Our Generation’s Challenge.
Our generational challenge is out in the open. The events set in motion from the videos humiliating Muslims in Hindi Belt last summer to Haridwar Dharma Sansads to the ongoing segregation in schools of Karnataka to spread of denial of education to students on basis of hijab or turban, this challenge is obvious and self-evident.
People often ask how to measure the success or failure of a generation. To put it simply, the measure is: how many burdens and gifts that you received and passed to the next generation. If you gave either more gifts or less burdens, you succeeded and if you left behind lesser gifts or more burdens, you failed. Lee Kuan Yew’s generation and the one that followed him is one example of this success – the Singapore they left behind was far more prosperous and at peace with itself.
Embrace of Modernity.
Our ancestors made a promise to embrace modernity in 1947. Modernity is the historic condition when people are provided capabilities to pursue meaning of their own life freed from the accident of their birth. An authentic life, that has decidedly an element of choice and ownership of responsibility from those decisions, was what was promised to all Indians. Those promises became enshrined in our Constitution. The purpose of equality before the law (Article 14), prohibition of discrimination (Article 15), abolition of untouchability (Article 16), rights and freedoms (Article 19 and right to life and liberty (Article 21) together constitute the constitution’s promise that the State shall take all steps necessary to provide capabilities to all of us to live our lives as per our own meanings. As a corollary, the State is obligated to take steps to create an environment that allow these promises to become a reality.
In simple words, the embrace of modernity is adoption of authentic meaningful life. It is to enable each person to decide for himself/herself how he/she intends to live his/her life. This ranges from what he/she thinks in his/her mind, to how he/she dresses and speaks to choice of friends, association, vocation and residence. This together is the constitution’s promise of authentic meaningful life.
The Hindutva ecosystem, with RSS at its core and many similarly inspired groups and organizations, the largest being BJP, has since inception challenged this promise. Their oft-made claims of relativism – that if 1984 happened so why point out 2002 or that the Hindus are in danger or that for action there is a reaction – have unleashed a monster of fratricidal hatred and violence that is engulfing what is now the extended cow belt (that now includes Karnataka and parts of Maharashtra). Careless writers pretending astuteness ascribe these events as attempts at saffron polarization for votes. Yet, we as citizens need to call this out because if we don’t then we will fail as a generation. We will pass more burdens and less gifts than were given to us.
The crux of both Dharma Sansad and Hijab row is the promotion of a temperament of supremacism, puritanism and divisiveness. All the yarn weaved by them are utterly disconnected to reality and in direct contradiction to the Constitution’s promise. Remind yourself of the Kamra-esque uncle in your circle, a veritable Modipujak or Andhbhakt, who will say anything just to save the image of Modi or Hindutva project. To him, neither his own prosperity, employment, well-being nor cohesion of the very society he inhabits matters. In these arguments, one sees not the presence of any coherent logic or concern with evidence. One can only see surrender of reason to delusion.
The delusion is this: that India, our country, needs to reject our promise of modernity in favor of some pre-modern utopia. That, there are some people who are more ‘Bharatiya’ than the others – a classic purity-pollution thinking. Or, that Hindus are in danger as resources are being distributed across the society – a classic supremacist trope. All this is served with vilest divisiveness against Muslims, liberals, writers and anyone and everyone that speaks against them.
The Hijab debate.
Coming to Hijab row, Hijab is a piece of clothing that covers the head of a woman. The wearing of a hijab by one doesn’t prevent others from wearing their choice of clothing. Put it simply, it is a non-contradictory exercise of freedom. That is, if one woman wears a hijab, it doesn’t prohibit others from wearing something that they want. By way of analogy, a choice of clothing by a man, say a shirt with jeans, doesn’t prevent others from wearing dhoti or lungi.
As for those who point out that Hijab is not part of the uniform, it is a silly argument at best and disgusting quite frankly. For 70 years since independence, Muslim women have worn this garment without harm to anyone. It is only the communal politics unleashed under Modi since 2014 commencing with tacit inaction and loud silences from the times of cow lynching that has snowballed to today’s shameless targeting of girl students.
Those who claim that religion must be totally excluded from public education a la France must also then demand an end to innumerable mantras, lightings of lamps, red wrist-threads, photographs of deities, Brahmin threads, Sikh turbans and kirpans, Christian crosses and mangalsutras. Singling out Muslim women on account of hijab without such a commitment is plain hatred and in violation of equal of protection of laws specifically enshrined as a Fundamental Right.
Finally, those arguing against any religious clothing in school, I put to you simply, school is to prepare children for real life. In real life, people wear all types of clothing. It is therefore necessary that the schools impart an understanding of dignity in the decisions that are commonly made. Hijab is one commonly made decision.
And, in any event our society has not yet reached a point of consensus to thoroughly divorce their private life from public life. If a breach is indeed called for then it should start from that of politicians from using these private choices as means of propaganda. Put simply, a call for leaving behind pre-modern birth-based identities must commence from a point of offering many possibilities rather than through brute impositions of homogeneity by force of law.
Constitution’s Promise of Meaningful Life.
A great debate is ongoing within the society where people shirk away with the words that ‘we are neutral’. Indifference to political events is understandable with regard to ordinary policy decisions but not regarding very foundations of our Constitution.
Children deserve to experience friendships and yes, fighting too. Which child has not fought, argued and had eyes full of tears after a bad day with his/her peers? But they are about the issues that children have: who gets to bat first, who gets to eat the chocolate, who scored more marks in exams and the like. By injecting a fragile and narrow world view into the minds of children, these societies are set up for scarring that would continue to next generation.
The hopes to experience authenticity is increasingly at risk to become beholden to a very narrow-minded and fragile perspective. This is contrary to the Constitution’s promise which embraces a breadth of mentalities. The only barrier being that it should not prevent others from devising a life of their own. That is, each is to be free to decide for himself/herself what to make of his/her life as long as it doesn’t disturb other’s freedom to pursue their lives of meaning.
And in this search for their lives’ goals, dreams and meaning, they can borrow from ideas of a community or infuse their own originality. Hijab is one such valid exercise just as eating biryani or not eating garlic or wearing a turban or a body tattoo or something completely out of purview of injunctions of existing religions. This is the promise of authentic life made to every Indian by our ancestors who brought us into the modern Republic. And this is our gift that we have to bequeath to our next generation.
Choice of clothing, very much like a piercing of ear or nose are non-contradictory decisions that do not prevent others from exercising their own decisions. The present discourse would benefit from this question: “Will you be able to show to your next generation with pride the humiliation of young girls in schools of Karnataka?”
For nine years, in my conversations regarding Hindutva, I have met with responses ranging from escapism, mild neglect to the naïve labels of ‘anti-modi’ or ‘anti-hindu’ and even the repulsive ‘deshdrohi’. And I have insisted then as I do now that know that the future will ask you that after 70 years of independence and peaceful living, how our society fell into abyss of fratricidal hatred. Make sure that they hear that you stood against that tide. We owe our next generation at least the very gifts that we ourselves received – an opportunity to live our lives with our own meanings.
Hersh Sewak is a lawyer by profession and is currently pursuing doctoral studies at Faculty of Law, University of Copenhagen.