A few days ago, 49 celebrities penned down a letter addressing the Prime Minister, to bring his attention towards the increasing cases of mob lynching against Muslims and Dalits. In a counter move, 61 celebrities penned down a “counter intolerance” letter criticizing the former for their “attempt to foist a false narrative with the intention of denigrating the democratic ethos and norms of collective functioning as a nation.” To the latter group of people, the letter to PM appears as tarnishing India’s international standing and undermining PM’s “efforts to effectuate governance on the foundation of positive nationalism and humanism”.
While the letter addressing the PM talks about actual human beings and their plight, the counter intolerance letter is emphatic about the “image”, “international standing” or “positive nationalism” of the country. When the letter does mention someone’s plight, it’s about the attacked “Temple” in Delhi and the anti-national slogans against the nation. The trivializing of the life of a real individual for an imaginary collective is too conspicuous to be ignored.
Similarly, after the brutal Jharkhand lynching of Tabrez Ansari, Prime Minister Modi was compelled to condemn the incident in the parliament; however, his condemnation came out as an empty shell because of his over-emphasis on the alleged “insult of the state”. He did claim to be pained by the incident, but he reserved his vociferous response to save the honor of the Jharkhand state, which made his condemnation sheepish, and the message dissolved. India reported 218 hate crimes in the year 2018 alone, against the marginalized section of people. It would amount to stating the obvious that while hate is a feeling, its manifestation in the physical world swallows an actual human being.
Ours is a nation obsessed with honor and pride. With the rise of Hindutva nationalism, this fetish for image and honor has surpassed concern for anything real and has become an epidemic. While the death of children in hospitals does not affect the national image, a mere slogan raised by a few people does. The recent case of MLA’s daughter Sakshi Mishra and her husband’s appeal to save their lives from her father and media’s dealing with it is a case in point where the lives of real people were trivialized in comparison to the pride of a metaphorical turban of a humiliated father. It goes without saying that India is a hub of such killings in the name of ‘honor’, and the worst victim of such actions are women, who apart from facing the brunt of physical violence, have to undergo years of structural and psychological violence.
Psychologist Steven Pinker argues that an honor-based society is almost always a violent society. One can see ample examples of such societies in West Asia. Pinker also gives the example of the contrast between the northern part of U.S. and the Southern part where slavery lasted longer and where gun culture is much more prevalent and where people are more on the traditional side of the spectrum. Traditional societies have this peculiar obsession with honor as well as poor regard for actual human lives simultaneously.
Ironically, the entire world is witnessing regress in terms of freedom and liberty, and western countries are not immune to this either. When American President speaks about making America great again, he does that by resorting to the most regressive and petty policies one can imagine that includes an invocation of the worst fears and the lowest faculty of its citizens.
Historian Yuval Noah Harari argues that the key to distinguishing what is real from what is not is to see if that entity can suffer. Suffering is the only key to understanding the reality of a subject. Applying it on a nation and actual human beings clears everything up, while former cannot suffer because it is an imaginary being, latter can, because of their flesh and blood existence. A similar application can be made to religion, caste, community, honor and pride.
Although it sounds basic and simplistic, nevertheless in this growing age of identity politics and nationalism, it has become imperative to remember that we are all human beings and our pain and suffering is absolute. Moreover, caring about our image, honor and pride is similar to putting an Instagram filter on our pictures. It will neither change our actual facial features nor will it alleviate our insecurities but in the long-run has the power to harm us.