Feminism, Politics

Planned parenthood shootings and the future of pro-Choice debate

Ever since reaching the age of conscience — that is becoming a twenty-somethings for me, I was always at the pro-choice side of the debate than pro-life. I still am, but perhaps the hard pro-choice stance, which could often be misconstrued as anti-life, had softened over the years, especially during and after the birth of our first child. As we went through various stages of my wife’s pregnancy, and looking at numerous books showing how the fœtus must be doing and looking like, it made me realise that taking a stance for or against abortion on an absolute basis is not as straightforward because of the multifaceted nature of the issue. The two opposing camps have always waged a battle against each other, trying to undermine the views of the other side, and an empathic reconciliation has never taken place. I must admit, taking the pro-choice side, I have always been cognizant and critical of the pro-life arguments, and therefore, rightly or wrongly, I thought that the pro-life argument has always been very loud and desperate to win over supports, compared to the pro-choice campaigns. Adding the religious dimension on pro-life, the arguments also appeared seemingly outdated. The recent Planned Parenthood shootings took the perennial debate to a new and dangerous level, where people would be ready to kill the dissidents. Planned Parenthood shootings demonstrated the root of this rift between the two warring camps transcends the bias or prejudice of the pro-life campaigners and it delves into their identity, religion, race and other dimensions.

Growing up in 80’s India in a middle-class background, discussions around sex was limited to sex education classes in a handful of private schools. Beyond that, everything was discussed behind closed doors. Whilst women still had their mother or other motherly figures to turn to, men ended up in a much worse situation with no sexual education apart from turning to porn or that one famous friend who magically managed to have some sex. The concept of abortion was taboo, partly due to religious and societal paradigm and partly due to lack of knowledge and government help. The contraception had just started to dawn on people, as an alternative to accepting each pregnancy with joy or stress.

With such a background, my first encounter with abortion was through opening of a new Marie Stopes Clinic in Calcutta — in lush green parkland, I often visited. Before the privatisation and swank private hospitals, the edifice of Marie Stopes clinic was a shining beacon of private healthcare. On various advertisements and at the entrance of the building showed a sign ‘Infertility clinic’. Although I wasn’t very familiar with the term infertility, I guessed what it was after a few years, whilst reading John Grisham, Erich Segal and Sidney Sheldon, coming across the term “back-alley butchers”. It was perhaps those late teen years when I first realised the trauma, social stigma and persecution surrounding the issue of abortion.

A banner from Marie Stopes clinic in India
Source: Marie Stopes Clinic India website

During my first thirty years of life in India, the issue of abortion revolved around gender and religion, than personal choice in most of the time. India had had a long history, especially in the majority Hindu caste system, of a patriarchal society, and thereby treating women as a burden to the parents and men as the breadwinners as well as the superior genders. Birth of a girl child not only meant a lifelong debt for the family to afford the dowry to “marry off” the girl but also an end to the family line, carrying the family surnames and the heritage forward into the next generation. For the age-old despicable dowry system, the birth of a girl child was unwelcome and often resulting in the parents keeping on having children until they had a boy, or in the worse case, female infanticide in rural areas. With the advent of modern medical science, detection of the gender of the foetus gave rise to another malicious practice — predetermination of the sex and termination of the foetus if it was a girl. It was only in the nineties that the government decided to act and banned the prenatal sex determination to abolish sex-selective abortions. Before this rule was passed by the Supreme Court of India, millions of women have been subjected to inhuman treatments — from quacks prescribing unknown drugs and herbs to the back alley butchers — it was not just the foetus that was terminated, but the mothers ended up permanently unable to have children any more, leading to another societal stigma of being infertile, or worse, being killed in the termination process. Not to mention the social trauma of going through the experience without any support to avoid drawing neighbours’/extended families’ attention. The sex-selective abortion was not as dominant in the Muslim population, but apart from religion, the Muslim community was and still is primarily patriarchal like Hindus; thereby putting preference on the male child. If the Muslim women were not protected by the Islamic rules, the gender superiority, often observed in a Muslim household, would have forced many more women into terminating the foetus due to the societal preference of gender. Marie Stopes and similar clinics provided a professional and compassionate alternative to women through the period before the actual procedure. However, in an urban setting, with possibly extortionate prices, this may have provided an alternative to only a handful of women from an affluent background. The suffering for the rest of the women still continued until the Prenatal gender detection was banned.

However, amongst the Gen Y population in the urban areas, with education and more liberal points of view compared to the previous parochial generations, the taboo of abortion was much less stigmatised than before. The conversation amongst men and women were more open, although the areas such as sex, abortion, pregnancy, period were still veiled under secrecy – only being revealed to the close confidantes. In the late ’90s and early 2000s, abortion in the urban setting was discussed more openly and people were aware of the modes of contraception, and the morning after pills in case of unprotected sex. The fact that the medical help is available to discuss termination of unwanted pregnancies itself lifted a weight off the women from the new generation. Nevertheless, the plight of rural women continued with illegal street-side health centres mushrooming in small towns ready to carry out gender test under the guise of checking the health of the foetus. These clinics also carried out abortions as an outcome of the gender determinations. In the urban areas, however, abortion started to become a choice finally, rather than an imposition from religious or social situations. The women did not shy away discussing the technical details with the doctors and get a professional opinion on the methods of abortion based on the stages of pregnancy. It became a question of more women having specific plans for the future and a child did not fit in that plan, nor was there any impulsion to continue with pregnancy by mistake for the rest of the life. Even though the question of abortion was becoming a question of choice, the secrecy and shame have not been lifted entirely, and it appeared that if the female fœticide factor is removed, the number of Indian women choosing to have aborted a fœtus was still small.

When I emigrated to Western Europe, I expected the number of pro-choice people would increase significantly. On the contrary, what I found from the media, is that society is more pro-life orientated. In fact, a report showed that Western Europe has the lowest abortion rates in the world at 12 per 1000, whilst Eastern Europe top the list with approx 43, and the rest of the world is scattered somewhere in between. My initial ideas of more liberal places to have more liberal views on burning issues like abortion were shattered. It was expected that the percentage of the population pro-choice in the USA would be relatively low due to large conservative republican belts, but finding the rates for Western European was entirely perplexing. However, the more I acclimatised with the Western European society, the reasons became clearer for the low rates.

First, entire Western Europe has a phenomenal welfare system in place, including healthcare and its access to the majority of the population. Apart from religious grounds and misogyny, perhaps the biggest factor for women deciding on abortion is their financial situation, the affordability of providing for another life. The welfare system ensures that that worry is taken away, and the parents/ mothers get state allowances for each child to cater for their needs. The healthcare and education are free as well for children and this may have swayed the women to carry on with the pregnancy. Second, the quality and value of life are seen at a different perspective in Western Europe compared to many places in the world. That the fœtus is still a living organism with possible feelings and sensations make people less willing to carry on with the termination. The education and behavioural aspect of treating living beings with compassion perhaps deter many of the expectant mothers terminate the fœtus. Third, and this perhaps applies to numerous women in developing countries where premarital pregnancy is still a social stigma that resulted in abortion. In Western Europe, the social stigma around children outside wedlock or single parenthood is nearly abolished other than pockets of orthodox conservative regions/communities. Also, the religious bias and the doctrines from Christian and Muslim — the two biggest communities excluding atheists, are against abortion; hence, regardless of the strong affiliation to a religion, people generally tend to live by the religious values and thereby deciding against their choice to abort the fœtus.

The previous few sections described how the observations regarding abortion spanned a large number of wider aspects such as religion, economic situation, values, lifestyles etc. However, that only represents some possible reasons why abortion rates vary across regions and the factors influencing that difference. The main debate of this article between pro-life and pro-choice camps. So, what can be observed from the pro-life and pro-choice campaigns across the countries and various places?

