Milligazette: 1-15 August 2014, p. 5
The great Indian soap opera, popular across the board in India and indeed counter-intutively also in Afghanistan, is not without its critics. It projects a pretty reactionary image of society, social and family relationships as good and desirable. It concerns itself with the rich and paints the poor out of the screen. If at all the poor find representation, it is as household workers low down in the food chain. Intended as platform for the advertising industry capturing attention of bored housewives, soap operas however cannot be left alone. Their largely regressive portrayal of the social sphere is being scrutinised by social scientists. Therefore, any comment on the Muslim community that these episodes make needs to be watched.
Take for instance the serial Uttaran (http://youtu.be/EYe59R2O-XQ). In an episode in which the heroine is seen as running away from home, her travels are depicted in a railway compartment. In this scene, there are two devout Muslims, a man and a woman, shown as fellow travellers. Their devoutness is depicted by the man’s attire and beard and the lady at prayer. The long and shot of it is that the woman eventually turns out a suicide bomber with the man guiding her into terror.
Could this digression of the soap in question into this scene have been unwitting? This is possible in that the terror narrative in the media in which Muslims are shown as villains has been on now for over a decade. The script writer has obviously internalized the narrative, as has been intended all along by the master script writers behind this terror narrative. They have evidently reaped the gains of their decades-long effort in the installation of the new regime in Delhi. With the new regime in place, prejudices, supposedly dating back centuries, can be expected to get full play. By this yardstick this can be attributed to script writer, director and the producer
However it is equally perhaps no co-incidence that the scene was aired soon as the new regime has stepped in. It cannot be negated that the scene was not thought up and inserted at the bidding of political players outside of the soap industry. We can expect more such innovative depictions of India’s largest minority as India proceeds further into the tunnel. This is but a trailer of the political project that is already unfolding. The normalization of viewing the minority as terrorists has drawn blood already, that of a young breadwinner walking down a Pune road one night recently. Wearing the markers of the minority is now to invite threatening attention, if not danger. Being conservative is to be linked in the minds’ eye to radicals, needing to be disciplined by violence.
What must the response be? Clearly, it has to be considered and with the long term in view. A knee jerk reaction to the episode in question is not consequential and will lead to dissipation of energy. The wider aspect of getting India out of the tunnel it has just got into needs to inform any action. In this the community is not alone. Liberal Hindus are alongside. Most Hindus who may have voted this regime to power for reasons relating to economy rather than cultural nationalist convictions would also likely have their blinkers fall away as the regime emerges in its true colours. In effect, the minority, though currently under siege, is not alone and will progressively cease standing apart. In short, the response must emerge not from a sense of victimhood or haplessness, but from a sense of eventual triumph. However, the interim would still need being negotiated. The quest for the other end of the tunnel would need being within the darkness of the deepening tunnel. Therefore, realism will have to inform the community’s response, in sync with that of the liberals in the majority community.
The first and most obvious direction is that the narrative must not be allowed to be reinforced by illegal acts or violence on part of the hot-headed element normally found in all communities. These acts are liable to be used to reinforce the false image created. This will alienate liberals among the majority, of whom an alliance is to be forged. Secondly, there has to be a constant scrutiny of such depictions, recording and appropriate criticism and counter in the media, in order that the counter point is at a minimum registered if not accepted. This will require hands-on engagement by professionals in the academia and media, and not be left to the politically inclined few. Thirdly, a reaching out and openness to the majority community in every forum and network, from business to sports, must be deployed to dispel the image being foisted. This will cause the necessary dissonance in minds of interlocutors, eventually leading up to the project of demonisation of the minority being received with incredulity since it does not measure up to their lived experience and interaction with the minority. This will eventually lead to displacement of the hold of rightists over the minds of people and in turn from the power.
Innovative strategies can be expected from the backers of the regime to further the political project of majoritarian supremacy, now that they believe they have a favourable government in power. This will entail equally imaginative and robust strategies for countering and displacing by the other side. This may not emerge from political parties, particularly since the Congress stands routed, as was the Left earlier. Traditional Muslim centric parties have their limitations in that they are restricted to their constituencies and mandates. They would require reinventing themselves to do justice to their image of themselves as representing the community. The response would require including the advantaged and the middle classes, who can no longer comfortably occupy their cocoons disengaged from the wider community. Ultimately, it is fight that the liberals among the majority would need fighting on behalf of all, including minorities. In this India’s largest minority can be the firmest ally.