A few hours post the Indian Space Research Organisation’s plan to land Chandrayaan-2’s Vikram on the moon failed, PM Narendra Modi, consoled a mourning ISRO chief K. Sivan, expressing sorrow and solidarity. In his peculiar style, Mr Modi hugged the ISRO chief passing on more than a billion hugs. A historic moment of joy thus sublimed into a moment of “national mourning”. As Modi hugged the wailing ISRO chief, I wondered who qualifies for the PM’s condolences.
Journalists who were reporting live from the lunar surface since the morning made an emergency landing into their explosive solar studios to attend the special condolence meetings. It is quite understandable given the frenzied one-week build-up and excitement that preceded Vikram’s launch. I find it odd that why don’t these journalists get Magsaysays despite such path-breaking on-ground reporting and that, too, from the moon!
One might anticipate that from tonight Maulanas, babas, spokespersons of various political parties, and even Pakistani merry-makers-cum-jingoist panelists, and everyone else but science experts, will be solemnly invited to attend these national mourning congregations on prime time debates only to enhance India’s collective scientific temperament.
Behind the scenes of these mourning assemblies, the next week’s Hindu-Muslim debate pot shall be kept simmering so that it can satisfy our nationalist appetite. At the same time, sensible debate on the tattered state of our economy will be effectively evaded for yet another week. Apart from the predictability of what shall follow, I have a few basic questions. I must begin with a disclaimer that I have no problem with what we mourn as a nation. My concern revolves around what we don’t, but we must mourn, too, as a nation.
What constitutes mourning, and what exactly nationalises it? Who qualifies as a “mourner” and who does not? Who qualifies as the “mourned” and who does not?
Mourning is an expression of great grief. It signifies the loss of a beloved object, identity, animal, land or a person. It is an exclusive act of humanity. Mourning collectively first creates and then communicates a sense of belonging, empathy and most importantly, equality. A loss that shocks a nation’s conscience may be roughly identified as a subject of national mourning. A leader’s assassination, a terror attack, a natural disaster, a train accident or a plane crash are some instances where a nation becomes collectively sad.
In our namesake secular institutions, the idea of celebration is majoritarian and so is the idea of national mourning. Anything that frightens or saddens the minorities fails to moisten India’s eyes cataracted with hate. Happily blinded by hatred, India does not buy Mahatma Gandhi’s argument that “an eye for an eye will turn the whole world blind”. For a common man or a group of people to become a subject of national sorrow, two criteria have to be fulfilled. One: the number of people who died must be shocking. Second: the cruelty by which someone is killed must be unimaginably extreme. Sadly, Muslims never manage to tick either of the two boxes.
At a time when we are mourning the loss of communication with a lifeless space object, seven million people—whom we call our won—have been pushed into an ultimate struggle for life. We are celebrating the severe incommunicado and brute force that has besieged them. Far east in Assam, over 1.9 million people including one of ISRO’s key minds behind the Chandrayaan 2 mission, former military officers, and the family of a former president are fighting a war of identity.
The identity of the victim becomes very important in the case of national mourning that follows an act of violence. The pogrom of 2002 was recently declassified as a communal attack against Muslims. The violence and the impunity of the mobs that perpetrated it are largely justified as a retaliation to the 49 Hindu sages killed in the horrible Godhra express incident. Today, “But look what happened to the Pandits”, is the only excuse to justify the injustice being meted out to Kashmiri Muslims.
Like it or not, the Mecca Masjid and Samjhauta express blasts don’t shock our “national conscience” like Mumbai or Delhi attacks. Earlier this year, we saw how New Zealand mourned the massacre of its Muslims as a nation. In India, Akhlaq, Pehlu, Junaid, Rakhbar, Tabrez, and the scores of Muslims killed in vigilante violence by Hindu nationalist mobs are names that do not fill us with shame and guilt. Instead, their murders are mocked, and the members of the government hail their murderers. Leave aside bear hugs; the PM has not for once mentioned even one of the above-stated names. His own ministers openly spew gut-wrenching venom against Muslims. His silence has emboldened the mobs. His failure suggests his complicity raising a serious question on the sincerity of his “Sabka Vishwas” slogan.
Keeping aside a few honourable exceptions, opinion leaders who can challenge the bigoted public perception, many in the opposition, media, Bollywood and other positions of power do not dare to acknowledge the increasing attacks and hate speech against Muslims. On the contrary, many of them attack and incite mobs against those who oppose this anti-Muslim vitriol. The less radical “neutrals” stay aloof from “too political” things. It is not that they do not show outrage at all. They do outrage for a variety of causes on Twitter. From dogs to elephants, from tigers to trees; Muslims regularly fail to make it to their extensive list.
Sooner or later, ISRO—given its excellence to work on tight budgets—will eventually succeed in its mission. There’s no doubt about that. However, when will India mourn its Muslims and the loss of their sense of belonging? Nothing can be more hazardous to a nation than losing the ability to mourn the loss of its own people. It is worse for India where this indifference has turned into jubilation.
Update: Vikram has been located.
Update 2: The media reacted exactly how it was anticipated.