One fact is very clear that neither of the sides is very accommodating to the views of the other nor are willing to lose any ground. The pro-choice campaign obviously gathered momentum with more number of women becoming independent in the patriarchal society and growing number of liberal voices in favour of leaving the decision to the woman, who is actually going to carry the child. The pro-choice supporters, however, at times, go beyond their primary objective of letting the mother choose whether to keep the baby and meddle with branding the pro-life activists as primitive, oppressive and authoritative. With such adversity and acrimony, the purpose of the pro-choice movement is often lost. Often the pro-choice movement appears as a reactionary pressure group against the provocative pro-life campaign. On the other hand, the pro-life campaign has held the moral high ground since the religious texts existed. The life was treated as a gift of almighty God that humankind cannot refuse. Certain texts define the time when the fœtus transforms to life and be considered as containing a soul, thereby prohibiting it to be terminated. Since then, the rhetoric has kept being evolved and the tactics adopted by the pro-life campaigns on the present-day still are passively coercive, and abominable. Apart from making the women feel continuously guilty by reiterating the “life” and “feeling” of the fœtus in various contexts — be it the pædiatrician telling what the baby can and can’t feel at different stages, or the numerous pregnancy books charting the fœtus’ progress from the first week, or the sensationalist media heralding every celebrity childbirth as cover story. The inherent message is quite succinctly delivered as though motherhood is the pinnacle of a woman’s identity. Apart from such implicit anti-choice messages, there are direct actions to discourage abortions, such as legislation for doctors to make women listen to the fœtus’ heartbeat before termination, banning entities supporting abortions from public schools, or in case of recent Planned Parenthood clinic, a reduction in state funding. Whilst writing this article, I came across an article about how thousands of women travel from Ireland to England to have abortions, as abortion is illegal in the republic and punishable offence in Northern Ireland. The political bias is in most cases conservative — irrespective of the parties implementing the policies, to avoid losing public support as the majority in Western Europe are still pro-life. The pro-life campaign had successfully stigmatised abortion through such connotative and explicit actions. And since this process has been going on across generations, children grow up accepting that is the only version truth, not following the norm is tantamount seceding being a model person.

As the voices against such organised brainwashing became louder, the pro-life line of attack changed its subtlety and started direct threats to the activists supporting pro-choice or the clinics carrying out abortions. There have been incidents of violence against pro-choice such as mob raids, arson and bombing at abortion centres in the past with the authority turning a blind eye on the perpetrators. On 27th November, a man entered a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs and opened fire killing three people and injuring many more. After a long stand-off with the police, a certain Robert Dear was arrested, yet he is only referred to as a suspect. Where police shoot innocents in other parts of the USA based on their colour or ethnicity, it was surprising how Dear was arrested without any injury despite the gravity of the attack, and the police are still very silent about convicting him. During his interview, it was rumoured that he mentioned “no more baby parts”, the same words shown in the media coverage on a series of sting operations at Planned Parenthood Colorado Springs centre, allegedly giving body parts to the research laboratories after the abortion. Although Planned Parenthood categorically denied the claims, the link between these sensationalist media coverages and the shootings cannot be denied. The aftermath of the shooting was even more shocking and only proves what significance do women’s rights held in the USA. Rather than passing stricter gun control laws or providing extra security for other clinics, the state authorities defunding for the Planned Parenthood clinic, citing legislation that abortion is not family planning! Each year governments pass numerous legislations, debated by male-dominant parliaments and committees, and the majority of such legislations are anti-choice, taking funding away from clinics, discussing parenting and prenatal developments to women undergoing elective abortions, and many other small measures that are seemingly insignificant but collectively undermine the pro-choice rights and options.

I have mentioned at the beginning that going through my wife’s pregnancy for our first child was an amazing experience and it moderated my views on abortion from hard pro-choice to pro-choice with some appreciation for the fœtus that develops at a phenomenal rate. Whilst sex-selective abortions should be banned as legislated in India, taking a point from the pro-life campaign, never mind the soul, but the fœtus should only be terminated up to a period when it does not experience pain. On the other hand, is there any medical research that can unequivocally say when it starts having feelings? Aren’t most of the existing literature regarding childbirth focus on how wonderful the phenomenon of birth is? Don’t they almost emotionally blackmail a pregnant woman about choosing to continue with the childbirth? The answers aren’t probably straightforward, and in the end, abortion could be a stressful procedure, both mentally and physically. How I interpret it is, that the pro-choice argument, contrary to how it is portrayed as an anti-life campaign, is not about preaching the killing of fœtus at all, but merely presenting a choice to women whether they would want to continue with their pregnancy. It’s all about removing the social stigma of abortion and as a result passively force women to continue with the pregnancy. Pro-choice is about the way of life, where one always has the two options unanimously and chooses to take the path as desired by their plans for the future. Abortion should be a natural question and scenario to be discussed with the paediatrician where they could ask the woman if she wants to keep the child, as well as the women, should expect the question and not be offended by the suggestion of termination being an option for the pregnancy.

Pro-choice is still a utopia in this present world. Whilst pro-life campaigners turning more violent with time, and the governments bringing more legislations that are anti-choice, the pro-choice movement does not have the momentum to effect the change in public psychology nor the legal side of the matter. It will need more campaigns, more people speaking out about abortion rather than treating it shameful and taboo. People like Jex Blackmore, who, through her Unmother diaries, shared experiences undergoing an abortion and the stereotyping she experienced. The campaign needs to be loud enough to be heard beyond the closed doors of the parliaments, so one must be vociferous about their support to the pro-choice campaign, but at the same time, hostilities towards pro-lifers would not help achieve the objective. However, I hope that with time and more liberalisation of the society, a pro-choice society will not be a far-fetched dream but a reality of tomorrow, despite the trials and tribulations and demonisations of today…

PS: I believe abortion and the pro-choice campaign is a feminist agenda at present, rather than humanist, and I am unsure how and where a cis man like me, with their prejudices, should stand. Reading from various contemporary newspaper articles and blogs, it appears that one arm of feminism is completely anarchic – it treats even men supporting feminism to be patronising, and thus consciously or unconsciously emboldening their patriarchal nature. I cannot argue against that school of thought, as not being sure what a man’s position should be on issues such as this. The other line of thought is more classical feminism, where women fight for equality and earn it rather than the male-dominant society divesting the powers to women as they pleased. With that line of thought, I could identify myself as a feminist or humanist supporting equality on all fronts. From that aspect, I would treat this as a feminist blog, but if this does appear patronising, I apologise in advance for my ignorance.

Education, India, Politics

The Guardian article on Vyapam scam in India: A tale of greed, corruption and lies

Last night I had a dream. It was about unknown suburbia in India, with its crowded and bustling roads full of old buses, vans and rickshaws. I was with one of my colleagues but had no idea what we were doing there, and we were lost, away from the city we were meant to be. The incessant din, multicoloured two-storey houses, political graffiti on the walls and the web of power, telephone and cable TV lines above our heads were reminiscent of an India that was evolving in the new millennium, yet far away from the shiny edifices of Gurgaon and Bangalore, or the super-fast highways in Bombay. We ended up in a train station, but the name of the station was nowhere to be seen. A train trundled into the station, and we boarded the train without knowing where it’s heading to. We were meant to be looking for the first or second class cabins but just rushed into the general class. Inside the compartment was dark, despite a bright day outside, and it was crowded like any other passenger train in India. I was desperate to find out where we were, to know which way to go. In the vapid heat inside the train, people giving us a little more room seeing my colleague struggle in the crowd, I made a last-ditch attempt to read the station name – leaning over the barred windows, as the train started to speed up, leaving the platform. The first time I read a name, it did not make any sense, and even in my dream, it felt absurd. I looked again, and it read like “Coal Nagar”. I know this does not exist, but in my dream, that name brought back all the information we needed. Coal Nagar was a suburb of a big city called “Anjar”, another imaginary place, but situated in Madhya Pradesh, and the city map flashed in my mind. As the train lazily chugged along the busy suburban landscape of houses, bazaars and scooters, we knew that Anjar is only a few miles away, and we will soon be in Anjar, then find a mode to get to Delhi and then back to the UK. The sepia themed dream ended there, as we headed off towards Anjar leaving the unknown flurry of vibrant imageries, rapidly transforming in front of the barred windows, yet leaving an indelible stamp in my heart of an India I had never experienced.

I have not been to many places in Madhya Pradesh, yet that dream immediately connected the imageries to the central Indian state. The images in the sepia background instantly reminded of the film “Manorama six feet under”, both telling the tales of a forlorn India — far away from the new open market era image projected to the world, but still the epicentre of the present identity of India. A busy town, with a strong connection to the rural surrounds, yet brimming with dreams and aspirations to escape the confines of the place to move forward to the bigger cities, inviting them with all their allures of 2BHK apartments and urban myths transgressed through hearsay of the people, who made it to the big cities.

