Holy cows have usurped rational dialogue in India
Holy cows have usurped rational dialogue in India

Holy cows have usurped rational dialogue in India

All of us can be racists and bigots. Yes you too.

A piece written last week questioning the relevance of the idea of India dialogue touched a raw nerve judging by the numerous responses it got.

Ghettoization – both intellectual and real – was the central point of that piece. I tried to show how lack of basic education including literacy and job security leads to ghettoization with caste and religious factors kicking in in India. Our Holy Cows use words like Bhangi, Chamar, Dhobi, servant, maid, waiters and waitresses effortlessly to assert their economic climb. On the other side of the spectrum caste affiliations are pitched sometime as safety nets and other times as slurs. Nothing matters, so everything does – selectively.

Poverty, lack of education and migrant labour mixed into a heavy dose of religion are Holy Cows for Indian politicians. Aided by their factotums they have captured our public space in ways that make responsible dialogue impossible for the moment. The terrain is so twisted that only Muslims can speak about Muslims, Dalits about Dalits and Hindus for Hindus.  ‘How do you know?’ is a common refrain and blind review of facts is met with visceral anger. I will come to this in a bit.

Students reading journalism in the early eighties in Stanford (USA) were required to follow and develop a beat. For non-journalists, a beat is cultivating sources and gathering domain knowledge in an area beginning with on-the-ground training and going up the food chain.

I took the police beat.  Crime fiction and industrial espionage fascinates me and here was my chance to learn. I lived in Menlo Park between Palo Alto and Atherton so my reporting spot would be on an arterial road called El Camino Real that ran through these areas to join the motorway to San Francisco at various points. It was an unexpectedly rich learning-experience about racism, poverty, violence, myths and symbols all playing out in an area now called Silicon Valley dotted with new Holy Cows.

Beat training included spending long hours with police staff in their cars waiting to arrive at a spot where some trouble was either brewing or happening. How would the police arrest serial wife beaters when the lady did not complain? The police would knock on the door when shrieks were heard. A drunken man would come rushing out to the pavement where he would be arrested under public nuisance charges. The wife would get temporary relief, but the pattern would continue. We would wait in some areas expecting the domestic scene to start and it would – violence would beget violence in an infernal cycle. It was a well-honed ruse and everybody was part of it.

Other times we would arrive all sirens blazing in a 24/7 convenience store where young girls would have stolen hair clips or a cookie. They would be handcuffed and interrogated and in some cases taken to police stations to be locked up. The socio-economic profile of people living in East Palo Alto was straight out of a textbook. Which came first – the police cars racial discrimination and joblessness?

There was worse. When I shared these episodes with my friends including Indian friends many would be shocked not at the incidents but by the fact that I was going to work in East Palo Alto at night. The Holy Cows of Stanford of which I was a part would be momentarily rattled. I was a fourth generation person from my family to travel out of India to study. I considered myself vaccinated against cow-dialogues and here I was listening to bigoted and racist ‘I have Jewish friends’ Hoy Cows in one of the world’s top universities.

Something similar is happening in India today. Mirrors are being held up to Holy Cows who have usurped rational dialogue. You are not a secular person if you say you have Muslim friends – it is quite the contrary. In a country as diverse as India where the political apparatus itself is sabotaged by caste and economic class considerations, you will get called out if you challenge Holy Cows. We have lost a sense of proportion and the importance of being appropriate. It is simple – maryada, tehzeeb, panivu. No law can teach you this especially if you are adamant that your way is the only way.

It is this same adamancy which propels our Holy Cows to grandstand on cow dialogues. The assumption that all Hindus are vegetarians is as misinformed as thinking all Swiss people are thieves and all Germans are Nazis. Selection is like breathing – we do it all the time. Our struggle should be able to ensure that others’ selections are respected in a space we all democratically protect. Secular outrage, religious outrage and rage are convenient props. They are myths and symbols which have long outlived their meaning and crumble under informed scrutiny. In the meantime, jobs must be created on a war footing and time to do so is limited.

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