I have a feeling that we may slowly lose our democratic rights or civil rights when there is a bully. But much more than that, when there is a bully, we become cowards.” Thus spake the old wise man from Karnataka. The year was 2014. Elections were around the corner. The BJP had chosen its man from Gujarat as its leader. There was excitement in certain sections of the society over that choice. Some of our vocal thought leaders tried to convince us that the man truly represented the constituency of hope and change that the staid politics of secularism had failed to address. India, we were told, was impatient for change and only the dynamism of the man from Gujarat could unshackle her from her status quo.
Writer U R Ananthamurthy saw something else happening. He saw in the new choice a desire for handing ourselves over to a bully. He warned that if we allowed a bully to be at the centre of power, he would disempower us. His very presence would turn us into cowards. It is interesting that Ananthamurthy did not choose familiar words like ‘communal’ or ‘fascist’ which have often been used to describe the man. Bully is a very plain and non-ideological word.
A bully is one with an unlimited and unrestrained sense of power. He treats it not as a trust put in him by the masses but as an entitlement and a gift from God. Masses must understand that power belongs to him and he is free to use it the way he thinks is right.
One can say after the experience of four years that the country has been taken over by a bully culture. Big and small bullies are ruling us. We have central ministers, chief ministers and governors who speak and behave like bullies. We have an army chief who loves to dare the masses of a state that is facing unrest to come out in the open and fight the army.
Karnataka, very recently heard the prime minister himself threatening his main opponents, the Congress party, “Congress leaders, listen, if you cross boundaries, then this is Modi, you will have to pay for it.”
It was disheartening that the PM was not called out for these uncouth and violent words. The last four years have made us accustomed to it. It was 2015. The prime minister was new in his job. He warned the people of Delhi that only the fear of Modi could make the state government work, “If you vote in a BJP government, then those who will be here will be afraid of Modi and the central government. But if there is someone who does not have anyone above him, then that person will bring in the only devastation,” Modi said.
This is the understanding of the rule of law, federalism and democracy with which this regime has been working for four years. It is fear of the power that is the driving force. Spread fear to make people fall in line. It applies to people of other countries as well. The present home minister is known as a sophisticated voice of the BJP and the government. Let us recall what he said, back in 2015, while lauding the Border Security Force for stopping the smuggling of cows to Bangladesh, “I am told prices of beef in Bangladesh have gone up by 30% recently due to the heightened vigil by BSF against cattle-smuggling. You must further intensify your vigil so that cattle-smuggling stops completely and prices of beef in Bangladesh escalate 70-80% more so that the people of Bangladesh give up eating beef.”
One need not say that this desire to change the eating habits of even the people of another country, not just of our own, is extraordinary. This is how a bully speaks, “I’ll make you forget who you are...”
Bully at the top produces bullies below. So, we have bullies prowling all around us guarding pubs, streets, buses, trains and temples to keep an eye on unwanted or undesirable people or social behaviour. Your kitchen can be raided or your tiffin in the train or bus can be checked by your fellow passengers. The most recent news of bullies assaulting a Muslim youth in Uttarakhand who was saved from them by a daring Sikh police officer did not make headlines. You can see the bullies then heckling the officer himself for his audacity to not let them lynch the Muslim man.
It was this bully culture that emboldened the lawyers and the Sangh affiliates in Jammu to agitate on behalf of the accused in an alleged rape and murder case in Kathua. It did not remain confined there. A rally was taken out in Unnao in support of the BJP MLA who is an accused in a rape case. And in Jharkhand’s Ramgarh, the BJP and Sangh affiliates took out a Tiranga rally to defend their colleagues who were recently sentenced to life for lynching a Muslim man.
We saw bullies disrupting Friday Namaz in Gurgaon recently. The police could not take action against them. Instead, they were respectfully given a seat by the administration on the negotiation table.
It had to happen. The Supreme Court felt forced to turn its gaze away from a brazen case of bullying right under its nose when some lawyers attacked the JNU student Kanhaiya Kumar in the premises of Patiala Court. They did not do it in a fit of anger. It was premeditated, with the assurance of protection from the top. And that is why it was repeated.
Our TV channels and Twitter have become platforms for bullies. TV anchors openly threaten people and give a call for violence against them for their “anti-nationalism”.
We have bullies wearing the black robe, tricolour adorning the bullies, national anthem turning into the marching song of the bullies, and bullies on our TV screens. We see vice chancellors, scientists, media barons fighting for affectionate proximity with these bullies.
Ananthamurthy is dead. But his prophecy has come true. Since we invited bullies to be our leaders, we have turned into cowards. And nationalism is the new name we have given to our cowardice.
(The writer teaches Hindi at Delhi University)