It was an interesting coincidence when I came across this article shared in The Guardian this morning. As I started reading the article, wonderfully narrated in a crime thriller pace of storytelling, the same images, still vivid from my last night’s dream, immediately struck my mind. It was a déjà vu of the “Manorama…”, a web of crime unfurling in a sedate township and the sandy sepia coloured background. Anjar in my dream is not Indore, but there is no reason why it can’t be. Yet, in the dream, whilst there was a life awaiting me outside the small township, this article instead divulges a sordid story of power, greed, corruption and shallow political exploitation of the Indian rural and suburban youth aspiring to break free the shackles of caste, class, religion and life long struggle. A vortex that consumed the futures of hundreds and thousands of youth coming from a rural background.

Vyapam scam unfolded in the summer of 2015, when I was barely coping with tremendous pressure at work, and hence, most of the developments around the investigation past me by. This report may appear a bit long, but the narrative keeps the reader interested throughout and tries to analyse the findings from many different perspectives. Although the memories, left in the sepia-tinted past, would evoke a sense of nostalgia, as the story unfurled, it divulged the primitive tooth and claw sides of the Indian politics and the web of corruption spanning not just a vast state but entire central India.

I believe in the boundless possibilities and talent in India, and want to see the potentials fully utilised to thrive, not just as a country, but benefit the entire world. Yet, I wonder when that day would come when scams such as this will be buried as the skeletons of past in that new shining India…

A sculpted pencil by the Russian miniature artist Salavat Fidai.
Photograph: WENN
Source: The Guardian
Full article below:

The mystery of India’s deadly exam scam

Life experience, memories, Nostalgia

টেবিল টেনিস, অথবা নিছক ভুতের গল্প

সেটা ১৯৯৭ সালের কথা, তখন জলপাইগুড়িতে ইঞ্জিনিয়ারিং পড়ছি প্রথম বর্ষে। বসন্ত কাল, পরীক্ষা-টরীক্ষা নেই কাছেপিঠে, হাতে তাই অফুরন্ত সময়। যারা প্রাকৃতিক দৃশ্য ভালবাসে, আমাদের ক্যাম্পাসটা তাদের জন্যে সোনায় সোহাগার মত। উত্তর দিকটা জুড়ে ডেঙ্গুয়াঝাড় চা বাগান, সেদিকে তাকালে যতদুর চোখ যায় সবুজ আর সবুজ, আর বাগানের বুক চিরে চলে গেছে রেললাইন উত্তর-পূর্বের রাজ্যগুলোর দিকে। পশ্চিম জুড়েও চাবাগান দুরে, তার আগে করলা নদীর ওপর রেলব্রিজ। ক্যাম্পাসের পশ্চিম আর পূর্ব দিক দিয়ে এঁকেবেঁকে বয়ে চলেছে করলা আর রুকরুকা দুই নদী। বসন্তকালে চা বাগানের দিক থেকে বয়ে আসে দারুন মৃদুমন্দ হাওয়া, উত্তর দিকে ডুয়ার্স আর তার ওপরে পূর্ব হিমালয়ের হাতছানি নিয়ে। যে রাতটার হাড় হিম করা ভয়ংকর অভিজ্ঞতার কথা এখন লিখতে যাচ্ছি তার জন্যে এই বসন্ত কালের পরিবেশ ছিল আদর্শ পটভূমিকা।

আমাদের এক নম্বর হোস্টেলের একতলায় উত্তরের দিকে ছিল একটা বড় কমন রুম, যেখানে হোস্টেলের সবাই সময় কাটাতে আসত। কমন রুমে ছিল একটা কালার টিভি, গোটা তিন ক্যারাম বোর্ড আর সেই লিস্টে নতুন আমদানি একটা ঝাঁ চকচকে টেবিল টেনিস বোর্ড। কমন রুমের দরজার উল্টোদিকের দেয়ালে, টিভি স্ট্যান্ডের পাশে আরেকটা ছোটমত দরজা। সেই দরজার পেছনে একটা ছোট্ট ঘর, আমরা বলতাম নিউজ রুম। সে ঘরে ছিল খালি একটা দেয়াল জোড়া বড় টেবিল আর দুপাশে দু সারি বেঞ্চি। নিউজ রুমের পেছনের দেয়াল জুড়ে খড়খড়ি দেয়া জানলা, যেখানে তাকালে তিন নম্বর হোস্টেলের রাস্তা তার পর থেকে চা বাগান শুরু। নিউজ রুমটা ছিল হোস্টেলের পড়ুয়া ছেলেদের খবরের কাগজ পড়ার জায়গা। ঘরটা খোলা হতো ১২টা থেকে ৪-৫টা অবধি, শনি রবিবার আরেকটু আগে থেকে। তবে খুব বেশি লোকজন যে ব্যগ্র ছিল সারা বিশ্বের খবর জানার জন্যে তা বললে ভুল হবে। ঘরটা বেশির ভাগ সময় ফাঁকাই থাকত।

যে সালটার কথা বলছি সে বছর টেবিল টেনিস খেলার একটা ধুম পড়েছিল হোস্টেলের ছাত্রদের মধ্যে। স্পোর্টস ফান্ডের টাকায় এলো নতুন বোর্ড, তার সাথে বেশ কিছু নতুন ব্যাটও। আমরা ফার্স্ট ইয়াররা থাকতাম থার্ড ইয়ারের ছেলেদের সাথে, কাজেই কমন রুমে একটা অলিখিত নিয়ম ছিল যে থার্ড ইয়ারের ছেলেরা খেলা, টিভির সামনে সিট এসবে প্রথম চান্স পাবে। টেবিল টেনিসেও তাই লম্বা লাইন পড়ত খেলার জন্যে, সেখানে থার্ড ইয়ারের ছেলেদেরই অগ্রাধিকার, যদিনা কেউ দয়া করে ফার্স্ট ইয়ারের কুচোকাঁচাদের একটা গেম খেলতে দিতো। ফার্স্ট ইয়াররা খেলার চান্স পেত রাতের দিকে যখন সিনিয়াররা পরের দিনের সেশনাল বা ব্রিজের আসর নিয়ে ব্যস্ত হয়ে পড়ত। আমার রুমমেট ছিল তথা – তথাগত বামুন, আমরা দুজনেই টেবিল টেনিস খেলার জন্যে খুব উৎসাহী ছিলাম কিন্তু রোজ রোজ অনেক রাত অবধি অপেক্ষা করেও খুচরো এদিক ওদিক এক-আধটা গেম ছাড়া কপাল খোলেনি। আমাদের তিন নম্বর রুমমেট বিক্রম ছিল তুখোড় টেবিল টেনিস খেলুড়ে তাই শেখার গরজটা আমাদেরই  বেশি ছিল।

ঘটনার সূত্রপাত এরকমই এক রাতে যখন আমরা ঠিক করলাম যে যথেষ্ট হয়েছে সেই রাতে এসপার-ওসপার হয়ে যাবে। পরদিন ক্লাস থাকা সত্ত্বেও ঠিক করলাম যত দেরিই হোক না কেন সে রাতে কমন রুম ফাঁকা হওয়া অবধি অপেক্ষা করব তারপর টানা যতক্ষণ ইচ্ছে প্র্যাকটিস চালিয়ে যাব। প্ল্যান যে কাজ করছে সেটা বোঝা গেল সাড়ে এগারোটা নাগাদ কমন রুম ফাঁকা হতে শুরু করায়। ক্যারম বোর্ডের আলোগুলো একে একে নিভতে শুরু করলো, বোর্ড ঢাকা পড়ল নেভি ব্লু কভারে। টিভি তখনও চলছিল তবে দেখার লোক বলতে গোটা দুই। হাতে গোনা কয়েকজন ফার্স্ট ইয়ার রয়ে গেলাম টেবিল টেনিস খেলার জন্যে। প্রতিটা গেমের পর অন্যদের সাথে হাত বদল করছিলাম কিন্তু সবাই আনাড়ি তাই একটা গেম পাঁচ দশ মিনিটও টিকছিল না। রাত সাড়ে বারোটা নাগাদ শেষ জুড়ি ঘুমোতে চলে গেল, রয়ে গেলাম তথা আর আমি। ফাঁকা কমন রুম, টেবিল টেনিস বোর্ডের মাথার ওপর টিমটিম করে জ্বলা আলো, আলো-আঁধারী তার মাঝে চুটিয়ে শুরু হলো দুই আনাড়ির টেবিল টেনিস প্র্যাকটিস।

