A few years ago, when the Modi phenomenon was yet to happen, I had asked my humanities professor at my engineering college, “What role do you see for students in national discourse?”. His response was rather grim. He said, “I do not see any national discourse happening. Unfortunately, what I see is distortion, national distortion.” Although he later added a hopeful remark that he has faith in the youth of the nation, who would test every philosophy, every discourse, dutifully. As I write this, I wonder – have I been able to fulfil my duty, which my professor believed young Indians would perform?
I feel sorry that I have failed.
Since Prime Minister Modi’s election to the highest executive office of our country, most of the time which I spent on engaging with political issues has gone into either directly mocking or making fun of the PM, his ministers, and his party. At times I have even gone to the extent of using words of hate against him and his party. He comes from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a Hindu nationalist organisation, which everyone knows. Many of the chief ministers, union ministers, ministers of state, and members of the party to which the PM belongs have strong associations with the RSS. RSS follows an ideology which is shared by the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), the PM’s party. My opposition is to this ideology. I do not claim that I know everything about RSS or its ideology. But based on what I have read, what I have seen, and what I have heard, I understand the following two as the salient aspects of RSS’s ideology: (a) mixing religion and the state; and, (b) hatred towards the non-Hindu minorities, especially Muslims and Christians.
Why do I say then, that I have failed in fulfilling my duty to contribute to the national discourse? The first and foremost reason is that my engagement has only been on social media. Facebook posts, comments, tweets and retweets, sharing newspaper articles and videos, and WhatsApp debates have been the only instruments of my so called political engagement. Have I gone out and interacted with the people? No. Have I participated in any protest? No. Have I written any article analysing the policies of Modi government? No. Essentially, what I have done is Modi-bashing, in simple words. Is that enough for my engagement to be called a contribution to the national discourse? I believe, no. However much I disbelieve in an ideology, I should not fall for an already available design to counter it.
Since the time Narendra Modi was declared the prime ministerial candidate of the BJP, signs of polarisation started appearing in public debates. Those who were supporting Modi were deifying him. Many still do. And those who were not believers – I belong to this category – were portraying him as the devil. Isn’t that outright distortion? You do not believe in an ideology, and therefore wish a person subscribing to that ideology to be defeated in the elections. However, it shouldn’t be converted into a pathological hatred. The complete absence of a grey area – the precise region where public discourse should happen – made people name and shame their friends, tag them as ‘anti-national’, ‘bhakts’, ‘libtards’, ‘unfriend’ them, block them, and ultimately spread hate.
The larger points which I want to make here are –
(1) Social media can just be a tool, albeit an important one, for engaging with people. It’s not the way to bring change or make meaningful contributions to the larger public discourse;
(2) National discourse should not be about just politics;
(3) Your disbelief in an idea should not push you to spread hate;
(4) Select your cause wisely.
How many of us have raised an issue plaguing our locality – drainage, drinking water, plantation, sanitation – to our ward councillor? It is really easy to tweet or write a Facebook post about the PM’s foreign visit, but, it is indeed difficult to collect a few of our neighbours and go to the councillor to talk to him about a real and immediate problem. Of course, social media can be of great help in this initiative, but that cannot be the platform to solve the problems of our neighbourhoods. That must happen on the ground.
Isn’t it strange that we all have an opinion about the PM, but we might even not know the name of our ward councillor? The nation does not just exist at the borders, it exists within as well. There are people who live within these borders. There are real problems which exist within these borders. There are problems of malnutrition, quality education, drinking water, and so many things, which affect all of us. Surprisingly, the platform which we use does not provide most of us an opportunity to know about such things, forget about doing something.
The word ‘national’ has been de facto hegemonised by politics. It is unfortunate. We are not talking about our films, books, art, music, fabric, history, heritage, literature, science, food, and our own people. India is blessed with so much diversity. The idea of India, which so many of us are battling for from both sides, cannot be just a political idea. The other possibility – actually a reality – is that new media and even mainstream media have illegitimately encroached on the public space to an extent that it has gained the ability to politicise every single thing which exists there.
Having said that, the ultimate responsibility lies with us. How can we consume the same thing, in the same way, every day? Don’t we see the design in it? Don’t we see that there are people who are deliberately doing this? Why do we have channels dedicated to spreading hate? Changing, or getting hold of, the national narrative is one thing, but vitiating it, making people hate each other, is not that. Ironically, the response to this hate has been another kind of hate, or spreading fear. Both sides have converted the nation into a monolith, and are fighting for it like the devtas (gods) and danavs (demons) did during samudra manthan (the churning of the ocean). There is no place for communities. There are no people in it. It’s just a movement with no cause.
Ideological battling is not the only cause on earth. It is possibly the most unreal cause. Ideology is ultimately a thought, ‘vichar’. It’s a subjective truth. But, the suffering of common people is an everyday reality. Environmental stress is what we are all suffering from, irrespective of class. And, there are so many causes which we can work on in our limited capacities, alongside our professions.
We have converted the national discourse into a national distortion ourselves. The reason is simple: because we have left it to others. I end here with my third point – whichever ideology I may subscribe to, if I end up spreading hate, then I am doing a disservice to humanity. The test of philosophy, which my professor told me, is essentially this. ‘Do not spread hate’ – this should be our biggest contribution to the ‘national discourse’.