'We can still be friends'
Somehow, human values like love and compassion have to become political drivers alongside structural values of equality and justice, in addressing the difference. It may be the only way to save the many places people call India.
Ever had one of those ambiguous relationships? Where someone is attentive, romantic and lover like. Then, you act on the assumption of intimacy, and they go, "arre, I never said it was romantic. We don't have any rishta and all. But of course, we are always friends where I'm concerned". That "where I'm concerned" is the operative phrase signalling that you don't matter because you are not part of socially privileged relationships. When the truth is conveniently flattened, its violation becomes invisible. Anything you say only heightens your powerlessness and empowers the unjust.
Last week felt a bit that way when we were told suddenly that with Partition, India had accepted a division on religious, not philosophical, lines and the Citizens Amendment Bill, would correct that. It implied that there had never been a rishta of unity in diversity. Just some place given in our rashtra to your kind, meaning Muslims, but now no more. Of course "we're still friends", yaniki, Indian Muslim citizens needn't fear, never mind the mammoth cultural and political campaigns of marginalization around us.
Pretend truths, sweeping aside complex realities, create anguished, angry convulsions. Several anti-CAB protests have erupted but they are not identical. In Assam, the bill, combined with the NRC, is seen as threatening ethnic identities. For mainland Muslims, it generates hurt, anger and anxiety. For some liberals, it violates the values of non-discrimination in Article 14 of the Indian Constitution. Four states have refused to implement it. Nothing makes it clearer: India is a diverse place and enforced homogeneity is devastatingly divisive.
So, is this our 'unhappily ever after' then? As the unkindness of ambiguous romancers can be seen as rooted in childhood wounds, so the pettiness of contemporary political culture can be analysed via past resentments. "We can debate the past endlessly" as Pratap Bhanu Mehta wrote recently. But eventually the past, once acknowledged, must be overcome, so we may live in the present.
We have not been gifted an easy present. According to the Oxfam inequality report, 10 per cent Indians hold 77 per cent of the total national wealth, 73 per cent of the wealth generated in 2017 went to the richest one per cent, 67 million of the poorest Indians, saw only a one per cent increase in their wealth. In such difficult times, the thing plentifully offered is encouragement to unfurl layer upon layer of prejudice, unpeeled like an onion—our symbol of starving amidst plenty—till what Arjun Appadurai described as "aspirational hatred" remains, pungent and pervasive.
Our responses have to be rooted in a very capacious idea of diversity, not a technical one, where the ideological expands to encompass the psychological and emotional: not just for an idea of India, but an idea of ourselves as human. Beyond liberal or conservative, what kind of people do we want to be? Those who troll and jeer like hundred Lalita Pawars, while students are lathi charged, whole states have their Internet cut off and protestors shot? Or, can we acknowledge the almost airy-fairy sounding but necessary task of rehumanisation before us? That isn't achieved through the sentimental, patronising politics of "je suis the victim" of the privileged nor theoretical denouncements. Somehow, human values like love and compassion have to become political drivers alongside structural values of equality and justice, in addressing difference. It may be the only way to save the many places people call India.
Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at email@example.com
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