The hardest thing in the world is to be a writer today. Yes, I know that the BJP has received an overwhelming victory, but am I supposed to be silent about why we, the people of India, did not know who funded the electoral bonds at the time of voting? Why we are not to ask for 100% verification of VVPATs? Nor are we supposed to ask why the EC behaved in a partisan manner about violations of the Model Code of Conduct when it came to some very important people.
Our duty is not to question why, but to vote and to show an inked finger, like a cattle mark – going through the motions of an election – with head bent low, not being able to raise a question.
How did the national broadcaster - Doordarshan behave? It gave disproportionate air time to the ruling party and most of the media were biased singing to the tune of the owners that control them. There are now no press conferences, only tweets, unilateral – top down broadcasts and talks. The press that is trained to ask tricky questions, may not.
For yours is not to question why, but to do or die.
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However, am I supposed to remain silent when a Muslim man – a manager of a restaurant tells me, “We feel insecure; as anything can happen to us, at any time.” When I countered, “But the P.M has assured that it will now be ‘sabka vishwas (everyone’s faith)’.” He responded, “Look what happened in Gurgaon just recently.”
A 25-year-old youth, Mohammad Barakat Alam was returning from namaz when he was accosted by four or five strangers who demanded he remove his skull cap and say ‘Jai Shri Ram’. When he refused, they manhandled him. An FIR has been registered and CCTV has also recorded the incident but what is the impact on the psyche of the minorities? I am glad that the BJP MP, Gautam Gambhir, has called the incident ‘deplorable’ but he has been trolled!
The Muslim man also told me that if a man would carry a woman on his bike, there would be ‘Romeo squads’ in Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath’s Uttar Pradesh that would stop to check and beat the couple if they were not married.
And woe betide if your name is Muslim. If you were stopped and you were actually carting cattle as what happened to Pehlu Khan, the cow vigilantes will mete out death. This must stop immediately!
Rakhshanda Jalil on releasing her recent book, You Don’t Look Like A Muslim spoke about asking her father why the children in her school called her a ‘Paki’. Her father sat her down and explained, “We had a choice to go to Pakistan but chose to stay in India. It is a badge of honour.” It certainly is; the Indian Muslim chose to stay on in secular, plural India but are we treating them as equal citizens of this country?
Javed Akhtar at the book launch talked of how he had never taught his children about religion but when in 1992 during the riots in Bombay – after the demolition of the Babri Masjid - his son Farhan Akhtar had to move out of his flat and live elsewhere for a fortnight, his psyche was scarred.
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I remember my grandmother telling me, “I smashed the nameplate of my house with my heel waali chappal (slippers with heels).” This happened during the carnage against the Sikhs in 1984 in Delhi. She also urged her little grandson to go and live with his uncle as he had a Hindu name. Her grandson refused bravely, “No, dadi ji, I won’t leave you alone and go,” but he also vomited that night out of fear.
Life is made of small things and incidents which create memories that can either be cherished or traumatic. We will have to work at being an inclusive society and it goes beyond calling a communal incident in Gurgaon ‘deplorable’.
I want an inclusive India where we are working for a sense of well-being which includes material and spiritual needs – where no one is afraid to express themselves. I want an India where everyone has a job and social security. I wince every time an old man bangs on my car door, swearing that he is hungry. I believe him, but to round up beggars under the Vagrancy Act is to destroy their freedom of expression, for begging is that final act of communication in their bid to survive.
I vividly recall going to meet Kankibai, a woman who had gone to work at a construction site and had fainted. The supervisor wrote on the muster roll that she had reported for work on an empty stomach and had fainted. He was dismissed. This is how we treat people who record the truth; we punish them into silence.
I visited Kankibai in her village in Chittorgarh district in Rajasthan. Her barren hut was empty except for her little six-year-old son who was bawling. After a long wait she arrived and explained she had gone to gather twigs to make the fire.
She then fed her child, but I noticed she gave him only a hard roti with some watery dal.
“Any vegetables?,” I asked.
“Sabzi ki hai? Mein toh sochti bhi nahin hun (What are vegetables? I don’t even think about them),” she answered with candour.
I looked away, ashamed by the violence of my words.
However, I must express gratitude to Aruna Roy, Jean Dreze, Colin Gonsalves and Harsh Mander who got together for the Right to Food campaign and got a Right to Food Act passed. Thanks to the activists who speak and record the truth, we do have a National Rural Employment Guarantee Act that ensures a hundred days employment to the rural poor. We need to strengthen it and extend it to the urban poor.
I want to hear the voice of Kankibai and not to suppress it. I also want the Right to Livelihood to become a fundamental right and the right to have a pension. No more grovelling on the streets, banging on window panes – after over 70 years of freedom.
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We need reforms at every level: electoral, judicial, administrative, health and within the media. For that, we need a robust democracy in which we can express ourselves, record dissent and speak the truth – as we see it – to evolve a consensus.
I once attended a meeting of the National Alliance of Peoples’ Movements in Bangalore and shared a room with Medha Patkar – the leader of the Narmada Bachao Andolan – and Gabriele Dietrich. Gabriele is from Germany and has not only been at the forefront of people’s movements but has now become an Indian citizen. When I asked her, why she had not gone back to Germany she replied, “I couldn’t bear my parents’ generation having been silent while those horrible things were happening.”
It is important to keep speaking because many who experience the pain cannot. Finally, the Special Investigation Team appointed to look into the murders of journalist, Gauri Lankesh and rationalists, Dabholkar and Gobind Pansare, has found a link between their murders. The book Kshatra Dharma Sadhna provided a blue print and was published by the Pune-based right-wing organisation, Sanatan Sanstha which planned their murders as the journalist and rationalists were speaking and writing against Hindutva. I hope that many will speak up because we don’t want to feel like Gabriele.
After partition we got Bhishm Sahni’s classic, ‘Tamas’, reminding us of what macabre things social and communal divisions do.
Toni Morrison writes, “This is precisely the time when writers go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilisations heal.”
The civilisation that is India too, will heal. That is why I write.
Sagari Chhabra is an award-winning author and film director. The views are personal.