A fragmented nation

When a woman is groped, molested, harassed, raped or killed, it takes forever to file a FIR, to have the suspect arrested, tried in between long bail periods and then convicted. Ashis Nandy made a provocative observation about the prevalence of corruption in our society. He contrasted the ease with which upper castes escape punishment but SC/STs get noticed. He was being ironic. He did this in a public place and no one controverted him at the Jaipur Literary Festival.

Yet the alacrity with which an FIR was filed, Sanjoy Roy, one of the JLF organisers, was detained and Ashis called back to Jaipur tells you something about the way in which politics has divided and fragmented the citizenry of India. The most minor incidence of an imagined insult by any group leads to FIR and worse. Real crimes go unnoticed. It is a legacy of Mandal. Identities based on jati have proliferated and become vote banks. Minorities outside the Mandal net have been encouraged by this phenomenon to sharpen their own identities and seek redress for real or imagined insults.

Police know the clout of vote banks because their masters tell them to tread carefully when such identities galvanise themselves. Recall the Mumbai demo and the ensuing troubles last August in Azad Maidan. They were about the Kokrajhar riots where Bodos and Muslims fought each other for complex reasons. But at Azad Maidan, police women were assaulted by rioters, but as they are a solid vote bank, nothing was done. A police woman expressing her anger by writing a poem had to apologise. Violence against police women went unpunished. Freedom of expression was suppressed.

Kamal Hassan's new film Vishwaroopam was cleared by the censors but banned in Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh merely on the threat of disruption from Muslim groups, many of whom would not have seen the film. The Chennai High Court approved of the film but then changed its mind. Kamal Hassan will have to recensor his film to please his detractors. Is this to happen in each State? Are we telling artists that the mob dictates what is allowed?

The Constitution of India is based on the idea of citizens' rights and the sanctity of the Rule of Law. Any citizen has the right of free expression and free speech. People can disagree and argue but they should not be permitted to intimidate their fellow citizens. Governments have to deliver law and order. Instead, what we have is abject surrender by governments to mob rule, be it some Rama Sena beating up young women who want to frequent pubs in Bangalore, a Christian Church in Mangalore, or Jats demanding backward status and ripping up rail tracks plus many others.

This rot began with a faulty definition of secularism. It should have meant indifference to all religions on part of the state. This was how Nehru interpreted and practised it. But beginning with Indira Gandhi, secularism came to mean seeking the Muslim vote bank exclusively for Congress and maligning all other parties especially Jan Sangh (as it then was) as communal. Muslims sadly did not gain much from this favour as the Sachar Report showed. They were trapped into backwardness but had to admire the leaders going to Iftar parties. Their backwardness was necessary for their secular political masters to keep them dependent on favours in return for votes.

A second problem was the development model followed by Nehru and Indira Gandhi. Socialism meant jobs for the highly educated, upper caste people. Formal legislation protected the rights of a tiny minority in the organised sector. The masses in the informal sector stayed poorly paid, if lucky to get employed. The penny dropped that if you wanted good jobs, the route was not education but politics. Capture power and earn patronage. So once the Congress hegemony was smashed in 1989, Mandalisation gave plenty of OBCs along with SC/STs the right to babu jobs. This right could only be maintained by having strong casteist parties (secular of course!) and maintain some hold on power.

What hope is there that any party will stand up to this corrosive tendency?

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