ঠকাঠক ঠকাঠক। ব্যাট আর বলের আওয়াজ প্রথমে কানে না আসলেও খানিকক্ষণ পর শব্দটা একঘেয়ে বিরক্তিকর লাগতে শুরু করলো। অনেকে বলে টেবিল টেনিস খেলাটা সবচেয়ে কঠিন, রিফ্লেক্স খুব ধারালো না হলে এ খেলা রপ্ত করা কঠিন। কিছুক্ষণ খেলার পর সেটা আমরা হাড়ে হাড়ে টের পেতে শুরু করলাম। হাত পা শরীরচর্চার অভাবে ঝনঝন করছে, তবু জেদের বশে চলতে থাকলো রেলি। ঘড়ির কাঁটাগুলো একবগ্গা ঘুরে ঘুরে সময় বয়ান করতে লাগলো একটা দেড়টা দুটো, আমাদের খেলার উৎসাহে ক্ষান্তি পড়লনা তবুও। নিশিগ্রস্ত মানুষদের মত আমি আর তথা চালিয়ে যেতে লাগলাম সার্ভ স্লাইস স্ম্যাশ। আমি খেলছিলাম কমন রুমের পেছনের দেয়ালের দিক থেকে, আর তথা ছিল দরজার দিকে। আমি যতবার জিতছিলাম রেলিতে বলটা গড়িয়ে গড়িয়ে কমন রুমের বাইরে চলে যাচ্ছিল তাই দরজাটা ভেজিয়ে দিয়ে আবার শুরু হলো প্র্যাকটিস।

আমাদের একঘেয়েমি ভাঙলো তথা সার্ভ করতে গিয়ে হঠাৎ থমকে দাঁড়ানোয়। ওর দিকে তাকিয়ে দেখলাম যে ও আমার পেছনের দেয়ালের দিকে কিছু একটা দেখছে। একে এত রাত তার ওপর সময় নষ্ট, জিজ্ঞাসা করলাম

– কিরে সার্ভ করছিসনা কেন? থামলি কি কারণে?

চোখ না সরিয়ে তথা উত্তর দিল

– মনে হলো কিছু একটা যেন নড়ছিল ঐ দরজাটার দিকে।

তথার আঙ্গুল নিউজ রুমের দরজার দিকে নির্দেশ করছে।

– ধুর ওখানে আবার কি নড়বে। পোকামাকড় হবে।
– তাই হবে। হয়ত ল্যাম্পের আলোটা কোথাও রিফ্লেক্ট করে চোখে পড়েছে।

আবার শুরু করলাম খেলা কিন্তু ঠিক করলাম যে তিনটে গেম খেলব কে জিতবে ঠিক করার জন্যে, তারপর রুমে ফিরে যাব।

প্রথম গেমের মাঝপথে তথা একটা স্ম্যাশ মারলো, সেটা ফেরাতে পারলামনা, বলটা গড়িয়ে চলে গেল কমন রুমের পেছন দিকে, টিভি আর নিউজ রুমের কোনটায়। বল কুড়িয়ে ফিরে আসছি হঠাৎ চোখ তুলে তথার দিকে তাকিয়ে চমকে উঠলাম। ও আবার আমার পেছনের দেয়ালের দিকে তাকিয়ে, চোখ বিস্ফারিত খানিকটা বিস্ময় খানিকটা আতঙ্ক জুড়ে ওর মুখে চোখে। ছোটবেলা থেকে গাদা গুচ্ছের বই পড়ে পড়ে রজ্জুতে সর্পভ্রম আমার স্বভাব, তাই ছোটখাটো ঘটনাকেও মনে মনে তিলকে তাল করে ভয় পাওয়া আমার কাছে নতুন কিছু নয়। তবু সেই রাত্রে তথাকে ওভাবে অবাক চোখে তাকিয়ে থাকতে দেখে মনটা ছ্যাঁত করে উঠলো আমার। যতই ঘাবড়ে যাইনা কেন, এই মুহূর্তগুলোতে অ্যাড্রিনালিন শরীরকে হঠাৎ সজাগ করে দেয়। সময় থমকে দাঁড়ায় সব ঘটনাবলী বিচার করে সঠিক সিদ্ধান্ত নেয়ানোর জন্যে। মাথা তখন লজিক খুঁজতে শুরু করে, অলীক কান্ডকারখানায় তার তখন কোনো আগ্রহ নেই। সেরকমই সেই মুহুর্তে দাঁড়িয়ে তথার দিকে তাকিয়ে জিজ্ঞেস করলাম

– কিরে আবার কি হলো?
– নিউজ রুমের তালাটা নড়ছিল।
– ধুর কি যা তা বলছিস।  তালা আবার নড়বে কি করে? আলো রিফ্লেক্ট করেছে সেটাই দেখেছিস হয়ত।

ভেবেছিলাম তথা বলবে আমার পেছনে কেউ ছুরি হাতে দাঁড়িয়ে আছে। সেটা বললে প্রাণ খাঁচাছাড়া হয়ে যেত। ও যখন বলল তালা নড়ছে, মনে আবার স্বস্তি ফিরে পেলাম। তালা আবার কি নড়বে! খানিক বীরপুরুষের মত যাচাই করে দেখার জন্যে ফিরে গেলাম দরজার কাছে। নতুন স্টেনলেস স্টিলের তালা দরজার কড়া থেকে ঝুলছে। নড়াচড়ার কোনো চিহ্ন নেই। তবে হ্যাঁ টেবিল টেনিসের টেবিল থেকে এদিকটা দেখতে যেমন লাগছিল এখন দরজার সামনে আলো আঁধারীতে দাঁড়িয়ে চারপাশের অন্ধকারটা যেন একটু বেশিই গাঢ় মনে হচ্ছে। বেশিক্ষণ দাঁড়িয়ে থাকার কোনো ইচ্ছেই নেই ওই ভুতুড়ে ছায়া আবছায়া ঘেরা কোনে, তাই তথাকে হেঁকে বললাম

– দেখ তালা যে কে সেই কিচ্ছু নড়ছেনা এখানে। ভুল দেখেছিস। চল এই গেমটা শেষ করে শুতে যাই, অনেক রাত হলো।

তথাও দেখলাম নিশ্চিন্ত যে চাক্ষুষ যাচাই করে নিয়েছি আমরা তালা নড়ছেনা।

ফেরার জন্যে সবে দুই পা বাড়িয়েছি হঠাৎ তথা বেশ জোরে অথচ আতঙ্কগ্রস্ত চাপা গলায় বলে উঠলো 

– হনু ওই আবার নড়ছে।

এত চেষ্টা চরিত্র করে মনটাকে যে শান্ত করেছিলাম সেটা আবার নিমেষে উধাও হয়ে গেল। যেন ছুরিওলা আততায়ী আবার আমার পেছনে এসে দাঁড়িয়েছে। গায়ের তো সব লোম খাড়া হয়ে গেছে ঘামে ভেজা হওয়া সত্ত্বেও। নাড়ি দৌড়চ্ছে উর্ধশ্বাসে, তবু কোনমতে মনে জোর এনে আবার বললাম

– নড়ছে মানে? ইয়ার্কি মারছিস না তো এত রাতে?
– মাকালীর দিব্যি।  ওই দেখ আবার নড়ছে তালাটা সরে আয় তাড়াতাড়ি।

এটা শুনেই হাড় হিম হয়ে গেল আমার। কমন রুমে খালি আমি আর তথা দুজনেই পনের বিশ ফুট দুরে যখন তথা প্রথম বার দেখতে পেয়েছিল। তালাটা যদি নিজে নিজে নড়ে তাহলে সেটা যে ভৌতিক কান্ড তা আর বলার অপেক্ষা রাখেনা। তা সত্ত্বেও পালাবার আগে একবার দেখে নেয়ার উৎকন্ঠা সামলাতে পারলামনা। পেছন ঘুরে দাঁড়ালাম নিউজ রুমের দরজার সামনে। তালা আবার আগের মত ঝুলছে, নড়ার কোনো চিহ্নই নেই। বামুনকে খিস্তি মারব বলে ঘুরতে যাচ্ছি ঠিক সেই সময় চোখের সামনে যা ঘটল তার বর্ণনা এখনো পুঙ্খানুপুঙ্খ মনে রয়েছে। তালার থেকে আমার চোখ হয়ত পাঁচ ফুট হবে মেরেকেটে, অত কাছ থেকে ভুল দেখা সম্ভব নয়। তালাটা যেন হঠাৎ কোনো জাদুমন্ত্রে প্রাণ ফিরে পেল। প্রথমে একটু নড়ে উঠলো, তারপর তলার হুকের দিকটা কড়ার মধ্যে থাকলেও তাকে কেন্দ্র করে তালার মেন বডিটা ঘুরে উপরের দিকে উঠতে লাগলো – প্রথমে আসতে আসতে, তারপর বেশ তাড়াতাড়িই। তালা যখন থামল তার যাত্রা শেষ করে, চাবির দিকটা আমার চোখের সামনে। চাক্ষুষ একটা তালা ঘুরে নিচের দিকটা উপরে হয়ে দাঁড়িয়ে, নিউটন সাহেবের মাধ্যাকর্ষণ নস্যাৎ করে।

