November 2012: And I am not alone. The experience of expressing dissent on the internet.
Of all the people I know, I am, perhaps, the person least interested in the country's politics. I often skip the front pages of newspapers, and have a growing immunity to scam exposés. I don't own a TV, and don’t watch the 24x7 political dramas that are Indian news channels. I share the disdain and despair towards Indian politics that many of my circle of liberal, educated friends have. For these (and certain logistical reasons), I don't hold a voter's ID card, and, I'm afraid to admit that at 29, I have never voted.
The despair is because I know what I want in my government, and there's not a single candidate or party that stands for values that are important to me—social and economic laissez-faire (loosely translated: your rights end where my nose begins); progressive ideas about education, sanitation, women's and the LGBT community’s emancipation, etc; without religious, caste, creed or gender biases (where toilets are genuinely more important than temples). The disdain and distrust (disgust?) come from the feeling that all is not what it seems, and we are being hoodwinked by people whose agenda is not what meets the eye. Those in politics, those affiliated to political dynasties, seem to enjoy the perks of nepotism and the power of ill-gotten wealth, including sustained immunity from prosecution for all sorts of wide-ranging crimes, from illegal hoardings to amassing the aforementioned ill-gotten wealth, to rape and murder and brutality. Perhaps I paint too dark a canvas.
What I know I don't like—no, hate—is Bal Thackeray and what he and the Sena stood for. In principle, I disagree with almost everything I read in the newspapers, and the extensive research I've been doing since the Thursday bandh in anticipation of his death only reinforces my stand. Be it the religious and bhumiputra persecution of Muslims, South Indians, UPites and Biharis, and its inherent anti-national, anti-constitutional premise. Or the demonising of the West. Or the brute force and terror he used to enforce his opinions on those who didn't follow, a legacy his supporters held up on Thursday’s part-shutdown and Sunday’s let-a-leaf-not-stir bandh. To me, he represents all that holds this city back socioculturally, the argument of the physical progress that he initiated notwithstanding.
The point here is not why I dislike Thackeray; the point is that I do. So when he died on Saturday afternoon, I wrote my mind on my Facebook account, linked to my Twitter handle. "No offense, but I refuse to be sorry that Bal T is dead. A) There is no cure for old age—he was 86. B) This city needed to get on with life, not be held ransom by his simmering goons, threatening to erupt since Thursday. C) I have never respected the man's Hindu, regionalist politics anyway. Perhaps he will find Biharis, UPites, Muslims and Maharashtrians alike in the afterlife." One of the first of my Facebook circle to openly voice what many of us were feeling, the discussion took off. Over the next 48 hours, over the Sunday and halfway through Monday, I wrote many posts, each followed by hundreds—I kid you not—of ‘likes’ and dozens of comments. And I was not the only one with such status updates: “Good riddance” was a common, polite refrain; and many people voiced stronger opinions still.
It is safe to assume that most of my Facebook ‘friends’ are pretty socioculturally similar to me: urban, middle-class, educated, liberal. I realised that, of the 2,500-or-so of them, only five-six are declared Thackeray fans. Of them, only three have feebly—and I mean feeeeebly—stood up for him, one calling me a dog, another saying I'm "stupid and immature" and not a "true Maharashtrian" (which I'm not, whatever that signifies, but I’m married to a secular one), the third with some reasons that others on my Wall and I have disputed. (19 lakh wrongs don’t make a right, methinks.) I have received many new friend requests, strangers giving support and applauding "courage". I have watched and participated in highly stimulating, free discussions in progress in the comments, ranging from the immediate reasons for the bandh; to the legality of the Sena’s stand; to the legacy that has been left behind for this city to grapple with; to the stark contrast between Ambedkar’s and Gandhi’s stands—equality, non-violence, religious tolerance—and Thackeray’s small-mindedness; etc. A few strong articles are doing the rounds, and they are being shared and discussed.
The worry started brewing early by about Monday noon. Friends and family started asking me to tone it down, saying that, though they don't care about Thackeray, goons will beat me up. Plus, the young girl in Palghar had been arrested for ‘hurting religious sentiments’ for a status update far tamer than mine—and her uncle’s hospital burnt, in typical Sena style—as had the lone friend who had ‘liked’ her status. By this standard, I thought, there is some strength in numbers, and not just theirs. Would the police arrest three-four hundred of us (that I knew of)?
In deference to their concern and, admittedly, my own fears, I made my Wall private, though ignored family’s appeal to delete my posts entirely. “I’d rather you be a scaredy cat and alive,” said my mother dramatically. I’m scared, but someone has to say these things, I argued with another, the girls’ arrests are unconstitutional and… “Sure, they will be released, the cops who arrested them may be suspended. But what happens to the burnt hospital? No one will hold the Sena accountable for that. This is not a utopia, this is India.”
Not a utopia, but an imperfect democracy. The fact that we’re still living in fear of brutes like the Sena, revering a current-day wannabe dictator in the mould of Hitler in what is tom-tommed as the ‘world’s largest democracy’ underscores the fact that it is highly flawed and fledgling. More worrying, though, is the reaction of the media—the cornerstone of a democracy—to Thackeray’s death. Few and far between are calling a spade a spade, remembering Bal Thackeray as the unapologetic instigator of the '92-3 riots, the indirect cause of many deaths and much property damage over the years, not to mention the umpteen bandhs and the fear psychosis drummed in to the city-psyche. Who’s asking why he received a State funeral? Is this fear, fakeness or genuine respect? Any answer leaves us with cause for concern.
As most of the media bows its sycophantic head in obeisance (and shame, methinks), is the internet the last option as a voice for those who hope that India’s last deified politician has gone. 2,500 people may be a small, insignificant sample-size compared to a formidable 19 lakh. But our strength will never be numbers; it will have to be the pen. And, if you find someone to represent your beliefs, in your vote.
It is Tuesday evening as I write this. Part of me is still afraid of being arrested. I wanted to say this and be heard, but ask me if I’ve thought through all the consequences, and I’ll say no, and I'm not prepared. We have read and heard horror stories of the persecution Tarun Tejpal and his family endured when he unleashed the era of scam exposure, without the backing of a big media house, when Tehelka was a mere website. Many years since, have political parties matured enough to respect that opposition is part of a functioning democracy and/or become thick-skinned to allegations? Or do they still care enough to persecute every critical voice? Am I about to find out?
This article was written in November 2012.
No, nothing happened then; the Shiv Sena did not burn down my house. I have become far more political since; the Modi era of politics has pushed me to take a stand.