What is This Country?

What Pehlu Khan and the people of Kashmir tell us. We must be better.

“Kya desh hai yeh?” I heard myself muttering yesterday. I was in the newsroom, at the end of a despair-filled ten days, reeling from the latest example of how India is no longer a democratic and secular country to be proud of.

All six accused in the lynching of Pehlu Khan were acquitted by an Alwar court, and miscarriage of justice apart, the jubilation of people at this verdict made my stomach churn. For those of you who might not remember: In April 2017, Pehlu Khan was lynched to death by a mob after being accused of smuggling cows. The lynching was recorded on camera, and went ‘viral’ — because nothing sells like murder, it seems. Khan died two days after the lynching, giving a dying declaration where he named the accused. Two years, and over forty witnesses later, the court reached a conclusion which sadly has become a template for bizarre justice meted out in this country — no one killed Pehlu Khan.

After the verdict was declared, chants of “Bharat Mata ki Jai” were heard outside the court. Apparently, India’s stature is fueled by the murder of a man.

Or at least incessant whataboutery. Instead of being angry at this blatant injustice, scores of people argued that no one pays attention to the lynching of Hindus. Because in this new India, lynching to death is an issue to be decided on communal lines. Instead of feeling ashamed that this is the state of judiciary in this country, people were attacking those who were shocked at this verdict — by calling them “sickular.” A sickness enshrined in the Constitution of India, by the way.

In India, not only can you get lynched to death on camera for no fault of yours, your family be harassed after your death (Khan’s sons have been charged for smuggling cattle), your killers be acquitted by your court but also, your fellow citizens will forget basic empathy and celebrate.

“Kya desh hai yeh?”

A country is not its government, as much as the current government would have you believe. A country is its people. The Constitution of this country doesn’t start with the words “The Government of this Country…” It starts with the line “We, the People…” We gave ourselves the Constitution of India all those years ago. The government is here to serve us; the people of this country.

To be anti-government, is not to be anti-India. The government is not our rulers. We have a right to ask questions of the government, because we elected them. They are answerable to us.

I wanted to repeat these lines to everyone who in the past week has told me, “Trust the government on Kashmir, they know what they’re doing!”

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that Article 370 had to go. (Though it didn’t, which if you had read the history of Kashmir’s accession to India, you would agree with, but who knows what history is in these post-truth times we live in. Anyway.)

How is shutting down an entire state, so that a government can unilaterally take decisions on behalf of the people, without the consent of the people, acceptable in any definition of a democracy?

If the government knows what’s good for us all, then why don’t we just forget elections, and give up the pretense of a democracy? Let the government do as it wishes, no? How is this different from the British ruling us?

I don’t have too many expectations from the government. Though, surely the way this government circumvented every Constitutional rule to ram down its decision on Kashmiri people must be condemned in unequivocal terms.

I’m angry at the people of India. For letting the government behaving the way it did, indeed, applauding them for it.

“Kuch toh karna tha, force se kiya toh kya hua?”
“These Kashmiri people deserved this!”
“Why can’t Kashmir live peacefully with India?”
“Don’t be anti-India, finally Kashmir humaara hua.”

Turns out, a large percentage of India, has no empathy. It doesn’t matter to them if more than 20 million people’s basic democratic rights are forgotten, as long as they can buy a plot of land near the Dal lake. It doesn’t matter that thousands of Indians are unable to talk to their loved ones — no phones, no Internet, no letters — for ten days now, because India’s pride must be maintained.

India’s pride and unity is apparently bolstered by the tears and trauma of entire generations of Kashmiri people.

Journalists need to have a thick skin. It’s a professional hazard, when you have to go to work everyday and report on horrific rapes, mob lynchings, riots, floods and whatnot. But in the past week, my thick skin was punctured every time I read a tweet or report of people desperate to talk to their families in Kashmir — even to hear them for three seconds. At least, just to know that they are alive. Every time I see this on my screen or in the newspapers, my stomach churns. Is this the India we want?

An entire state (sorry, Union Territory now, apparently they don’t even deserve that much now) shut down, for their own good. Is this the freedom we fought for in 1947? For fellow Indians to be treated like they are dispensable compared to the priceless value of land? British colonial officers would be proud.

“Kya desh hai yeh?”

Every one has an Independence Day ritual. For as long as I remember, in my home, it involves listening to patriotic Hindi film songs on the radio. From “Ae Mere Watan…” to “Meri desh ki dharti…” For the past few days, I have been walking around with a despondence in my heart. Surely, this is not the India I grew up loving fiercely and wanting to do great things for? Have we changed so much that another Indian’s trauma is nothing but a brownie point in an argument?

So, today when I woke up, I didn’t get the goosebumps I usually do on Independence Day. Until, I heard this song. The song, called “Nanhe Munne Bacche..” from “Boot Polish” is about an old man asking a young child what he thinks the future looks like. The song ends with the following lines,

“Aane wali duniya kaisi hogi samjhaayo
Aane wali duniya mein sab ke sar pe taj hoga
Na bhookon ki bheedh hogi
Na dukhon ka raj hoga
Badlega zamana, yeh sitaaron pe likha hai”

(My rough translation:
How does the future look, tell us?
In the future, everyone will be their own master
There will be no crowds of the hungry
Sadness will no longer rule our hearts
Times will change, it’s written in the stars.)

Today, that’s what I seek solace in.

Times will change, surely the stars decree it. But as India, we must be better.

Happy Independence Day, everyone.