আমাদের জীবনে এরকম অনেক মুহূর্ত আসে যেগুলো কখনো চেষ্টা করেও ভোলা যায়না। ৯৭য়ের সেই রাত্রির সেই মুহুর্তটাও সেরকমই এক ক্ষণ যখন নিজের অস্তিত্বকে মনে হয় অবান্তর, মনে হয় এতদিন যা শিখে, জেনে, বিশ্বাস করে এসেছি এক লহমায় তা ভেঙে চুরমার হয়ে গেল। তাত্ত্বিক যৌক্তিক সত্ত্বাটাকে জলাঞ্জলি দিয়ে মনে ঢুকে আসে ভয়। ঠিক সেই সময়টাতে ভয়কে যেমন ভাবে প্রত্যক্ষ করেছি, সেরকম জীবনে এখনো অবধি আর কখনো হয়নি। ভয় এসে যেন সারা শরীরটাকে বিকল করে দিয়ে গেল। রূপকথার জাদুর ছোঁয়ায় বা মেডুসার চোখের চাহনিতে মানুষ যেমন পাথর হয়ে যায়, সেরকমই যেন পা দুটোকে কেউ ফেভিকল দিয়ে মেঝেতে এঁটে দিয়ে গেছে। সম্মোহিতের মত তাকিয়ে রইলাম ছায়া আবছায়া ঘেরা টিমটিমে আলো পড়া তালাটার দিকে, যেন সেটার ওপরই নির্ভর করছে আমাদের ভাগ্য, তালা খুলে গেলে দরজার ওপারের প্রেত জগৎ গ্রাস করে নেবে আমাদের।

– হনু পালা। ওই ঘরে ভূত আছে।

সম্বিত ফিরে এলো তথার গলায়। ও কথা শেষ করার আগেই আমি আদ্ধেক রাস্তা পেরিয়ে এসেছি। ব্যাটগুলো ছুঁড়ে ফেললাম বোর্ডের ওপর কিন্তু কড়া নিয়ম সব আলো নিভিয়ে কমন রুমের দরজা লক করে তবেই যাওয়া যাবে। কতক্ষণ লেগেছিল সেগুলো সারতে মনে নেই, খালি মনে হচ্ছিল প্রতিটা সেকেন্ড দেরী করছি তালা লাগাতে, ওপারের থেকে আমাদের দুরত্বটাও কমে আসছে বেশ খানিকটা করে। কমন রুমের বাইরে আলো একটু রয়েছে সিঁড়ির কাছে সেখানে সব ছাত্রদের সাইকেল রাখা। দৌড়তে গিয়ে দুমদাম পড়ল দু চারটে সাইকেল, তখন আমাদের দাঁড়িয়ে সেগুলো খাড়া করার সময় নেই। সিঁড়ি থেকে অন্ধকার করিডোর দিয়ে উর্দ্ধশ্বাসে ঘরে ফিরে দরজাটাকে যত ভাবে সম্ভব এঁটে কান খাড়া করে দাঁড়িয়ে রইলাম কিছু শুনতে পাওয়া যায় কিনা দেখতে। বুক তখন ধড়ফড় করছে, ওপারের জগতের থেকে কয়েক গজ দুরে ছিলাম সেটা ভেবেই হাড় হিম হয়ে রয়েছে তখন, চোখের সামনে রিপ্লে দেখতে পাচ্ছি তালাটার চলাফেরা। তবু মন জানতে চাইছে ঠিক কি ছিল দরজার পেছনে। নিউজ রুমে কি কেউ কখনো আত্মহত্যা করেছিল? নাকি এরা চা বাগান আর করলার দিকে ধানক্ষেতে গুমখুন হওয়া আত্মা, চাঁদনি রাতে চা বাগানে ভেসে বেড়ানো প্রেতকুল? রুমে ফিরে আমি আর তথা অনেক বিচার করে দেখলাম যে আমাদের বিভ্রান্তি বিন্দুমাত্রও কাটেনি বরং বেড়েছে। তবে আর একটা ব্যাপারও মনে হলো তখন। পরদিন লোকজনকে বললে যে তারা আমাদের প্রচুর খোরাক দেবে তা তখনি পরিস্কার হয়ে গিয়েছিল, আমাদের রক্ত জল করা অভিজ্ঞতা যে আর কেউ বিশ্বাস করবে তা একবারের জন্যও মনে হয়নি। সে হোক বা, আমরা এটুকুই ভাবতে পারছিলাম তখন যে আমরা দুজনেই একটা ঘটনা প্রত্যক্ষ করেছি যার কোনো যৌক্তিক ব্যাখ্যা আমাদের নেই। কি ছিল সেটা জানতে না পারলেও এই ঘটনাটা মনের মধ্যে গেঁথে গেল চিরদিনের জন্যে। তালা ভুতের সেই ঘটনা আমার জীবনের স্মরণীয় মুহূর্তগুলোর মধ্যে একটা। চোখ বুজলে এখনও দেখতে পাই সেই আবছায়া ঘেরা কমন রুম, চেয়ার থাম এসবের ছায়ায় ঘেরা নিউজ রুমের দরজা, শুনশান রাতের নিস্তব্ধতা আর এসবের মাঝে খাড়া হয়ে দাঁড়িয়ে থাকা একটা তালা – অধিভৌতিকের চরম অভিজ্ঞতা। মন তবু প্রশ্ন করে সেই রাত্রে ওই দরজার পেছনে কি ছিল? খেদ রয়েই গেল যে সেটা জানতে পারলাম না। যদি পারতাম তবে কি আজ আমি থাকতাম? কে জানে।

পরিশেষ: কি ছিল দরজার পেছনে সেই রহস্যের যবনিকা উঠলো পরদিন। যেমনটা আশা করেছিলাম ঠিক তাই। যতজনকে বললাম আমাদের অভিজ্ঞতার কথা সবাই অনেক ঠাট্টা করলো। এসব নাকি ছিল আমাদের কল্পনা আর গোঁড়া কুসংস্কার। দুপুরের দিকে একদল ফার্স্ট ইয়ার আমাদের টানতে টানতে নিয়ে গেল কমন রুমে। উদ্দেশ্য প্রমান করা যে আমরা ভুল দেখেছি। আমাদের যাবার কোনো প্রবৃত্তি ছিলনা তাই পেছনে দাঁড়িয়ে রইলাম, বাকিরা প্রবল উৎসাহে দরজার সামনে দাঁড়িয়ে জরিপ করতে লাগলো চারদিক। হঠাৎ সেই ভরদুপুরে আমাদের দু জোড়া নয় একগাদা চোখের সামনে তালা আবার ওপরের দিকে ঘোরা আরম্ভ করলো। অতিউৎসাহীর দলের সেই উচ্ছ্বাস নিমেষে মিলিয়ে গেল, সবাই যে যার মত দরজার দিকে দৌড়তে আরম্ভ করলো। দাঁড়িয়ে ছিল যতদুর মনে পড়ে বিক্রম আর ডিফেন্স। ওরা খানিক পিছু হঠে আবার গেল দরজার সামনে, আর তখনি বোঝা গেল আসল কারণ। ওরা দেখল যে নিউজ রুমের দরজাটা নড়ছে, আর যতবার দরজা পেছনের দিকে সরছে তালাটা ওপরের দিকে ওঠার চেষ্টা করছে ঠেলা মেরে। এতক্ষণে বোঝা গেল দায়ী টা কে। সেটা ছিল ডুয়ার্স থেকে ভেসে আসা বাতাস – নিউজ রুমের খড়খড়ি পেরিয়ে ওই হাওয়া ঠেলা মারছিল দরজায় আর দরজার কড়া তালাকে ঠেলছিল খাড়া হবার চেষ্টায়। রহস্য সমাধান হয়ে গেল, অতি সাহসীরা আবার ফিরে এলো, পিঠ চাপড়ানো হলো সবার, আমি আর তথা হয়ে গেলাম আবার খোরাকের টার্গেট যেহেতু আমরা দুয়ে দুয়ে চার করতে পারিনি। সত্যি আর কল্পনার জগতের তফাতটা রাতের দিকে অনেক বেশি অস্পষ্ট, দিনের বেলা যা পরিষ্কার ভাবে দেখা যায়, রাতের বেলা আলো আঁধারীতে তাকেই মনে হয় ভৌতিক। মনে কিন্তু খটকাটা রয়েই গেল। সেই রাত্তিরে ওই দরজার পেছনে সত্যিই কি কেউ ছিল?  উত্তরটা মনে হয় লুকিয়ে আছে আমাদের মনের ভেতর। কেউ ছিল সে রাত্রে যদি আমরা মনে করি কেউ ছিল।  যদি মনে করি ছিলনা, তাহলে সেটা শুধু হাওয়ার খেলা।

