In what feels like a parallel life devoid of the ugliness of the present, I enjoy watching the Doctor Who series. It’s just a fun wholesome sci-fi show, where an alien who just goes by ‘Doctor’ travels through time and space in a machine which from the outside looks like an old British police box.
The Doctor dashes through time and space dealing with one trash fire after another, spending a lot of time on Earth, protecting it from all kinds of alien invasions. The Silence is one such group who takes over the earth. They are described as a religious order. The creatures themselves are really just people sized versions of the Edvard Munch painting, The Scream, but without the cute button-like eyes. Particularly spine tingling are the powers that allow them to take over the world and control people. As soon as you are turned away from them, all memory about them is wiped out from your brain. But before you turn, they are able to implant a message in your brain which is the only thing you end up remembering from that interaction. If this is an action like ‘Call your mom’, you will be compelled to do it without knowing why you’re doing it. I imagine it feels like walking into a room and not remembering how you got there.
This is frighteningly like what the world feels like today. We just seem to be moving from one moment to the next with no memory of how we got here. One moment we are made to look at frightening economic figures – the loss of jobs, the drop in sales – and we’re thinking, ‘How ever are they going to fix this economy?’ The next moment we find ourselves neck deep in justifications for a siege on our own people. It’s like somebody is putting on a grand show for us and all we can do is react to it. How did we get here? Who is directing this show?
Many of us have long realized how dangerous and toxic the BJP-RSS agenda is and have no trouble drawing that link to Modi himself. We are equally aware and intimidated by the political juggernaut that he is. It doesn’t help that the media has capitulated. Arrayed against any political opposition that stands against him are most of the media houses. These are the filters through which we get information about the world.
Civic opposition is neutralized by other means. Disparate souls suffering because of the whims of governmental decisions are further alienated by these dispensers of truth when they are continuously told how popular Modi is and how much he is doing for the country. Some of us are privileged enough to not feel the pinch, but simultaneously not callous enough to believe that it is somehow not important.
In the convent school I attended where nobody ever tried to convert me, every morning, we said the pledge. You know the ‘All Indians are my brothers and sister’ stuff. Some of us grew up believing this, taking it for granted even. Until recently, I had never consciously thought about the fact that in my school group, as a Hindu, I was in the minority. Recently, for the first time, I thought about wishing my school friends on Eid. Resolutely atheist, for years, I have never actively wished anybody on Diwali or Christmas or any other religious festival for that matter. But suddenly for me the Muslim identity of a person has taken on a vulnerability it didn’t used to have. How did we get here?
Every time Modi or the people who seem to have free reign in his India do something terrible a vanishingly small part of me hopes this is the last time. That at least now, his supporters will realize how terrible his regime is and how toxic is the ideology he represents. But we have seen marches in support of rapists. A terror suspect in parliament. We have seen Muslims and Dalits beaten every other day. We have seen a minister garland people out on bail. Hate has gone viral. A clear and simple formula has emerged for a problem I had hoped wasn’t so easy to solve. How to rob people of their humanity: convince them they’re the only ones that have it. But how did we get here?
There were definitely rumblings of this Hindutva terror in my childhood. It just didn’t fit with the world I was seeing around me. The roads were getting wider, fly-overs were getting built, and religious festivals were being celebrated with ever louder aplomb. The world was supposed to have been getting better, freer, and wealthier. A few kinks here and there remained: corruption, pollution and personal liberties, but that was just a matter of time before they too were straightened out, right? So how did we get here?
It was only after Modi was elected that my political education really began. In a way, I have Modi to thank for my political education. If it weren’t for him, I would have never read Ambedkar or Bhagat Singh or engaged with leftist ideology. Through the mushrooming of the now innumerable digital voices of dissent that still question the government my knowledge of India’s political history deepened and I had many preconceptions challenged. My grasp on the macro-socio-political and historical reasons for Modi’s victory is informed by several readings on the history of the RSS, India’s rightward shift in economic terms as well as a growth of right wing religious groups in different parts of the world – not to mention an understanding of capitalism itself. So although Modi’s actions in Kashmir shocked me, I by no means found them out of character. It was just another scene we the spectators were being directed towards.
These big events happen on the surface. Somewhere deep down, the Silence was at work, making people forget these things, implanting in their heads justification after justification; telling them which way to spin the undeniable truth. WhatsApp groups and YouTube channels were pushing a radical agenda while mainstream media was trivializing politics.
