India rests in pieces

Urvashi Butalia | Updated on June 22, 2018 Published on June 22, 2018

In the name of the country: “Nehruvian socialism, however much it was discredited later, was something that made us proud”   -  PIB/THE HINDU ARCHIVES

How can the expression of shared grief make a government insecure? And who has the right to stop anyone from mourning with the bereaved?

Shujaat Bukhari was shot as he left from work in the evening. Every report of his murder mentions that he was on his way to an iftar party when the assailants took his life, as if the fact that he was shot then makes his death somehow worse. And yet a killing is a killing no matter when it takes place.

In life, Bukhari could be counted among the dwindling numbers of journalists who are both willing and able to stand up for their beliefs, and who are often, like him, the voice of reason. In death, he joined that growing tribe of journalists and writers who are silenced for articulating their beliefs.

Bukhari was accompanied by two bodyguards at the time of the attack. He had received death threats and knew his life was on the line. In death, the two men joined the increasing numbers of protectors who become as vulnerable as the people they guard. They often remain nameless and unknown. Yet their deaths are as tragic, as wasteful.

At some point, I am guessing, the police will probably catch the murderers. The men — this much seems to be known, that they were men — will be tried, they may or may not be convicted, they’ll go to prison and yet another tragic story will be done and dusted.

I did not know Bukhari well although I had met him a few times and recall some good conversations. When, as publishers, we began to publish books from Kashmir, he became an important resource. The news of his killing shocked and distressed me, just as that of the murder of Gauri Lankesh. I did not know Lankesh either, although I had met her and knew of her. And yet, I felt their deaths keenly, not only for what we are so rapidly losing in terms of freedom to think, criticise and debate, but also because of the terrible loss of people who are that important thing — good human beings.

What do these growing number of deaths mean for India, this country that in one way or another we love but where it is now becoming difficult to survive if you do not toe the line? I don’t have an easy answer to this. What I do know, and this is not rocket science, is that the fabric of any society is woven and held together by small, daily acts of inclusion, tolerance, friendship, learning, and all this seems to be slipping away.

When we were children, nationalism was a good thing. Nehruvian socialism, however much it was discredited later, was something that made us proud. Unlike other postcolonial countries, we made everything of our own — every product had the mark ‘Indian’ stamped on it. Yes, things were not as glamorous as they are now, and you were not spoilt for choice, but you felt you were a part of the experiment called India.

In one way or another, even as faultlines developed, the experiment sustained. When Delhi turned into the site of a pogrom against Sikhs in 1984, hundreds of citizens — across religions, colours, genders, and castes — came out to express solidarity, to provide support. And no matter how indifferent the administration (they did precious little themselves), they did not stop people’s expressions of solidarity, or the outpouring of grief and the contributions to relief and rehabilitation.

Today, you can’t even do this. Recently, when a group of concerned people took out what they called a ‘Karvaan e mohabbat’ — to extend the hand of friendship and solidarity towards families who lost members to hate crimes — they were stopped from doing this, from participating in an act of common humanity. How can the expression of shared grief be a threat? And who has the right to stop you from expressing this, from sitting down with someone who has lost a child, a father, a sister, and say, ‘I feel your pain too’?

So much is changing these days, so much seems to be slipping away. An important part of this is shared humanity, something that allows us to empathise with the pain of others because without that, there’s little left. But it seems that even this has become hostage to new expressions of a kind of militant nationalism and political opportunism. Meanwhile our leaders and politicians who are supposed to represent us, no matter which party they belong to, and who are supposed to stand in defence of the law, do nothing. Or maybe that’s not entirely correct: They do something. They remain silent. And they remain wilfully blind to the threat of an increasingly lawless society in which all institutions are compromised.



Urvashi Butalia is an editor, publisher and director of Zubaan;

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Published on June 22, 2018
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