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Mainstream, VOL LV No 32 New Delhi July 29, 2017

Manipulating Narratives

Saturday 29 July 2017

by Garima Mani Tripathi

Karl Marx once said that the ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas. This is apparently relevant in recent times, when many minority community people have been lynched on petty issues like beef-trading (or mere suspicion of that). Such attacks are due to manufactured and divisive narratives being imposed on the hitherto harmonious social order. Unless these narratives are questioned and countered through an affirmative and inclusive action, India’s composite fabric could be subjected to a false consciousness of a few individuals and imposed hegemonic narratives of the ruling class.

Since India has a pluralistic arrangement of society, it is important that narratives are consciously chosen and publicised so that the marginalised sections of the country do not feel threatened as ‘others’. When India became independent, Nehru deliberately adopted ‘secular-developmental’ narratives so as to nurture the fledgling nation’s social set-up that stood shaken by the partition on religious narratives. If the nation has survived and flourished as a democratic secular country in the last seven decades, it is because of the emphasis on the grand narratives like secularism as the core narratives propelling our socio-political lives. However, the engendering of narrow, concentrated and religion-centric narratives in recent times are a matter of concern. The issue of beef-trading or protection of cow is just one of several issues that are being invented to impose the concept of ‘others’ on the minorities.

Cows are suddenly being venerated to a higher pedestal where they cannot be killed or consumed as meat. The issue has been portrayed as being a matter of ‘concern’ to the majority community. Since narratives are usually passed on through many sources (sometimes orally and some-times through manufactured whispers), they get manipulated in the transition process from one set of people to another. As a result, these narratives are leading to chaos and unrest in different pockets of the country.

The manipulation of the narratives is being attempted in several ways. First, the Vedic texts and scriptures are being rewritten or are being translated differently. References to beef-eating in the earlier versions, though debatable, have been quietly modified through due contestation. School texts are being rewritten so as to hege-monise the young minds towards the majoritarian views. We are now being taught that the cow is the holiest of animals (without objectively testing the same).

Second, business firms and entre-preneurs are being encouraged to emphasise on the ‘holy’ aspects of the cow. There is a Bangalore-based firm that sells distilled cow urine. The Haridwar based Patanjali group manufactures at least five products using cow urine, the utility of which is yet to be established scientifically.

Third, the state is also chipping in through legislation to accord a pivotal status to the cow and even attempt a cow slaughter ban. The just notified Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (Regulation of Livestock Markets), Rules, 2017 will hurt millions of poor farmers and squeeze the country’s Rs 1 lakh crore meat and allied industries. The worst hit will be mostly the Muslim meat and leather traders who have been at the receiving end of the cow narrative.

Fourth, the public intellectual class in India are being discouraged to speak against the project of narrow narratives. As Romila Thapar points out in her recently edited book, The Public Intellectual in India (Aleph, 2017), the liberal space in India is threatened by religious fundamentalism, big business, and, worryingly, a government that appears to be tacitly encouraging the attack on freedom of expression, secular values and rational reading of history.

The overt emphasis on such narrow narratives has several implications. First, issues like the cow have come to symbolise the assertive politics of one group using the majority community’s tag to shame the minority groups. The new-found power through electoral politics is being used by these assertive groups to impose artificial constructs as value systems over the minorities. It is debatable if things would stop here since there are already many other debates being propelled into the discourse mechanism like the use of loudspeakers in mosques.

Second, it also dilutes the basic difference between animal life and human life since innocent human beings are being killed in the beef trading controversy. Many animals, including cows, may have been eaten during the Vedic days. Even today, cows do form the staple food of many in the North-East and other parts of the country. Why then should it propel us to kill traffickers or indulge in politicking? Instead, we should explore an accommodating framework considering the diverse interests of the society.

Third, it also challenges the political conception of tolerance. The Hindus are by and large vegetarians whereas the Muslims are largely non-vege-tarians. Yet, for ages, they have co-existed together without challenging each other’s cultural domain. That space is shrinking now due to the manipulated narratives creating new schisms in the society.

Contemporary German philosopher Habermas calls for discourse analysis by different groups through communicative action for reaching some kind of understanding or consensus on issues concerning the society. A vibrant society will have respect for disagreements as well! Our political elites need to take a cue and push for a rational discourse and inculcate constructive narratives for furthering the larger cause of society. This would prevent irrational narratives from taking the lead stage and allow the required space for affirmative, secular and progressive narratives.

Dr Garima Mani Tripathi is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy in Mata Sundri College for Women, University of Delhi.

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