At Stake, India As A Civilised Society

Updated: Sep 29 2002, 05:30am hrs
Yet another outrageous and condemnable act of violence has been perpetrated in the name of religion. The attack on the Swaminayaran temple in Gandhinagar, Gujarat, is one more in the gruesome saga of revenge killings Hindu militants against Muslims and Islamist militants against Hindus. The victims are always innocent men, women and children usually the poor and the defenceless who cannot afford secure homes or personal bodyguards.

What is new, you may ask. Some months ago, defence minister George Fernandes asked, What is new about rape Yes, communal violence and rape have been with us for many years. What is new is that, as the years roll on, there are more and more such incidents, but there is less and less shame amongst us, at the individual level as well as collectively as a nation.

Every human being is a bundle of likes and dislikes, preferences and prejudices. He or she grows up and imbibes values (or devalues). It is something like economic goods and bads. Psychologists have emphasised the role of the family, schools and peers in the shaping of the values (or devalues) that a person acquires through life. A person can be moulded, his values can be enhanced and he can be helped to discard the devalues. Books on leadership and management attempt to do precisely that. Some individuals are more successful than others and that is what distinguishes them from the rest.

Many years ago, my teacher of social psychology, Professor Abraham Zaleznik, told our class that the psychological make-up of an individual rarely changes after the age of 50. Observing life and individuals, I have found this absolutely true. In a rare case, a person may go through a cathartic experience after the age of 50, and that may change him forever. Some examples come to my mind (as I am sure to yours), but these are individuals who lead private lives and their names must therefore remain confidential.

If a child grows up in a home or school environment that is exclusive and that burns into the childs consciousness that he belongs to a particular religion or race or caste, that child will grow into an adult carrying a burden of dislikes and prejudices. I am afraid, thanks to the ghettoisation of our towns and cities, and even our villages, more and more children are growing up in such exclusive environments. More and more homes are becoming exclusive. Inclusiveness is an item that is fast disappearing from our personal lives. Look at your childs friends. Look at the birthday parties she attends. Look at the soaps that you watch together on your television set. People Like Us and People Like Them are phrases that have become part of so-called civilised discourse.

The nation may perhaps survive if our individual hates and prejudices remain private and under control. But if each one of us gangs up with those who share the same hates and prejudices, and together unleash violence upon others, can the nation survive For many years, we harboured the comforting illusion that such collective expression of prejudice was a failing of the poor, the unemployed and the illiterate. Gujarat shattered that illusion. Pictures of middle-class and wealthy residents of Ahmedabad raiding shops and carrying away the loot in their cars exploded the myth that we are a civilised society.

Post-Gujarat, I have witnessed how shame, remorse and contriteness have vanished from the so-called civilised sections of society. Friends have told me about their friends who justified the violence in Gujarat. There were reports of doctors boycotting or refusing to serve patients belonging to a certain community. It seemed as if the hates and prejudices at the individual level had been raised to a collective level, and there was no longer any sense of shame in giving expression to those dark and despicable instincts.

What has the government done in these past four years By word and action, it has enshrined majoritarian values as Indian values. It has set up Pakistan as an object of hate and the source of all our troubles, be it a train accident or a temple attack. The governments supporters have insidiously substituted Muslim for Pakistan. The Islamist militants are to be blamed no less. They have deliberately identified themselves less with the Indian nation and more with some elusive Pan-Islamic world community. They have set up the BJP and Advani in particular as an object of hate. The government is clueless on how to deal with these dangerous developments.

The choice of the Swaminayaran temple in Gandhinagar, Gujarat, as the target of attack seems deliberate and motivated. Lord Swaminayaran is regarded by his followers as an incarnation of Lord Vishnu, the protector. Gandhinagar is the constituency of deputy prime minister and home minister Advani. And Gujarat is the laboratory where Narendra Modi and the RSS and VHP are carrying out their experiments in ethnic cleansing. The Islamist militants seem to be taunting the people we will retaliate and attack you and let us see if your god or government can protect you. It is a bait to which, I fervently hope, the majority Hindu community will not rise. Because, if they do, it will only lead to a chain of reprisals. Being numerically stronger, the Hindu militants may be able to inflict greater damage upon their perceived enemies, but a numerically smaller group can also inflict significant damage through carefully targeted attacks. Gandhiji said, An eye for an eye will only leave the whole world blind.

There was a similar situation in Punjab in the 80s. Through a mixture of firm measures and reasonably good governance, the situation was brought under control and the dangerous trends reversed. Throughout this turbulent period, the Congress in Punjab remained an inclusive political party. The BJP has learnt no lessons from our experience in Punjab; nor is it able to throw up any new ideas.

The Indian nation has crossed 50 years it is 55 years old. Is the socio-psychological make-up of India becoming set and rigid Will there not be a change for the better Are we waiting for a cathartic experience to shake us out of the present dangerous drift The answers to these questions may determine whether we will remain a civil and civilised society.

(The author is former Union finance minister)