Monday, January 19, 2009

Annus Horribilis

As a new year dawns on the horizons of our lives, so do new aspirations, new resolutions, new ambitions, and the most important of all, a new hope. In a time when our reason is being held hostage by non-stop, barbaric, commercial free television drama being played out in broad daylight for the convenience of everyone, hope is probably the lone thread that tethers our confidence in clichés like love and peace. For as Andy Dufresne rightly said, “Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies”. The task at hand, therefore, is not to set aside the last twelve months and forget about them. But rather, to learn from what happened then, so that we can effectively manage the tensions and conflicts within, hoping all the while that reason will prevail and the madness which has gripped our consciousness will come to an end.

In the past twelve months we saw fanatics from both the sides of the fence falling over each other. So while cadres from Bajrang Dal and VHP attacked villagers in Orissa for having converted to Christianity, terrorists struck with impeccable and brutal precision at the very heart of the country, striking down not only the poor and helpless but also the rich and mighty. And while old division lines became much prominent, new lines were drawn for reasons both selfish and petty. For the Bombay that our forces defended with spirit and gumption in November was the same one that Raj Thackeray and his goons from Maharashtra Navnirman Sena had sought to purge of the “bhaiyyas” only a short while ago. For while the MPs from the Telangana Rashtra Samiti resigned from their posts to demand the creation of a new state, ULFA militants set off a series of bombs in Assam to send a similar ultimatum to the government. Even Nature wreaked havoc in the Indian heartland and Bihar saw several millions of its inhabitants wading through waist deep waters, scouring the horizon for dry land and respite. But that is not where the buck stopped. The relatively stable domain of economy took a fall because of the global meltdown and the great Indian middle class became a victim of an uncertain future. The domino effect the Wall Street recession hit India hard, with jobs becoming scarce, firms asking workers to stay back at home for several days a week, and the BPO sector laying off thousands of employees.

No wonder that the past twelvemonth has been eliciting comments like “Thank God it’s over” from all and sundry. But was 2008 the annus horribilis indeed? Would matters be simpler if I were to list down years that were just as bad, if not worse? For a nation that has only recently celebrated 60 years of independence, the contenders for this dubious distinction are a plenty. Each one of 1984, 1966, and 1948 can vie for this honour with remarkable ferocity. For each one of these years was peppered with murder and violence, riots and rebellion, and uncertainty and distrust. However, it is only expected that a bias or prejudice will creep into any choice that we make. For instance, for a secular Indian no year was more nightmarish than 1992 or 2002, when the pogrom against Muslims was executed with utmost finesse and impeccable coordination. Indian citizens of the Sikh faith must be having the darkest memories from 1984. This predicament is only expected because India is not Sweden or Norway where everyone speaks the same language, follows the same faith, and no one is very poor. Never before has a single political unit been carved from such diverse and disparate parts. Moreover, because media tends to be biased in favour of spectacular, dramatic events, the citizen tends to do so too. As a result, many of the less visible sufferings of the even lesser visible people are conveniently ignored and forgotten. For even if the fidayeen had not attacked Bombay and Thackeray’s hooligans not taken law into their own hands, millions of Indians would still not have access to proper sanitation or civic amenities. Any choice that we make, therefore, must either take into account all these factions, or risk being labelled either parochial or broad.

Who is to decide, then, which year has been the most horrible of them all? Is it even feasible to do so? Will time throw up a new contender each passing year? As an unlikely democracy and an unnatural nation, India had always been destined for a bumpy ride. To compound the grievances, in its eagerness to make rapid strides towards development, India has neglected the fissures, factions, and tensions in its own society. These splinters have drifted so far apart that even in times of national calamity they find it hard to suppress their sectarian affiliations. Noted historian Ramchandra Guha remarks that “for India to remain united and untroubled would be a miracle. For it to be democratic and free of conflict would be doubly so”. Reflecting upon these troubles times, Ashis Nandy, a renowned sociologist, says “in India the choice could never be between chaos and stability, but between manageable and unmanageable chaos, between humane and inhuman anarchy, and between tolerable and intolerable disorder.” No wonder that I have been able come up with so many nominations for the dubious honour of annus horribilis. But does that mean India is doomed forever? Is there no way in which its chaos can become manageable, its anarchy, humane, and its disorder, tolerable?

In a society that is being torn apart along various lines, it is very important to seek out the breeding grounds of hatred. India remains a nation where legend, myth, history, tradition, and culture often overlap. Sometimes, Indians can not tell one from the other. What prompts the annihilation of innocent people in the name of God or regional diversity? Why new division lines continue to be drawn on some pretext or the other? The answers to these questions won’t be easy to come up with. However, it is essential we try to resolve these perpetual problems in light of reason and rationale. Even if the solutions prove to be detrimental to many of the notions we have adhered to most of our life. As the bureaucrats deliberate on methods of settling the variety of disputes, the cycle of violence rages on, varying in intensity and form. As it does so, new hostages to history are spawned, ensuring “that the future generations are taught new wrongs to set right” and even older wrongs to avenge.

Reference: Outlook (January 12, 2009)

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