There have been many ways I have been wanting to write this post. Extensive research was something I thought was required. The research has been never ending, been altered and opinions have been formed and destroyed in that time. People around me haven’t necessarily instilled the right amount of faith in me of how I have been feeling. All in all this post just needed to come from the heart, from where most things deeply unnerving end up coming from. And somehow being at this somewhat loosely existential crossroad of my life, I feel compelled to just give it a shot.
A couple of years back I had written this piece, which was a result of a rather well made movie on India’s quest to find and kill one of its greatest villains. In that moment, I wrote with great passion and definite belief in what I believed was a groundswell for a lot of young people out there who refused to believe in the power of identity and patriotism in the manner I saw it. I have not necessarily been a deeply patriotic citizen, but I have always prided my sense of understanding of the greater concerns of the nation, of not complaining too quickly and of being extremely generous towards our many obvious faults. I believe that as one of the youngest democracies in the world and with fear of making a wrong move institutionally built into us due to centuries of being colonialised, I truly trust in the admirable yet sometime limiting faculties of this country.
Therefore back in 2014, when Narendra Modi became our Prime Minister, I again looked at my country in hope and belief. He was tainted, unproven as it was, it was still a scar we all had to accept. But also, for the first time in all my grown up years of understanding politics and being aware, had I seen such polarisation across people over the man who was going to lead us out of what was possibly some of the darkest years I had seen in my lifetime of political ignorance and mismanagement. It completely shocked me that someone was being vilified before even taking a step after we had been put through not just incompetence but also complete drudgery for the 5 years before that. It all suddenly seemed to pale in comparison to what this man, was going to do. None of us knew what it would be but the assumption was that fascism would manifest itself in ways unknown, lawlessness would prevail, rights of expression would be taken away and a subliminal dictatorial guard shall be put in place. No good shall come of this. I sit in 2016 today, and I unfortunately seem to be at the receiving end of a similar rhetoric. Of how the last two years have been disastrous, of how many of our rights of expression have been snatched, while every day the same people who complain of it seem to be getting away quite comfortably at slinging mud at the Government all day long. There is no taking away from the fact that some level of censorship has arisen but I seem to get the most sensible arguments from people who live in what we believe as , ‘progressive countries’ in Europe, where they talk of similar treatment when a person’s voice seems to get a little too loud for the government to take. And how a lot of times that voice is invariably even heard before it is curtailed. Atleast the students at JNU got weeks on television to protest and beg for freedoms they already have while people sitting across the wall in China or Pakistan or even activists in Germany watch in disbelief at the amount of air time such openly enthusiastic doomsayers seem to get in India.
My argument or thesis here really isn’t about whether the rights of expression have been taken from us or if India has become more dangerous than before and i’m surely not batting for the Modi government. I’m only writing this as a worried individual surrounded by the highest number of armchair commentators this country has seen since Independence. They are seen at lunch tables across workplaces, at golf ranges, on social media as they react to everything that breaks, so called journalists, the so called intellectuals, students in schools who believe that their opinion is actually grounded in any sort of fact and most worryingly that cab driver who seems to be influenced by so many ideas that he just can’t make up his mind. Most of the people in that list have never known the difference between each subsequent government’s policy. Next time you hear one of them, ask them which government in recent did something that truly benefitted them. Ask them of that one critical piece of legislation in the last 30 years that has truly re-defined us as a nation and when they state it, ask them to dig deeper, to explain it to you like they would a 6 year old. Don’t let them off the hook, don’t let them hide behind the comfort of throwing dirt at any government in the country or any policy. Ask them to answer that question and answer it well.
Most of us who are going to be able to read this are comfortable, way too comfortable for anything to truly hurt. And you know when things stop hurting, you start feeling irrelevant and that is the worst that can happen to us. Irrelevance is the greatest disease in the world and it has been created by us, cured by us with social media and then we keep plunging ourselves back in it every time it leaves us vacant again. The last 20 years in this country for this so called middle to upper middle class has been painless. We have cruised through with no stories of hardships, no collapsed economies, no crumbling wars, no state of fear, no panic, no responsibility towards future generations, no significant desire to create large wealth for the nation, no aspiration that was outside of what was already mainstream and absolutely no definition of greatness. This is our problem. We don’t have a restriction to expression, that is there in abundance and if you can’t see it you are clearly blind as well as deaf, there is a restriction to know more and know well. This restriction has not been created by our governments or is an instrument of opportunity or the lack of it, it only arises from this sense of painlessness. This numbing sense of continuity that we have built into our lives where we travel from one ‘ashrama’ to the other without stopping and questioning, if even our opinions are someone else’s.
Matthew VanDyke is a filmmaker, a revolutionary and a man who decided to go in search of ‘becoming a man’ some years ago. He may not have gone in search of finding more about the world he lived in but he went in search of something. In the process he found purpose, he found a prison in Libya where he was a prisoner of war for 6 months and he also discovered that not all wars are fought for a purpose and that not all soldiers fight to win but some are just looking for respect and some just for attention. But in the process he changed his understanding of the world around him forever. It was the years during and after the war in Vietnam when Americans saw a rise in the number of youngsters who just felt the need to add some reason to their need to be relevant. Many of them discovered rather pointless journey routes but a lot of them came out stronger and gave significant direction to business, politics and the subsequent decisions America has taken as a country since. While most of those decisions can be questioned and the bedrock of the American economy can seem rather weak, a lot of it is now down to a similar sense of painlessness that has taken over the country and its people. We have similar stories in India too, or I hope we do because they deserve to be told. Because in those stories lie many lessons for this generation on painkillers. Whenever I hear some armchair commentary on our state of affairs I begin to wonder how the common every day man who is truly battling it out there, perceives some of our many debates on the country and its polity. When i speak to drivers or our maid back home about this or hear their thoughts, I realise how different and irrelevant some of our thoughts are to them. Most of them are so happy that they haven’t paid a bribe at the government office to get work done, some of them are just happy to listen to their Prime Minister speak to them on radio every couple of weeks and some of them wonder in fear if he only cares for the rich and not them. These are real concerns and real hope and real despair. Borne out of realities most of us are conveniently shielded from. Even the activist out there who is fighting for our freedoms of expression isn’t getting a mouthpiece or even an individual walk up to him and over a cup of tea understand why he does what he does. There is this inherent gap in our understanding and our application of the country, its people and its big challenges and I feel we need to address it.
We need to get out there. On a bike, on a train or just walk into the bylanes less traversed. Go with our camera, a recorder or just our ears. We must take time off work or off a weekend or even just take off from work a little early to go to a side of town you have never been to before. Speak to people you never thought you would find interesting conversation in instead of the same unaffected souls who make your life less meaningful. Begin a journey that doesn’t start and end on Instagram but begins with a single minded need to just know a little more of something less known. Meet people, talk to them, take a bus for once and over hear some conversations, go to a crowded market for a cup of coffee instead of that swanky coffee shop, smell the earth again because not only have you forgotten the smell but you refuse to recognise it anymore. Go to a museum, see the state it is in, go to a war memorial and discover real heroes and the battles they fought. Speak to people much older than you, more often, and they will tell you stories of independent thinking and of a time when the nation’s priorities were their priorities. Stop reading and accepting everything you see online, debate it with people who may never have read it and then ask yourself, how completely hopeless is the world around me.
More significantly, ask yourself, ‘what’s wrong with my country?’ And you will know that the answer lies with you. Go get it now.