Police officer Gagandeep Singh is a man from a minority saving another from a majority mob. We’ve allowed the binaries to blunt our perceptions to an extent where we need images like these to jolt us.
The image was a striking one. A young man in a khaki uniform facing down a wild-eyed, rabid mob as he protected the man they were after. It’s the kind of image that defines a certain time in a nation’s life, especially a time when the khaki uniform has lost some of its sheen.
We should see this image of police officer Gagandeep Singh in textbooks in a few decades, taking its place next to the pictures of the Independence struggle and those of Emergency.
The idea of a Sikh police officer saving a Muslim man from a Hindu mob shouldn’t have this communal connotation attached. He was, like he said himself, just doing his job. But the sheer fact that this is out of the normal, in the way we describe our status quo, should elicit worry not pride in the way we see our nation.
Imagery is a powerful tool for agenda-setting. It shapes a discourse that can change the course of history and inform our reading of it.
But why are we reacting in such delight to an officer who was just doing his job? Because, we find such wholesome expressions of solidarity so rare that we cling on to them and make gods out of decent people. We don’t stop to question why this is an aberration, and not the norm. We don’t wonder why we are so taken in by the image of a saviour. We don’t wonder why we are so starved for one. What Gagandeep Singh did should be our reality, and an event to applaud and move on from. His bravery should have been a reaffirmation of our ethos as a people, not an unusual paradigm we stare at. Decency and kindness should be our mainstay, not headlines.
India, built on the promise of secularism and religious freedom, has, at least in theory, aimed to be a country where minorities can exist with multiple identities without compromising on any of them. Our preamble strives to afford dignity to all its citizens – an ambitious ask for a country that has always struggled with basic humanity and rights. It’s a massive project, and therefore, one that must be cherished and protected.
The last few years have seen a faltering of this vision. The country’s loudest, most vicious narratives try to position it as a ‘Hindu’ answer to Pakistan’s Islamic identity. It’s a rousing, simplistic chorus that many people find easy to join in. It’s powerful because it asks its participants to suspend their own individual journey towards tolerance and temperance. The Nehruvian idea of a ‘scientific temperament’ comes to mind, which is not just about formal education. It’s a mindset that involves critical thinking and, more importantly, a constant reiteration of the fact that the ‘other’ has as much a right to exist as ‘we’ do.
Slowly, this complex, demanding structure is giving way to one without the intricacies or delicacies. The imposing fortress built of hatred and anger, in which many Indians are now living in, seems almost impenetrable. People inside it simply shun the idea of celebrating differences. This isn’t a new sentiment, of course. But this is possibly the first time it may not have the opposition that has historically kept it in check. Our reserves of rationality have been sucked dry by a toxic barrage of trolling, fake news, and relentless stream of bad news.
It’s this sense of despondency and exhaustion that make cases like Gagandeep Singh’s stand out so starkly.
‘Simple’ social identities are dangerous because they allow for this reality to not exist. It makes people see Gagandeep Singh’s act of courage as an isolated choice. Instead, we should be looking at the violence against minorities for what it epitomises – a man from a minority saving another from a majority mob. We’ve allowed the binaries to blunt our perceptions to an extent where we need images like these to jolt us.
It’s time to ask how we can change this.
Harnidh Kaur is a poet and feminist.