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The reluctant radical

Confessions of an unknown Indian
The Shaheen Bagh vigil.
The Shaheen Bagh vigil.

Sukanta Chaudhuri   |   Published 31.03.20, 06:31 PM

The ‘I’ of this story is not the individual named in the byline. The two have points in common, others wildly at variance. So do most readers of The Telegraph.

Who, then, is this ‘I’? ‘I’ am reasonably educated, reasonably affluent. I accept the values found in textbooks and mouthed by our leaders, as required for a secure and ordered society. Of course I have many problems with the world I live in. I grumble about them, inwardly endorse the protests in the press, and vent myself on Facebook or Twitter. When hard pressed, I might lodge a complaint or meet an official. I deplore corruption, inaction and the arrogance of power, but accept them virtually as laws of nature. All in all, I chug along tolerably well. I am content to keep a low profile, and preach the same policy to my college-going children.

There are a lot of people like me, numbering a whole Australia or Canada. Yet we feel a nagging separation from the awesomely bigger terra incognita called India-that-is-Bharat. For that separation I am deeply grateful. Dreadful things happen to people out there. They die for want of rations or medical treatment; their children drop out from substandard schools; they are evicted from their land, and shot or tortured by the police. Their otherness is multiplied by belonging to the wrong race or religion, raised to another power by the wrong gender. I try to be rational and fair-minded. I would not blame their misery on their wrongdoings, on malign planets or past karma. But I tacitly assume such causes, from which I am exempt by some presumed virtue.

So I wasn’t perturbed when our northernmost province was cut up and cut off last year. It’s been a benighted place for who knows how long. Nor was I bothered at first by the National Register of Citizens in Assam. Nineteen lakh humans seemed a lot to exclude, but haven’t we been told of the hordes infiltrating the border? It seemed only fair to send them back, though it wasn’t clear where or how.

But then things grew confusing. Those who had clamoured for the NRC now wanted to scrap it, while others swore to extend it across India. We learnt of lives laid waste by missing documents and clerical error. Like every Indian, I know the destructive power of the bureaucracy only too well. What papers might they want? No one has explained to this day. What if I don’t have them, as the poor and illiterate almost certainly won’t? It seems distressing that they should all be disowned by the country they call home: vastly more distressing if I have to join the queue.

I’m told I might save my skin by claiming to have fled from a country I never saw. What if they nailed my lie? What about my records of a lifetime in this country? Others can’t even make the claim as they worship a different god. We have suffered enough by playing off our gods against each other. I had told my children we now think differently, that we no longer drive away any god from our door.

Now I don’t know what to think. Disinformation hums like bluebottles round acronyms such as CAA, NPR and NRC. Not just those either. My money doesn’t go as far as before; my children search longer for inferior jobs. My household help feels the same way, only more so; her village kinfolk, she says, fare even worse. The finance and employment statistics make dismal reading. They are dispensed grudgingly, sometimes challenged or disowned, then buried in the dust of political squabbles and political rhetoric. Economic policies are touted like a new model of car, with the salesroom in mind rather than the road. They call it ‘post-truth’. It’s beyond my grasp. I just want someone to tell me the truth.

Others seem to want it too. I never had patience with student politics, but I’ve learnt the difference between the kind fomented by politicians to muster a goon brigade, and the rarer kind where intelligent young people advance their own ideas: sometimes half-baked, often destructive, but with a spiritedness I secretly wish I shared, for the issues they espouse bother me more and more as well. A professor friend tried to talk his students out of a messy protest. ‘Sir,’ they replied, ‘you agree with our cause, but have you achieved anything by your methods? So let us try ours.’

There lies the nub of the matter. I feel humbled and helpless, yet I cling to certain ideas that seem important for the general good. Our rulers and arbiters no longer even pretend to work those ideas into their rhetoric; while other groups, with which I thought I had nothing in common, are rising to uphold them. Students one might expect; but who ever imagined that Muslim women, many of whom had never stepped outside their homes, would hit the streets across India, linked by a kind of telepathy, in a new mode of protest that has stumped our rulers? The latter’s frustration shows in outbursts of falsehood, viciousness and mischief that I never thought to see in public life, yet treated with a deference I cannot recall either. The arm of the law seems to crush some and spare others in a contrast too glaring for the shame and decency I can’t wish away from my soul.

My alignments are getting dizzyingly out of kilter. I can no longer outsource my concern for my country, such as it is, to any political party. Instead, to my astonishment, I am empathizing with groups I cared nothing for, that I hardly knew to exist. Those obstreperous students remind me of the close of that forgotten film Garam Hawa, where a father joins a procession with his son in the vanguard. The Muslim women evoke that preposterous story, rashly prescribed by a university and then withdrawn, of a prim Hindu matron who forms a friendship with an elderly Muslim killed in the Gujarat riots: his ghost accosts her from the TV screen. I’m abashed to hold truck with such fantasies: it shows how unhinged I’ve become. I can still trust myself to stay off the streets; but I am willy-nilly redefining my self-respect as a citizen, making up my own narrative as I go. The official narrative has become too indigestible to swallow.

Am I then, heaven forbid, turning into that fearsome creature, the urban Naxal? The thought terrifies me. I know how the law crushes such monsters: I have no wish to be a hero or a martyr. But beyond that fear, I am truly and honestly no radical. I would be horrified if my country broke up into tukde tukde. The more stable and unexciting my world is, the happier I will be. Like most people, I simply wish the best for my family, neighbours and countrymen by the comfortable, commonplace values I hold faith in. It is my misfortune that the public order governing my life has made a fraud of those values. I am having to work out a new order for myself to preserve them. Disconcertingly, my best allies in the task include branded groups of protesters and disrupters. They are no radicals either, though some of them like to think so. They are defending timeworn values like equity, freedom and self-respect: all they would change is the framework to contain them. It’s a hard agenda with many pitfalls. As for myself, no wonder I’m in a mess. It’s one way of staying alive.

The author is Professor Emeritus, Jadavpur University

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