Some of the hate spewed out in this election is so terrible, gentle reader, I find it difficult to write it in this space that I so deeply value. Needless to say, if the former Vishwa Hindu Parishad leader, Pravin Togadia can liken a Muslim leader, Akbaruddin Owaisi to ‘a dog who is behaving like a tiger in Hyderabad’ or if Bharatiya Janata Party president, Amit Shah, can say that if there is a rally in Wayanad, it is difficult to assess ‘whether it is for Hindustan or Pakistan’, it is pitting man against man, creating a fear psychosis of the ‘other’ and scarring the psyche of this nation irretrievably.
As this appealing to the baser instincts, dog-whistle campaign ends, whoever wins will be safely ensconced in comfortable Lutyens bungalows while the average man and woman goes back to jostling for jobs that just don’t exist – we have a 45-year high in unemployment – and an increasing rate of migration of the rural poor to the urban slums - desperately seeking work at bare survival rates.
As I travelled to Bolangir, I met a man and his wife and handicapped child who had no food to eat. As I entered their barren hut, I noticed they were boiling water. I asked them why they were boiling water when they had no food to eat? The man replied, “Pet mein choohe koodte hein (mice jump in an empty stomach).” I learnt that warm water assuaged their hunger pangs and then I hung my head with deep undeniable shame.
Whole trains were packed with able-bodied men and women leaving home to find work in the neighbouring cities. However, no one is talking about employment, social security and survival issues in this campaign. The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) certainly helped the rural poor get some work but it is being watered down. I learned to my horror that Jean Dreze, the brilliant and compassionate economist who was behind the Act and the Right to Food campaign was prevented from holding a meeting and arrested in Chhattisgarh. Jean Dreze is Belgian but he took Indian citizenship and has rendered invaluable service to the poor of India. I once asked him why he had chosen to live in India – he married an amazing Indian woman, Bela Bhatia, also an academic whose heart beats for the poor - he smiled and said, “Tell me a more exciting country? And it’s a democracy!” Only this democracy is being threatened like never before and even Bela Bhatia has had a mob surround her house and threaten her for her courageous human rights work in Chhattisgarh.
In this singular election, no one is talking about the 13 million jobs that were lost during demonetisation, of which 8.8 million belonged to women. Women don’t count in this perfect vision of the Hindu Rashtra (Hindu State). In fact, among other indignities, we have been exhorted to have at least five sons to counter the Muslim population and stay away from the Sabarimala temple despite a Supreme Court judgement.
This election campaign is a fear, hate and slur campaign where every citizen is being exhorted to look at the minority as a reason for them not getting their basic rights. The original promises of Narendra Modi - the retrieval of black money and putting Rs.15 lakh in every bank account within a hundred days of coming to power and of creating 2 crore jobs a year – have not even been addressed. Instead, the Prime Minister has exhorted the youth to sell pakodas (fried snacks). We have the Bharatiya Janata Party President Amit Shah swearing he will have the National Register of Citizens extended to the whole country and every infiltrator ‘except Hindus, Buddha and Sikhs would be removed’. It is indeed a sad day when Indians have to prove they are Indians; but then no one hurts Indians as some Indians do.
Worse, the Election Commission has not indicted several prominent people for violating the Model Code of Conduct – like the Prime Minister exhorting the first time voters should give their vote in the name of Pulwama victims and Balakot – although, we now learn that there has been dissent expressed within the Election Commission itself.
History will remember the then Chief Election Commissioner Lyngdoh as a man of courage who stood up to the Gujarat CM after the Gujarat genocide of 2002, and tomorrow we will appreciate current Election Commissioner Lavasa – or anyone who has the courage to stand for truth today.
In today’s age of aggressive nationalism, let us remember the words of Rabindranath Tagore who, we must appreciate, was writing at a time when the freedom struggle was at its peak and the entire politics of the time was about the birth of a nation.
Tagore writes, “Our loyalty must not be for any land of a limited geography, it should be for the nationality of the common idea, to which are born individuals belonging to various nations, who are carrying their gifts of sacrifice to the one great shrine of Humanity.”
He wrote, “I am not against one nation in particular, but against the general idea of all nations. What is the Nation? It is the aspect of a whole people as an organised power…”
Tagore believed in the humanity of man and its fullness of expression beyond narrow boundaries. He felt the organised machinery of the nation state sapped the higher nature of man, his creative, spontaneous and spiritual expressions.
In the vitriolic speeches of today, the sap of the nation is being drained away. We are not a whole people talking about real issues and the way forward. Tagore had written, “We must make way for Man the guest of this age and not let the Nation obstruct this path.” However, it seems that the hate speeches are making the people of India believe that we must hate some men in order to make way for the Nation. But what pray, is the nation without its people?
Today, I worry about my fellow-men and women and fear for my nation because this was not the vision for which women like Savitri Ramakishen, Subhadra Khosla, Vijay Chauhan, Sarla Sharma and others raised the tricolour inside the Lahore Women’s jail in 1942. As I met and recorded each woman who was surviving in the 1990’s, each recalled how they placed charpoy upon charpoy and Memobai – who was thin and wiry – climbed up and raised the flag. The jailer was furious, he blew a whistle, called the women’s police and shut them in solitary cells! Instead of being terrified, the women sang all night,
‘Jinne zulm bedard kar lein
Sau vaari kar le tu!
Jinna bahudar leader saada
Phar phar jaila bhar le tu…’
(Roughly translated from the original Punjabi:
How much heartless tyranny you can inflict
Hundreds of times you can do it!
Our own leader is so brave;
Grab us, grab, fill the prisons …)
“We sang this all night with slogans of Hind Azaad karaange (We will free India),” recalled Savitri Ramakishen, dressed in a simple salwar kameez at her home in Delhi.
The idea of India was to offer the world the values of ahimsa (non-violence) and living together in peace and not this hateful rhetoric. “When the spiritual ideal is lost, when the human relationship is completely broken up, then individuals freed from the creative bond of wholeness find a fearful joy of destruction,” writes Tagore.
Freedom fighter, Subhadra Joshi who had worked with Mahatma Gandhi and had defeated Atal Bihari Vajpayee in a Lok Sabha election in 1962, once told me, “We did what we could, now it is for you all to do your bit to serve the nation.”
Let us not stand by and listen to words that dismantle the very idea of India.
Sagari Chhabra is an award-winning author & film-director. The views are personal.