bias has moved from Christians here to Muslims there, to Sikhs, Dalits and the tribespeople, depending on the political need.
With little to show for a successful tenure, Hindutva chiefs in different states are busy kindling the time-tested malignity to herald the general elections, barely nine months away. An 800-year-old mosque was last week shut for Muslim worshippers in this endeavour in BJP-ruled Maharashtra. The courts may perhaps review the decision, but a discussion has been set into motion, and that’s what counts in Hindutva’s rumour mill.
A trial balloon has been floated by Prime Minister Modi himself to see if a potentially polarising discussion can be triggered on the effete idea of a ‘Uniform Civil Code’. His law commission had itself recently disagreed with the need for a UCC in multicultural India. But something has flipped. The problem here is that the Muslim clergy is constantly on the hunt for issues to keep its flock together. Hindutva shares its anti-women DNA with the clergy of most religious groups in India, not least with the Muslim variety. But Hindutva-sponsored UCC can’t be about solving the problems of polygamy or Indian women’s rights. The effort is to whip the Muslim community for political advantage.
Neither Muslim leaders nor Hindutva advocates will solve the pervasive problem of child marriage, bride-burning, and abandoned wives. It was the clergy in the form of the All-India Muslim Personal Law Board that had refused a host of compromise solutions on the Babri Masjid that would have spared untold bloodshed. The least the conservative leaders can do is to first reflect on the UCC, and be the last to speak when, or if the first draft of the proposal sees the light of day. Sikhs, tribal groups and Christians have worries about the UCC. Let them take the lead.
Meanwhile, the catchword in national and foreign media about Mr Modi’s electoral chances is that he is ‘widely’ expected to be returned for a third term. There is no evidence on the ground that Modi would defeat a united opposition. He wants a third term to enable him to equal Jawaharlal Nehru’s three consecutive wins. Indira Gandhi also won three elections, but they were interrupted by a resounding defeat in 1977.
Nehru did not live to see the electoral impact of his China debacle of 1962. Mrs Gandhi was punished for tinkering with India’s democracy. Modi has survived countless goof-ups in his two tenures, including a confounding public denial that Chinese troops had taken territory India laid claim on. Therefore, the cabby needs to be persuaded that it is all not written in the stars.