A Black Mirror-like device about Hindus being subhuman or dangerous is getting cozily implanted into more and more peoples’ heads through media and education, and this is happening not only with media in other countries where Hindus live..
Imagine a future in which you come home from work and find a crowd at your door glaring angrily at you. Your neighbors, complex manager and others are all there, waiting to reprimand, penalise, maybe even expel you. Your alleged crime? They say you have displayed a “hate symbol” in front of your door. But it’s a Swastika, you say, just Shanti and Subham. No, they insist. It is a mark of your casteism and hate, and you must be punished.
Another scenario. One day, your children come home crying that they were punished in school for wearing what they call a “hate mark” on their foreheads. But it’s just kumkum (or vibhuti), you exclaim. But no use, the school, its teachers, and even most parents now think you are an old ignorant boor. They know better, all the latest research from Chicago or Boston which has declared these are marks of hate. Slowly, you find even your own career paths closing. Scholarships and jobs suddenly disappear. Your professors and employers now believe your religion teaches hate against women and minorities, and they can’t trust you to abide. After all, you haven’t shown them how exactly much you abhor Hinduism and even the word “Hindu,” have you?
You look for peace. You go to that one place that you know is still sacred, powerful, and inevitably gives you confidence. You go to your favorite Hanuman or Shiva temple. But that too is now a target. You see overbearing government officials, lathi-swinging, muddy-booted police, and sneering, self-righteous political operatives all swarming inside the garbha-griha (sanctum sanctorum). They want to ban it all. They say Hanuman looks “angry” and is making non-Hindus feel scared. Or that the Shiva Lingam is innately a threat of violence to women.
All through this bizarre disaster, and then for all of the rest of your life, you will wonder what happened to you, your own people, your own country. And you will wonder why the one desperate vote for change you cast in a democratic system has abandoned you so badly.
Is all of this just a depressing fantasy? Am I too pessimistic? Let us take a brief detour through popular fantasy tale that is not irrelevant here: an episode of the dark science-fiction Netflix series Black Mirror. In this episode, we see a soldier who is part of a security force sweeping into houses to exterminate an infestation of grotesque, mutated beings they call “roaches.” These creatures are so frightening and disgusting to look at it, you root for the soldiers quite easily. Until we realise (spoiler alert) that actually these are just normal human beings, and it is the soldiers who have been manipulated by a neural implant into hallucinating that these innocent civilians are a gross and dangerous mutant species.
This episode is so uncomfortably close to current politics that a recent review essay on dehumanisation and killing in the New Yorker actually began with a discussion about it. American writers and scholars commonly agree that systematic dehumanisation campaigns are real and that Women, Blacks, Jews, and now Muslims are victims of it. And even if the present American leadership is not entirely part of this conversation, at every level the system in America is legally and culturally bound towards stamping out these kinds of racist, sexist or otherwise dehumanising activities.
What of the situation in India now? What of the (not completely) hypothetical examples I mentioned above? I don’t think most of what I wrote is fantasy. Attacks on kumkum and Swastikas and scholarship-denials are already happening. It seems like a Black Mirror-like device about Hindus being subhuman or dangerous is getting cosily implanted into more and more peoples’ heads through media and education. And this is happening not only with media in other countries where Hindus live, but also in India itself, where more and more elite Hindus in business, media, and politics are behaving as if their fellow Hindus who are devout and traditional are “roaches."
I don’t wish to be entirely depressing so I will not deny that there is still resistance, and there is still hope, for now. The majority of people in India haven’t forgotten what the Swastika means, or kumkum or vibhuti. There are enough observers and concerned citizens who are noticing this looming disaster and are talking about it.
The problem though is that we have so far failed to persuade the people we voted for to address this problem to wake up and act. I am frankly almost out of hope about this seeming ineptitude or indifference. It’s only a matter of time and generational change before a point of no return, and indeed, a point of no further survival is reached.