With Kashmir, once again, India found itself staring into the ugly face of the Silence and I naively told myself, this time surely people will raise their voices, this time they will make those connections, they will remember their humanity. But the minute they turned to look at each other, the memory had vanished and all that remained was a bunch of political spin.
In the history books Modi’s move on Kashmir will sit seamlessly alongside the acts of other occupying forces in the world from the British to the Americans and Israelis. Jarring, however, will be the cheers and the justifications for authoritarianism. Grotesque will seem the celebrations for prospective Kashmiri brides.
Every time India forgets the silence as soon as it turns around, those of us who can’t forget, are faced with the same depressing conclusion. The RSS and the BJP (now flush with donations) have been slowly over decades preparing the grounds for this moment. The jingoism and blind support for the military. The religious chauvinism paraded around as freedom of expression. The deepening of Brahmanical hegemony. The low-level bigotry that before Modi, nobody expressed aloud. And the slow but steady demonization of Muslims.
The Doctor’s companions do some digging into how deep the invasion of the silence goes. What can be done about them? To keep track of every time they saw one, they began drawing tally marks on their arms. Later in a dramatic scene where the extent of the Silence’s influence is revealed to us, the Doctor, played by Matt Smith says, ‘They’ve been in your lives for a very long time. We’re not fighting an invasion, we’re leading a revolution.’
Part of the BJP and RSS’s success has been its grassroots level organization. Consequently they have been able to embed themselves into the fabric of India and they have managed to amplify some of the worst tendencies of Indian society. The most disturbing among these has been the mainstreaming and normalisation of deep authoritarian tendencies. Even a cursory study of Dalit literature will give you ample examples of the ways in which Indian society curbs individual liberties. Maintenance of the caste system requires that individuals stick to the prescribed zones of operation ascribed to them at birth. Too much intermixing could lead to interbreeding, which would destroy the caste system. You are told your place and everybody else makes sure you don’t forget it. From childhood, we are told what to do and questions are forbidden. Even in school, where we are meant to learn, all that happens is the dictation of terms and lessons. There are no points for understanding and thinking outside the box. As long as you can memorize the text and spew it onto the exam sheet, you will make it through school. When you don’t get into college, you can blame the reservation system for destroying meritocracy. These are some of the deep currents that have shaped a couple of generations of privileged urban Indians. No wonder we have been robbed of the ability to question our government. Nobody taught us to value it in the first place, so we never fought for it.
In this society I have been screamed at and threatened in the streets for holding a girls hand. Also seen on the streets is the sight of a man beating his wife – no questions asked. These things have been accepted as normal for a long, long time.
A society balkanized by caste and religion is a society where we don’t feel another’s pain. Such a society with half its population kept under tight lockdown for the crime of being women, a society where love is demonized and violence is normalized, a society robbed of all culture of protest and dissent, can be robbed of everything else too.
In the show the doctor does defeat the silence, of course. One of his accomplices manages to capture a member of the silence on video confessing. It says, ‘We’ve been ruling your lives since your lives began. You should kill us all on sight. But you will never remember we were even here. Your will is ours.’ They then manage to hijack the TV broadcast of the Apollo mission and beam the video to everybody watching it, which, at least in America, must have been a lot of people. Ultimately the Silence were destroyed by their own most powerful tool.
In 2019 in India, there are new rules. Drawing tally marks on yourself to keep track of the silence might get you charged with terrorism under new UAPA amendments – no questions asked. If you try to reach out to the world about the atrocities of the government on your people, they will impose other draconian laws like section 144 or AFSPA.
Meanwhile those of us who cannot forget the silence are increasingly feeling isolated and scared for what the future holds.
Even so, I believe we must keep hope alive. Even at its most ineffective, hope is an act of defiance. In a different time, on a different continent and in what was originally a different language, the inimitable Eduardo Galeano sings of hope and resilience under dictatorship:
“Extermination plan: destroy the grass, pull up every last little living thing by the roots, sprinkle the earth with salt. Afterwards, kill all memory of the grass. To colonize consciences, suppress them; to suppress them, empty them of the past. Wipe out all testimony to the fact that in this land there ever existed anything other than silence, jails and tombs.
It is forbidden to remember.
Prisoners are organized into work gangs. At night they are forced to whitewash the phrases of protest that in other times covered the walls of the city.
The steady pelting of rain on the walls begin to dissolve the white paint. And little by little the stubborn words reappear.”
Siddhant Pusdekar is currently pursuing his PhD in Ecology at the University of Minnesota. He is from Pune, Maharashtra and can’t wait to get back home. His interests include: science, politics, literature and activism. Email: email@example.com