In his classic novel, The Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dic-kens had a wonderful, quotable beginning: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”. It was one sentence that moved across the spectrum from despair to hope. It also provides almost novelistic quality to time. Unfortunately, 2015 had little of that epic tenor that summons a Dickens or a Tolstoy. It was a middling year, year of doubts and footnotes, but the beauty was that the footnote often derailed the grand narratives of policy. The year began with the BJP-led government on the ascendant. It was history’s new juggernaut. Whenever Prime Minister Narendra Modi was in doubt, he went abroad, to renew himself in the NRI mirror. He returned home reassured. 2015 began as the year of the majoritarian regime when the idea of the majority — usually treated as an abstract or backstage category, sanctified as the general will — got flushed out as Hindutva, chauvinistic and middle class. It was a time in history where India’s complex, confused, diverse pluralism could be brushed aside.
The year began as a period of silence where a little was said and a lot left unsaid — that even the gossip mills of our media remained jaded and tired. Words like national security, prosperity, patriotism had silenced civil society and bully boy groups, representing the great consensus, were mushrooming across India. Civil society experts realised that these vigilante groups focused on security, sustainability and sexuality. Individuals like Dinanath Batra and his NRI cohorts were deciding what is good history and pretending that the syllabus and the Constitution were “tinkerable” items. Vigilante groups in Manipal were harassing young students walking on the beach holding hands, contending it was “unIndian”. When a Hindu-Muslim pair was found on the beach, the Muslim boy was inevitably harassed or beaten up. The hoarding on the beach said it all: “Be educated. Do not hold hands.” This philistinism culminated in the silence over Dadri murder, where an innocent man was murdered merely on the suspicion of consuming beef.
While India watched like a silent spectator, it was connecting events. The murders of rationalists M.M. Kalburgi and Narendra Dhabolkar were treated dismissively by the regime. Dadri and then rationalists. It was as if the regime was indifferent to murder. If agricultural suicides could be brushed aside, the murder of two rationalists seemed a miniscule affair. It was a moment in India that reminded me of the Nazi period with its contempt for certain kinds of culture. The standard story is that of Goebbels, the minister of propaganda who said that when he heard the word culture, he reached for his gun. Goebbel’s response, though well-known, is not the creative one. Economic historian Alexander Gershenkron said that “when he heard the guns, he reached for his culture”. That is precisely what Nayantara Sahgal, Ashok Vajpayee and other intellectuals did. They reached for their culture, without bothering whether it was Hindi or English.
Sahgal’s letter was both a footnote and a flag of protest. She pointed out quietly that as a writer she could not remain quiet over the death of another writer. Her responsibility as a writer and as a citizen demanded she mourn him, tell a story, move the community to challenge the conspiracy of silence. Sahgal combined a writer’s ethics to a writer politics and suddenly other writers joined in driblets culminating in the event of the year — the protest of writers. It was wonderful to watch as the protests multiplied, each producing its own anarchy of protest, of concern for the syncretic legacy of India. Filmstars like Shah Rukh Khan and Aamir Khan joined in and the responses of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh or the Shiv Sena were predictable. They were told to leave the country, as if RSS or Shiv Sena were planning to decide who is and will remain a citizen. It was an implosion of culture that the government had not witnessed. It was a wonderful moment for democracy as a few internal bubbles of protest had broken through a thick-skinned regime. In fact, 2015 is the year of the writers and the writers’ protest. Their letter captured the imagination of India, but within the sense of hope there is a slice of doubt.
Democracy needs dialogues and what the writers did was protest. We are still far from debates reaching through to the other. As the debates around the Bengaluru festival showed, what we got is a parallelism of intolerance, two mutual words of intolerance content with each other. The movement from protest to debate is the next part of the democratic process. One thanks the writer as the storyteller, historian and novelist for sustaining the unconscious that keeps India what it is. It is the beginning. One must thank the writers for keeping word and world intact.