The Modi era may give rise to a new crop of citizens who are unafraid to question the sacred.
I went looking for a silver lining, and I think I might have found one.
iconoclast (noun): a person who criticizes popular beliefs or established customs and ideas. Origin: mid 17th cent. (originally referring to someone who destroyed images used in religious worship): via medieval Latin from ecclesiastical Greek eikonoklastēs, from eikōn ‘likeness’ + klan ‘to break’.
Given the Hindutva credentials of Narendra Modi, it would seem odd that I\’m calling him an iconoclast. But I\’m not referring to Modi, the individual, and I\’m definitely not talking about destruction of religious images.
I see Narendra Modi as a conglomeration of ideas and influences, from the right wing to the non-elite. In the longer term picture of India, Modi is a phenomenon, an event that has become an inflection point in our history.
This inflection is such that it has massively disoriented the leftists, the liberals, and the intelligentsia. Everything these groups held sacred is being challenged, questioned, insulted. And this is where I see the silver lining: the courage to challenge the established and entrenched—things that are held as sacred by the rulers, the privileged, and the gatekeepers.
I have a problem with anything that is held as sacred. I have a problem with that word. It comes with the implicit condition that there must be a blind, unquestioning deference to that which is sacred. I find that a constriction on my intellectual freedom. I prefer \’useful\’ or \’important\’ or \’paramount\’ over \’sacred\’.
I understand why anyone would like to convert something to sacred. You\’ve got a good thing going—it may be a deity or a moral or a technique. It has benefited your generation, and maybe even the generations before you. For your own sake and for that of your descendants, you don\’t want to lose your grip over that flow of benefits.
You want to discourage anyone from disturbing that flow. You want to prevent people from challenging the primacy of that method or idea, because you\’re well-versed in it, you\’re familiar with it, it belongs to you and you belong to it. It defines you, your identity, and your existence. Disturbing the sacred is akin to disturbing your own existence. You will resist it with all your might.
Even when people tell you that there is another way out there, you will question the fidelity and legitimacy of that way. Even when massive evidence is presented to show how the \’new\’ is \’better\’, you will block any attempts to dislodge the sacred.
If we read enough history, we will find that immutable ideas that were held sacred brought down civilizations and corporations alike. I feel that it is a necessary exercise to occasionally question our deeply held beliefs, to question ourselves and our ways, even if we feel snug in the warm couches of our comfortable lives (meaning even if we feel there\’s nothing wrong in how we\’re doing things).
This exercise will uncover ideas, perspectives, and methods that may, potentially, further benefit the continued existence of our species. Unfortunately, nothing of the sort happens by design. More often than not, it is a voyage, an invasion, a discovery, or a work of art that provides the happenstance that leads to the uncovering of the new and the better.
Of course, scholarly research is a systematic way to uncover the hidden, but scholars are also prone to holding on to sacred theories. The human species is naturally intelligent but not naturally wise. This exercise may result in social regression in the short to medium term, but the arc of history tells us that human civilization has always taken three steps forward, one step backward.
What has happened in India? Suddenly, in the last five years, we are hearing a large number of voices questioning the legacy of Mahatma Gandhi. People are labeling him as a villain who ruined India forever. They are deifying Nathuram Godse, Gandhi\’s assassin. More and more people are accusing Nehru of being a careerist who illegitimately snatched the prime minister\’s post from Vallabhbhai Patel.
These things were unthinkable 30 years back. If even now we do not recognize that perhaps there was an overwhelming influence of a single line of thought then we are setting ourselves up for greater disappointment. As distasteful as I may find it, I would not ascribe any value judgement to the act of insulting Gandhi or deifying Godse. People have a right to their opinions and a right to voice it (just don\’t enter my personal space!).
I am a great fan of Gandhi. I\’m an even greater fan of the values that he propounded—truth and non-violence. Within the limits of my knowledge, my experience, and my learned inclinations, I believe that truth and non-violence have been of great utility to mankind—they have helped us build large-scale economic systems and increase our population (which seems like our only raison d\’être).
But I say we should always ask \’What if?\’. What if what has helped us till now is not going to help us in the future? What if our future is in becoming lying, cheating murderers? What if the species will survive only by reducing its numbers? No, I\’m not endorsing killing anyone; I\’m endorsing such thought experiments.
I\’ll also not discount the fact that there may be a central design behind questioning Gandhi—to dislodge left-leaning secular elites or to dislodge a political dynasty. Maybe people are being seduced into delegitimizing Gandhi\’s legacy. That sounds terrible, but I see (or I hope) that there will be a residual effect of all this iconoclasm.
Therein lies the real legacy of the Modi era (for me at least!). People will, hopefully, learn to shed the sacred, to question authority, and maybe even to question their own instincts, methods, and incentives. The interesting thing is that it\’s possible that the beginning of this era has sowed the seeds of its end. The ones who’ve been labelled as \’bhakt\’ may well turn out to be the shatterers of icons.
And who can we call the biggest icon of India today?