Intolerance in society, Politics, religion

Aamir Khan controversy – growing intolerance in society through the mirror of Lord’s Prayer ban

“Yes, I am a traitor, if you are a patriot, if you are a defender of our homeland, I am a traitor to my homeland; I am a traitor to my country… if patriotism is the claws of your village lords, … if patriotism is the police club, if your allocations and your salaries are patriotism,… if patriotism is not escaping from our stinking black-minded ignorance, then I am a traitor”

Nazim Hikmet

There are two pieces of news circulated in the media, at two different corners of the world, last week. In India, the famous actor, producer and director Aamir Khan stated in an interview that his wife Kiran was scared of the future of their children due to growing intolerance in the country. On the other corner of the world, cinemas in the UK refused to broadcast Lord’s Prayer before the films, for the period building up to Christmas festivities. Both these news caused uproar and debates in social spheres and the media flared the gravity of the incidents beyond proportion, creating national headlines. Although the two pieces of stories are seemingly unrelated, they are intertwined by the concept of intolerance and social vigilantism. This is an attempt to analyse the first incident using the latter to demonstrate that intolerance is not only limited to the confines of a region, religion or country.

Aamir Khan is one of the most gifted mainstream actors of the Indian film industry. After featuring in films with resounding success, Aamir moved into directing his own films and made films on contemporary issues in the Indian society. One of his recent films, PK, based in the religious vaingloriousness of the humans, became a big hit in India, despite the ultra right-wing Hindu groups threatened closure of the film and vandalised the cinemas in many cities. With a huge fan base, gained since his first film around 1989, Aamir is also one of the most successful Bollywood actors. Despite being nominated for the national awards several times, Aamir refrained from attending as he had no faith in the selection procedure for the awards. In a recent interview, he admitted that despite living all is life in India, it’s the first time he is concerned about the future of his children as there appears to be a growing unrest and intolerance in the country. I only came across the news the next morning by the tempest in the teacup, as Facebook was found flooded with condemnation and criticism, mostly personal attacks on his ethnicity and religion. Aamir instantly became the target of a social media witch hunt, a traitor and a Muslim sympathiser of terrorism. It wasn’t only limited to the overzealous public venting off their feelings, but other celebrities weighed in as well. This affair culminated in Aamir releasing a public statement. The statement was more of a clarification of his interview rather than a reconciliation to the growing media pressure, expecting a public apology. The nation is still enraged, and the abuses are continued as observed in social media.

Poster for the film PK, which became the biggest grossing film in India
Source: UTV

I may have heard the Lord’s Prayer before, but wouldn’t recognise it. Some of the words are like this-“…Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil…”Church of England made an ad on Lord’s Prayer and wanted to broadcast it in cinemas before the films started. Majority of the cinemas including Odeon, Cineworld, Showcase have refused to play the short film due to their policy. A public uproar ensued in the island nation, with a dismayed portrait of Archbishop of Canterbury featuring front pages of nations newspapers, BBC tirelessly garbling out angry reaction from the public to celebrities. A public petition started on the official parliament website to overthrow the decision by the cinemas, whilst the conservative media and politicians launched a scathing attack on the cinemas’ management policy. The petition gathered momentum throughout the weekend and by Monday it received enough signature to be debated in the parliament. Three days later, as I’m writing this, the petition has been officially rejected citing that forcing the cinemas to play the ad does not come in the jurisdiction of the parliament, it falls under the Digital Cinema Media, so all disgruntled Christians should write to the DCM if they wanted the decision overturned.

Church of England Lord’s Prayer and #JustPray Ad (Source: YouTube)

Two separate incidents, two geographically contrasted locations, yet one inference could be drawn from both is the growing social vigilantism and the intolerance of the public. Starting with Aamir’s interview, it lasted about half an hour, where many constructive points were discussed regarding Indian society and its progress, and after he mentioned about the heightened intolerance in India, the journalists asked him a number of questions regarding his views on double standards of politicians as well as his views of terrorism incited by Islam. Aamir aptly clarified that he criticised the extremist mentality that is in the rise, regardless of the community, and the terrorists carrying the Quran, did not legitimise their Muslim belief. However, the sensationalist Indian media only scooped the section that would produce the most uproar, and they succeeded brilliantly. Overnight Aamir became victim to a nationwide hate campaign, with the most lenient ones blaming him of heresy and betraying the country he built his career on, whilst the more vociferous ones went way further, from proposing to throw him out of the country to declaring 100,000 Rupees for someone to slap him in public. Even after Aamir released his statement people are maintaining their stance that he did an about-turn facing such a strong public reaction and he insulted the country and de facto, its 1.25 billion people. The debates continued, and people promptly responded to the call for unsubscribing the android app Snapdeal, which Aamir is a brand ambassador of. However, this is neither the beginning, not the end of the debate around growing intolerance in Indian society.

The right-wing parties such as the present ruling party BJP and its ultra-right sections such as Shiv Sena, Visva Hindu Parishad, Bajrang Dal as well as BJP’s youth corps Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangha or RSS, took over the role of protectors of the interests, culture and heritage of India’s Hindu population, and any attempt to criticise, satirise, question any of the centuries-old practices and custom was met with severe and at times violent reactions. Apart from being the self-proclaimed harbingers of Hindu identity, their stance was severely anti-Muslim, the second largest ethnic group in India. Not much later than the Rushdie affair involving Satanic Verses, the renowned Indian painter Maqbool Fida Hussain was criticised for his depiction of Hindu deities in nude, especially his painting of Saraswati, the goddess of wisdom, similar as Minerva of Athena in Roman and Greek mythology. The death threats, court petitions for defamation, ransacking his art exhibitions hounded Hussain until his death, and after, although the paintings were done in the ’70s. The fact that Hussain was a Muslim helped the right-wing hooligans in their anti-Muslim agenda provoking racial hatred in the spheres of art and creativity. The next incident, where the Hindu fundamentalists felt their feet trampled, was not so straightforward when it came to apportioning the blame. In 1996 a film was released by Deepa Mehta, “Fire” that portrayed a married woman’s lesbian extramarital relationship. Adultery and homosexuality, both were deemed damaging to the fabric of Hindu ideology and was vehemently criticised by the BJP and its extremist factions, calling for a public apology from the director and instant ban on the film. The next film on the sequel, “Earth” in the partition of India and the ensuing communal violence also attracted cries for shutting down the film. The third film, “Water” featuring an affair of a widowed Hindu woman in the holy city of Benares, was met with vehement opposition from the right-wing Hindu nationalists citing defamation of the sacred city as well as tainting the characters of widows, who, regardless of their age, are expected to lead life if a recluse. The production of the film was halted several times, as the mob attacked the film sets. The release was much delayed than the planned release around 2000-01. The then cultural minister of West Bengal offered Deepa to have the film shot in Bengal. However, the double standards of the communist government came to light as they offered Deepa Mehta to shoot Water in Bengal to snub right-wing parties, trying to prove that the left is progressive, but in case of Taslima Nasreen, the exiled author from Bangladesh. Despite providing asylum to her in Calcutta, the government stance soon did an about-turn, in face of growing protests from the Muslim communities in Bengal, harbouring the blasphemous author. The hypocrisy of various governments’ at various times to protect free speech always affected Indian societies. In recent past, the right-wing factions began to promote a Hindu lead actor in Bollywood such as Hrithik Roshan, to diminish most of the public support divided amongst the three Khans, Aamir, Shahrukh and Salman. Incidentally, all three of them being Muslim caused ire of the right-wing Hindu supremacists.

