Beliefs at the individual and collective levels drive human behaviour. All ideological systems including religion foster belief systems that promise a better future, only if one follows the prescriptions, are hypothetically distilled from human experience and wisdom.
The devotees who thronged to Jammu’s Vaishno Devi temple on New Year’s Day could have been driven by the idea that welcoming the new year in the presence of gods would hopefully bring about a joyful 2022. To those who are superstitious, the stampede that ensued and the tragic death of 12 devotees and injuries to many others, may give rise to a foreboding that 2022 can have other tragedies hiding in the folds of India’s future. Strategically, one does not need the gods to illuminate that possibility. A sombre reading of India’s external and internal political dynamics may be sufficient though, it is useful to caution ourselves with Roman philosopher Seneca’s advice – there are more things likely to frighten us than there are to crush us.
The China challenge
Externally, by the end of 2021, China-India relations, except for trade, continued to deteriorate. Some of China’s parting shots of 2021 are revealing. Amid the ongoing border dispute, a land border law meant for all its land borders was passed by China in October and it took effect on 1 January 2022. Its stated purpose is ‘protection and exploitation of the country’s land border areas’. Seemingly, China has 16 territorial disputes with various neighbours and it now views border disputes like its sovereignty. This leaves little room for giving and taking. Stabilising the China-India border and resolving the disputes will prove to be a far greater challenge.
On 30 December 2021, China renamed 15 places in Arunachal Pradesh. Given the exact coordinates, eight are located in residential areas, one is a mountain pass, two are rivers and four are mountains. India reacted through its official spokesman who recalled that a similar move was carried out in April 2017 and stated that “Arunachal Pradesh has always been a part of India. It will be an integral part of India. Assigning invented names to places in the Indian state Arunachal Pradesh does not alter this.”
On the same day, a political counsellor in the Chinese embassy wrote to some members of Parliament, which included a Union minister. He castigated them for attending a dinner reception hosted by the Tibetan Parliament-in-Exile. The undiplomatic action has been met with deafening official silence that speaks volumes of India’s propensity for pusillanimity in dealing with a bully like China. Inherent in such silence is the danger of China miscalculating India’s reaction to aggressive politico-diplomatic-military moves in 2022.
Deafening silence has also been the posture of India’s political class to the continued and increasing assaults on minorities that are also abetted by a largely pliant media. Official statistics have since long lost credibility. Therefore, even if a small percentage of the cases of attacks on Muslims and Christians, cow vigilantism, communal clashes, incitement through hate speeches, targeting places of worship, threats to inter-faith marriages and so on, detailed on websites like the Citizens for Justice and Peace are true, it should awaken the collective conscience of all Indians. There are certainly some who have chosen to stand up for what they consider to be assaults on India’s political stability.
In December 2021, some lawyers wrote to the Chief Justice of India to take suo moto cognisance of hate speeches; retired Service Chiefs, veterans, eminent citizens and activists wrote to the President and the Prime Minister and appealed that they should curb the menace of hate speeches. Several political commentators have also expressed their disgust on the inaction of the political leadership in power and those in the opposition. Yet, none of these has evoked any reaction, and there have been attempts at conversations with those who are deaf to these pleas.
To be seen in the company of those working against a Hindu majoritarian agenda is probably considered to be politically suicidal, especially when state elections are around the corner. The assessment probably is that India’s democracy should follow the wishes of the masses – it is considered a Constitutional right that must be allowed full expression.
The only problem with such a thought process is that it ignores the basic structure of Constitutional propriety that recognises the fact that India is a plural society where the State has no religion of its own, but allows full freedom at the individual and collective levels to practise any religion of one’s choice.
India needs a Mahatma
The truth is that the manipulation of India’s domestic politics has successfully enslaved the masses through political ideologies that have cleverly leveraged the natural addiction of Indians to religion. Aided by widespread institutional emasculation, national security has been weaponised to silence the voices of protest and neutralise those seen as working against the majoritarian agenda. The financial blow struck at Mother Teresa’s Missionaries for Charity is emblematic.
Character is the cornerstone of leadership. Perhaps the only way to rescue India from its politics is the emergence of a ‘Mahatma’ or a group of them, who can detoxify the masses from their addiction to religious extremism that conflates protecting their religion with the protection of India. When asked whether such a Mahatma or some such Mahatmas can emerge, a wise man, who has probably seen it all, replied, “Not yet, because the Mahatmas have either donned religiosity or are taking cover under it”.
Partition informs us that even when we are lost in a sea of hatred, we can return to sanity. But it is unlikely before the suffering and bloodshed get exhausted. How long this round will take, is anybody’s guess. A la Seneca – we may be frightened but should not be crushed.
Lt Gen (Dr) Prakash Menon (retd.) is Director, Strategic Studies Programme, Takshashila Institution; former Military Adviser, National Security Council Secretariat. He tweets @prakashmenon51. Views are personal.
(Edited by Neera Majumdar)