Looking around one comes across a kind of darkness that seems to be descending on the country. It is somewhat like what the Nobel Laureate, VS Naipaul, described in his travelogue, “An Area of Darkness”, but, perhaps more forbidding as it is occurring in the second decade of the 21st Century. Ominous, as it seems, the thought processes of our people seem to be consciously and unrelentingly heading towards the medieval ages. Although it cannot be reckoned as the sign of the times when serious efforts are under way to achieve material progress, yet many societal aberrations strongly suggest that regressive tendencies are getting free play.
Suppression of women’s freedom and their abuse appears to be gathering strength. The “Khaps”, a sort of socio-political village grouping, have become active again and are issuing dictat that are reactionary to the core in the prevailing atmosphere of freedom in a modern democratic society. The “Khaps” and their agglomerations, “Sarv Khaps”, were, for ages, instruments of administration in the village republics of north-western India comprising the modern northern Indian states of Haryana, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. From time immemorial the Indian society has been organised around the village unit and the republican fabric of the village administration did not die out despite the emergence of subsequent systems of administrations. However, with the establishment of panchayats (village councils) “Khaps” lost much of their significance.
Yet, these seem to be functioning in some pockets and from time to time are issuing uncompromising dictat, mostly on norms of marriages and against women. Though archaic, their power and influence continues to be formidable. A young couple of Kaithal district in Haryana was done to death in 2007 for marrying for love. They happened to be from the same gotra (clan), and were from the same village. Unacceptable to the “Khap”, the couple was murdered despite an order from the state high court for provision of police protection for them. Recently, in Baghpat district of Uttar Pradesh (UP), in a Taliban-like fatwa, the “Khap” of Asara village banned love marriages, prohibited women below 40 from shopping and from using cell phones outside their respective homes. Appallingly, some local political parties came out in support of the “Khap”. Even the new young and well-educated chief Minister of the province parried questions and avoided condemning the fatwa, thus indirectly turning a blind eye to the sinister system that could take the community back to the dark, medieval ages of patriarchy.
Women, generally, are at the receiving end all around the country. Earlier this month a 20-year old girl was molested and stripped by a gang of around fifty hoodlums as she came out of a bar with friends in the eastern city of Guwahati in Assam. A Hindu extreme right wing outfit, Sri Ram Sene (Army of Lord Ram) had organised an assault in 2009 on girls in a pub in Mangalore. One couldn’t believe the visuals as the rowdies physically attacked girls injuring some of them, whose fault was that they had gone to the pub – something the Sene, apparently, consider being against the tenets of Hinduism. Its aim is to bring back the traditional Hindu society in which women were properly wrapped up in yards of cloth and confined to the kitchen, obediently serving every need of their husbands and their families.
A similar tradition-bound society is what Naipaul encountered during his travels through the country that he undertook to discover his roots. He put down his observations, in his travelogue “An area of darkness” published in 1964. That was more than fifty years ago, only about a decade and a half after the country’s independence when it was emerging out of centuries of imperial rule and was still in search of an identity. Highly religious, caste-ridden and tradition-bound, he found a stagnating India. Gloating over its ancient glory, it was indifferent to material progress. Guided by the theory of Karma, the country wallowed in poverty, squalor and filth. Its leaders were disinterested in material progress and oblivious of the economic revival taking place apace in the war-ravaged countries. Contented with the “Hindu rate of growth” of around 3.5%, they appeared to be blind to the human misery that surrounded them. For a Trinidad-Indian living in England, brought up on the staple of Indian folk-lore that were laid on with layers and layers of romanticism, the actuality of the physical, social and spiritual visuals of his mother-country that Naipaul got hit with was a big let-down.
That very same construct appears to be making a re-appearance. The society seems to be getting radicalised and religious bigotry is striving to occupy centre stage. Radicalised fringe elements of both the major religious groupings have had successes in brow-beating the government into submission. While, the same Sri Ram Sene goons raided in 2008 an exhibition of the paintings of internationally famous Indian artist MF Hussain and vandalised them, some Hindu extremist groups, by way of threats to his life, ensured that the artist lived out the rest of his life in exile.
Taslima Nasreen, a Bangladeshi doctor-turned-author, exiled from her country for authoring an allegedly undesirable literary work was forced out of India – her country of refuge – in 2008. After having come under physical attack from a Muslim political group in Hyderabad in 2007 she was forced out of Kolkata by radical Muslims under the threat of death. Kept under what she described as “unendurable” (virtual) house-arrest in New Delhi for months by the Centre, Nasreen later thought it best to leave the country. India-born Booker-prize winning author Salman Rushdie came in for somewhat similar treatment in 2012 for authoring Satanic Verses published 24 years ago that allegedly mocked Prophet Mohammed. Under pressure of Islamic fundamentalists he was prevented from attending the “Jaipur Lit Fest”. In all these instances the weak-kneed governments of the states and the Centre deliberately did not adopt their avowed secular stand and played along with the fundamentalists for reasons that were patently political.
Apart from competitive radicalism pervasive corruption is overwhelming the country; it has gone viral and has infected every segment of the society – from industrialists to businessmen, from traders to tradesmen, from politicians to the bureaucracy right across their various levels. Billions from public funds have been siphoned off by politicians, bureaucrats and industrialists, throwing cold water on the much-acclaimed sizzling “GDP growth”. Ethical values had, probably, never plumbed such depths. With hardly any sign of governance law and order are on a long holiday. Loots, kidnappings, thefts, molestations and rape are routine. Dalits are frequently tormented, even murdered; their women are raped and humiliated.
What one sees all around is a shade that is much darker than what Naipaul happened to see.