Apart from the creative media, the propensity to disfigure the truth has never been so blatant than what was used by the BJP and the other right-wing Hindu factions. The 1992 Babri masjid demolition was a first demonstration of the blind malicious side of the right-wing nationalist parties to a republic. They also tried to stop celebrations of Valentine’s Day as the true celebration of love was expected to be the birthday of Shri Krishna, a Hindu god with 16000 wives. BJP and their crony bunch of intelligentsia have been and still is instrumental in claiming the invention of numerous modern-day best practices in medicine, science, astronomy, politics to be rooted in ancient Indian civilisation, which they proclaimed to be world’s oldest at 5500 BC, contrary to the archaeological findings and most factual historical findings of around 2000 BC. The latest addition to the hilarious claims was made in 2014 when the new Prime Minister Narendra Modi claimed that the full head transplant was invented in ancient India deriving from tales in ancient Indian mythologies. BJP also tried to manipulate the educational system and the history by portraying Shivaji as a national hero because of his Hindu origin and also introducing Saraswati Vandana, a prayer dedicated to the Hindu goddess of wisdom Saraswati, to be recited in every school, rather than the national anthem. In 2007, a major sea canal project between India and Sri Lanka was permanently stopped, due to relentless disruptions by the right-wing Hindu activists claiming the sand shoal in the shallow waters spreading between the two countries was made by Lord Rama, another mythical character, purported to be a true person. The assassination of the renowned Karnatik author and free-thinker M.M Kalburgi in recent times, only proved the fact that the BJP and its other right-wing Hindu extremist factions would go to any length to promote their version of Indian history and culture and pulverise, not by logic and information, but by brutality, any voice of reason contradicting them.

As I said before, Aamir’s case did not start with his interview last week but is rooted far deeper. Whilst the Indian market opened to the world in the late nineties, bringing the much-needed deregulation, it was at that time when the Hindu radicalism was on the rise. As exemplified above, along with state-sponsored violence observed in riots in ’92, Gujarat riots on ’02 and many other individual attacks spreading communal violence, BJP and its cronies used their propaganda to promote Hindu nationalism and any view that questions their superiority would be criticised and castigated. Their agenda also included the idea of Hindu supremacy, and hence by side-lining the Muslim population, apart from the one trump card they used to gain Muslim votes, by supporting Dr APJ Abdul Kalam for the role of the president. With the rise of social media, apart from the right-wing mouthpieces like newspaper, party pogroms etc, BJP also had another platform to permeate its agenda of nationalism. It was evident from the election campaign in 2014, which shared numerous photoshopped images of PM candidate Narendra Modi, as well as denigrating the free thinkers like Mahatma Gandhi, Tagore. With such a background, it was expected that the general public would refuse to bring a tyrant like Modi, who has blood on his hands, to power. Yet, no other opponent proved to be strong enough to stop the NaMo juggernaut, as public voted by the glamorous election campaign, and exasperated by the fading Congress’ nepotism, corruption and sycophancy to the old Nehru empire. After BJP was elected with an absolute majority, it was clear that the propaganda machinery will be in full motion, promoting Hindu supremacy from day one. Aamir’s statement about growing intolerance in last 6 months, therefore, riled the BJP, and the media reported the case to the Indian population portraying Aamir as a heinous character, that he is ungrateful that all his films are made in India. Aamir was an easy target, his surname is Khan, and his fear of the growing intolerance in his surroundings is something that could be presented in a manner making him an unpatriotic person.

Having lived by the first 30 years of my life in India, the only way I could summarise it is chaos. Chaos – not in a negative way, but the country is in a state of chaotic equilibrium. Nothing is perfect, yet everything works. Trains run late, yet the Indian Railways, world’s second-largest public office, runs like a clockwork to make the unimaginably complicated system work. The dabbawalas in Mumbai deliver packed lunches to millions of people without a complicated IT system, and so does the dhobiwalas cleaning the laundries for millions of people, yet achieve remarkably high accuracy. India is a curious place, a conundrum for the outsiders, a quest to the ones who know the country, how are we so different, yet there is a common emergence of a unique national character? This is why I revered India but never fell into the glorious trap of patriotism. India was, and still is, my country, but never my mother, the Bharat Mata. India is also a land of contrasts — not just two, but many different contrasts at various degrees intermingle at every instant, and hence, stereotyping India is a difficult task. Indians are driven by boundless aspirations, trying to keep abreast to the tides of change modern time is bringing, yet in adherence to the archaic custom and cultures which has no place for coexistence. It’s not a dilemma between old and new, but instead of progress against regress.

This conflict between the two has always existed and still does, and it shapes our thought process and logic. When we speak about unity in diversity, that diversity mainly focusses upon the regional, cultural, linguistic diversity; although the religious orientation of all such diverse constituents is still Hindu. Despite a large number of non-Hindu communities residing in India, Hindus still make nearly 80% of the population, and therefore, any image projected of India largely constitutes portraits of a country for the Hindus, and as the second-largest minority, Muslims. Other minorities, although they are part of an incredible India, their stories often go unheard. The Muslim fishermen on Kerala, or the Chinese shoemakers in Calcutta, or the Jewish and Parsi communities in Bombay, or a Gurkha tea plantation worker in Darjeeling – they remain away from the limelight of the Incredible India vision. As do the multitude of tribes spread all across India – from the central plateaux to the North-Eastern provinces to the Andaman & Nicobar Islands. A majority Hindu population creates in public mind vision of a state with Hinduism at the centre of its raison d’etre. Impaired with this vision, anything that contradicts the key dogma of Hindu faith, the disagreement is often seen as the blasphemy, and denouncing the Hindu identity is tantamount denouncing India. Majority of the Indian population are reactionary, and therefore, easily manipulated. The right-wing parties, irrespective of Hindu or Muslim, capitalise on this mob tendencies, along with a lack of clear thinking and decision making abilities. The lack of analytical thinking causes the mind to be easily led, to believe anything they read or listen or see, and whether that image fits the preconceived notion of a Hindu India. With such warped concepts, a Hindu is also seen as an Indian, whereas a Muslim Indian is still a Muslim, a Hindu Bengali is a Bengali, but a Muslim Bengali is just a Muslim. The borderlines between nationality, regional identity and religion are blurred and intersect with each other – making a complex maze of identities. This fuzzy identity lies at the centre of the Aamir Khan scandal, which was started as a question on growing societal intolerance in India but flared up as saying India is not tolerant, and that statement coming from a Muslim actor, his Indian identity is promptly ignored, and the debate is portrayed as a Muslim insulting India.

The biggest pride I have in India is that since the early days of independence, it is a republic and remained a republic state. A republic gives every citizen to express his/her opinion without fear, hesitation and discrimination. In Tagore’s words, “Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high/ Where knowledge is free/ Where the world has not been broken up into fragments/ By narrow domestic walls”—the vision of India portrayed in his poem is far from the reality as observed in the twenty-first century India. What Aamir alluded to in his interview, about growing intolerance in the society, was only a fear, for the lives of his children. Yet, the following few days, and the mob witch hunt that was witnessed since then, only strengthens the truth in Aamir’s statement. The public reaction claiming Aamir’s statement as an act of insult to the country, heresy and treason, is no different than Saudi states — the intolerance of free speech is still the same. The concept of constructive criticism is, of course, non-existent in the sub-continent, where parliament session means the ruling parties and opposition shouting at each other, throwing abuses, often breaking into fights, and the smaller insignificant parties walking out. Many circulations and re-posts are going around in social media since Aamir’s statement, yet I have not seen a single person come up with simple logical facts to refute his claims. The biggest criticism was, what if Aamir said something about Islam? If India was intolerant, can he think what would have happened to him if he was in Saudi Arabia? The answer to these questions is, maybe a lot worse, but that is an absolute ludicrous way of dealing with criticism. It’s as silly as explaining why you failed a test to your parents saying ten other students failed as well. We call India a democracy, we say it’s a diverse country, but of course, it’s easy to state that being the majority, of course, Hindus can claim to the world that they live in harmony with Muslims, Christians, Jews, Jains, but can those minorities say the same with equal ease? Can they say that they enjoy equal opportunities and are not marginalised? Can they boast of the unity in diversity? They can’t, because the moment they do, they will be branded unpatriotic, be subjected to the harassment Aamir has been through in last one week. As a republic, we have a lot to learn, a long way to go before we can truly boast of our diversity which does not depend on numbers but everyone believes in it.