One example. Just last week, the Reuters news agency announced that it was deleting a photograph it had previously shared of visiting U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley as there was a Swastika in the background. When you are in India, that too near a temple, it is not surprising at all that a photograph might contain a Swastika, as it might a Ganesha, a name of a god or goddess on a shop or hoarding, and most of all, many, many, brown-skinned Hindu people wearing symbols of what Western newspapers are starting to allege are “Hindu nationalist” symbols, such as the… sari.
Reuters has removed an earlier photo of U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley with a swastika seen behind her at a Hindu temple in Delhi. The swastika is an ancient religious symbol for Hindus and Buddhists. It was also used as a symbol by Nazi Germany https://t.co/rQa4VcIOdy pic.twitter.com/rJTUjd8C4f— Reuters India Photos (@IndiaPhotos) June 28, 2018
In a sane world, Reuters could have easily handled its concern by adding a footnote in the caption for its non-Indian readers that the Swastika in India is different from the “Hooked Cross” used by Hitler and the Nazis. That’s all. Instead, it chose to assert its narrow and false interpretation over the reality of all that the Swastika has meant for thousands of years to India.
I started a public petition on Change.Org addressed to the External Affairs Minister. I urged her to consider setting up a “Cultural Sovereignty” task-force consisting of independent experts so that problems like this can be addressed.
My petition has crossed nine hundred signatures, and over a thousand people have supported it on social media. I also tagged the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR), as I understand from its website that its mandate is to represent Indian culture externally, asking that they at least write to Reuters.
Not a word from anyone.
But not surprising, is it?
I do not know if the present government will read what I have to say, or if it will address these concerns if it returns in 2019. Regardless of who is in charge though, I hope the Ministry of External Affairs, and indeed the officials in charge of national security and defense, start taking the cultural front seriously. The government of India, beyond any party or ideology, needs to expand its understanding of cultural relations from a simple, passive notion of staging shows and exhibitions abroad to aggressively fighting propaganda and mass-mediated hatred against the people of India.
I don’t believe that the government of India has had a well-articulated international cultural policy after the hoary days of Nehruvian Non-Alignment and the old UNESCO sort of debates on cultural imperialism. Since 1991, despite much good that might have happened in economic terms that year, we have not seen a vision or a policy about the global status of Indian culture that addresses the new global technological and political realities. At best, I can recall Doordarshan promos of the sort that used to appear in the 1990s celebrating that India is open for foreign trade. The government’s understanding of the global cultural battlefield seems to be like the kumkum welcome you get when you check in at nice hotels, with a little less smiling maybe. Come in for business is all it seems to be saying, regardless of what you call us and how you behave with us.
Even as successive governments have retreated from understanding the new media realities, a very clear and precise consensus crafted by Western academics, media, and businesses has been encircling our minds with inaccurate, unrepresentative and malicious depictions of our identities and cultures. Their privileged collaborators in India have of course then taken this motivated malarkey to be "God's" own truth and intended to liberate us from our innate Hindoo backwardness. The Black Mirror neural implant has gone viral.
I fear that without a clear recognition by our leadership of what is happening to India’s right to its own cultural meanings, we might head into a very murky future where political collapse becomes all the more inevitable. And what do I mean by political collapse? It’s not just a territorial or administrative loss, but a far more existential one: one in which every institution and tradition that has given India it’s backbone, soul, and voice for millennia will vanish without a trace.
And then, every community in India, Hindu, Muslim, Christian, other (for who can tell us apart by our looks, we are all Indian, that is all) will find this new reality as desperately painful as being seen as “roaches” in Black Mirror by the rest of the world. Yes, even you who graduate from international-certificate schools and IITs and IIMs and Harvards, especially you. In a competitive world where you succeed against the odds, there will be interests who gain from pulling you down by whatever weapon they think they have on you—and your identity, as a mega-maligned Indian, will forever be that noose for them. Unless you and your government get cracking at reality at least now.
Vamsee Juluri is a professor of media studies at the University of San Francisco
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Last Updated 6, Jul 2018, 9:41 PM