This brings the discussion back to the Lord’s Prayer debate. Like India. Britain is a democracy, and it is a country with majority white Christian population, although, unlike India, a large number of Christian born population do not identify with Christianity any more, they are confirmed, atheists. Christianity has been and is part of the main fabric of the country; although Britain can boast of widely diverse demography in present days, Christianity is an undeniable part in forming the popular custom, language and festivities. Christianity shaped the UK in its present form as we know it. So the public may celebrate Yom Kippur or Chinese New Year with equal excitement, Christmas and Easter are still the biggest festivals of the season. Considering the vast majority of the confirmed Christian individuals are not churchgoers and don’t live their lives by the Ten Commandments, it is surprising how a refusal to pray Lord’s Prayer before the cinema made it to the national news! The numerous public figures blaming the decision to be shambolic, right-wing parties licking their lips finding a topic to win supports on their white supremacy agenda, the petition seeing an avalanche of supports to overturn the decision — what we saw is a reactive intolerance, from a large number of the public in one of the epitomes of democracy and multiculturalism. The British public, who cried out loud “bring our country back”, never cared what Church of England was doing, but with that refusal, they are all united in protest again, against policymakers implementing multiculturalism, against a harmonious society. Whilst in India, the general public is too blasé about the feelings of the other minorities, in Britain, the general public is, although more liberal, too uncomfortable to be seen of having any prejudices. However, instances like this present a rare glimpse of the undercurrent of the prejudices that run deep in people’s psyche, and the outcome is not the finest example of tolerance. That Britain is a democracy and irrespective of the background, the common sense that playing Lord’s Prayer in the cinema is unacceptable — it hasn’t permeated through the minds of the people crying wolf. To them, this is a sacrilege that the country isn’t Christian any more, the country is being taken over by the immigrants, who dictate how the country should be run. Britain has never been a Christian country when it became a democracy and brought in the immigrants to run the country better. But of course, only a logical mind would think this. For the rest, if you are not born British and Christian, you are expected to show allegiance to the country in every step — revere the Royal family, celebrate Christmas, wear the poppy. The allegiance to the gimmicks became synonymous to adherence to the values.

As I started this discussion to analyse the incident of Aamir khan’s statement about intolerance and the reaction of the Indian population in light of the Lord’s Prayer ban in cinemas in the UK — both these incidents show us an undercurrent of intolerance, of different degree and manifestation, but identical in its concept. The boundaries between religion, ethnicity, language and nationality are blurred and all is brought under the same canopy of patriotism, the almighty word that tells you if you love your country. You must be a patriot, support your country in every deed to make your existence in this universe meaningful! What’s the life worth it doesn’t want to sacrifice itself for the country? The tales of heroes and martyrs emerge, tales of great heritage, but wasn’t it how a Mein Kampf was born?! The intolerance that exists in the society is omnipresent, as does the tolerance. One cannot exist without the other, otherwise “to err is human” would have no relevance in our lives. Intolerance is not limited to the boundaries of a country, or religion, or ethnicity. It is our inherent fear and tendency to distrust others. Being intolerant does not mean that people are not tolerant at all, it only alludes to the fact that they are not 100% tolerant. What needs to happen is acceptance of the intolerance and to address the issues constructively, not by declaring sums to slap a person who raised some concerns, nor by saying the country is taken over by immigrants.

This brings to two other factors that are vitally important for the discourse related to intolerance in society. First, the role of the media. In these two incidents, apart from people’s shortsightedness about tolerance and its meaning, media is the next biggest culpable factor. In their rat race to increase ratings, media twist the facts in such a manner that it creates a headline, unconcerned of whether the facts are true, semi-true or blatant lies. The hype Aamir’s story received is because they repeatedly broadcasted only two minutes of an interview that lasted half an hour, where many other social issues were discussed. Just in the same way BBC and ITV telecasted repeatedly the same news of CoE ad ban for the next few days. Especially for India, with a lower literacy rate that hinders the analytical reasoning, media needs to play a more responsible role than fuelling mass hysteria. The majority of Indian and British working class and uneducated sections don’t have the time nor luxury to delve into arguments and counter-arguments, and perhaps draw an informed conclusion analysing all the facts. They probably take every news on its face value as seen as heard in the media. The flippancy of media observed in both these cases only made a much detrimental effect in maintaining a diverse society. The other factor is, of course, the role of the minorities in eradicating the intolerance from society. Just by saying that the ethnic majority is intolerant, it doesn’t mask the fact that it runs in the minorities as well — illustrated by a gathering of thousands of radical Muslims in protest when a captured terrorist in India was hanged or people were seen celebrating Paris attacks. Like BJP and its Hindu supremacist cronies, undeniably there are radical Islamist groups in India as well, as does separatist mujahideen outfits fighting for independent Kashmir, or militants in the northeast. By being a free thinker, a voice of reason, one doesn’t have to stand up for minorities in every occasion, right or wrong. The question of right and wrong, good or evil eluded us since the early days of civilisations. We still form our opinions based on our understanding of the social filaments, our views towards life. It is a continuous struggle against ourself as well, where we need to break the stereotypes and paradigms layered over the years. If the reaction to Aamir khan’s statement was termed intolerant, my analysis is intolerant as well, as it represents intolerance of such intolerances.

A photo shared on Facebook on everyone becoming moral guardians of the society
Source: 9GAG.com

So, what does the balance sheet look like, of the Aamir Khan controversy last week? Media gained, of course, with their heightened TRP and circulation of extra newspapers. Aamir lost a few dedicated fans and may not have his Snapdeal contract renewed. But he also won, although a handful, of admirers for speaking out the truth while the others shied away. Aamir’s wife Kiran has suffered the full brunt of public wrath, for having no opportunity to defend herself as Aamir did. Snapdeal, the company Aamir was the brand ambassador for, despite losing nearly 100,000 memberships, gained in rating due to increased interest on their website for the controversy. But the biggest winner, from this debate, is BJP and the PM Modi, as no official reprimand was issued through government of India. This is a surreptitious way BJP let its far-right factions do the dirty work for them, such as maligning Aamir, his achievements and personal life; yet officially kept a safe distance from them to project an image of neutrality. Of all the involved sides, Modi’s image emerged as a leader who is calm and stoic, unperturbed by the scandal, his incredible India and swachh Bharat remained untarnished — much to the dismay and disconcert of any liberal person, as sycophantic praises poured in all over the media and Internet. In a few weeks, all will be forgotten, but this controversy will hush all the voices willing to ask questions or point fingers at the government. The returning of national awards by scholars has already been much politically polarised, and their protests were degraded by the predatory right-wing activists and Modi sympathisers. With Aamir added to this list of quarantined personalities, this paves the path for an unrivalled Hindu indoctrination of the country. The brooms of swachh Bharat movement will swiftly brush away the voices of criticism. India will be promoted as a country for its space programme, IT and manufacturing prowess, but the dark sides of the caste system and discriminations, sectarian violence and intolerance, honour killings and female foeticides will be neatly tucked away. One may even ask at this juncture that if an actor is worth three billion rupees, is there really a concern for his children regarding social intolerance? If he is rich enough to possibly buy an entire security company, was there any ulterior motive? Will Modi go to the media with grand gestures of pardoning Aamir as part of Indian tradition and other similar nonsense, boosting his image up as the results don’t show the Achchhe Din or the good days he promised is imminent? We’ll never know this…

It’s been over a week now since both these scandals broke out. People have now gone back to their daily humdrum life away from the uproar. Perhaps the nerves are still a bit raw in India, as the Aamir story still dominates the internet and social media. In Britain, people have forgotten about Lord’s Prayer already and engrossed in Christmas shopping spree. The guise is back, in both worlds, until the time something else flares up when the fangs and talons will lash out again, baring our primitive instincts. Until then, we are all back to our pretentious social harmony, back in our sheep’s skin.

Full Interview of Aamir Khan