Of Modi's Policies and Being a Bystander

Illustrations by Natanin Rachpradit, creator of Bluish State of Mind, consultant illustrator and designer and Bolti Bandh's in-house illustrator. 
Published on November 10th, 2019.  

Mayuri Mukherjee is a security policy analyst. She has worked on the opinion teams of the Mint and The Pioneer newspapers, writing the daily editorials and commenting on foreign policy and security issues. Her work has also appeared in The Diplomat, Defense and Security Alert, The Jerusalem Post, India Perspectives, and The Statesman. In 2017, she was a visiting fellow with the Stimson Centre’s South Asia programme in Washington, DC. She has also held consulting positions with the Ministry of External Affairs in India and with think-tanks in Europe and Israel. Mukherjee has an MA in International Security and Diplomacy from Tel Aviv University, an MS in Journalism from West Virginia University, and a BA in English Literature from St. Xavier’s College, Calcutta University. She has lived and worked in Kolkata, New York, New Delhi, and Tel Aviv.

J: Let’s begin.

M: To me, it doesn't make sense to label people as right-wing, left-wing, pro-Modi, anti-Modi. I voted for him in the 2014 and 2019 elections, but that doesn't mean I will again, in the next election. I don't see a better Prime Ministerial candidate currently available. I don't agree with all his policies. I voted for Modi for his economic policies, but now I'm most critical of his economic policies. This is why boxing people doesn't make sense. I approach on a case by case basis. I don't agree with all right-wing policies or left-wing. I decide what makes sense to me, policy by policy. If we don't label, then we have more flexibility to talk about politics. We can agree on some issues, disagree on some. But if we are labelled as right-wing or left-wing, then we are expected, off the bat, to not agree on anything.

J: As a journalist, because of the stance you take, some readers will not engage with you. What would you say to them?

M: [My friend] Trina and I have divergent political views, yet she is one of the very few people I engage with on debates because I know our core values are the same. we both believe in the same fundamental human rights, for example. We disagree on policies and whether they protect or endanger those human rights that we agree on, or not. I know she believes in territorial integrity, for example. So just because she thinks India shouldn't have bombed Pakistan after Pulwama, I know she is not in support of Pakistan occupying Kashmir. She just doesn't believe in violence to maintain territorial integrity, and I don't see any plausible way other than violence in this specific situation. That's why I engage with her because I know we agree on our minimum basic non-negotiables. That's what I'd like to establish with readers and others who identify as having different politics as me.

J: How would you have a conversation with people to arrive at these basic non-negotiable principles?

M: First, a lot of journalists write condescendingly to their readers, insinuating that the readers that disagree with them are uneducated, unaware, not intelligent. That's how we alienate people who think differently. For example, after the 2019 elections, a well respected Delhi journalist at India International Center was explaining why Modi won. He said it was because of JAM - Jandhan, Aadhar, Mobile. Instead of Mobile, he said Mudra Loans. I was surprised how such a senior journalist could get the government’s main policy-narrative wrong. But this same journalist condescends rural vernacular audiences as not having education or knowledge. These elitist journalists are a small incestuous clique, disconnected from what's happening even on the outskirts of Delhi and the rest of the country. So, to be able to have this conversation, we first need to break the hierarchy of whose opinions are more valid. When we have echo chambers and are judgemental of our opposing echo chamber, we don't get to know them as people. We box them as being the "other" and stop engaging. Every echo chamber also puts forth their most vicious fronts, because that's what gets more Twitter followers and TRP on news channels. The online world allows us to be vicious without consequences, and this online behaviour becomes real offline behaviour. When we are having a debate on FB or Twitter, all our friends are reading and listening in, jumping into the conversation. But if we were having the conversation in person over coffee, people aren't standing around us listening or butting in. How weird would that be in real life? But that's what's happening on social media. The checks and balances in in-person conversations, like showing respect, isn't there online. So we must move there conversations to one on one, personal, real-life space from online. The conversation I have with my parents is not the same as the one I have with my friends or colleagues. But online everyone is the same consumer of info and we can't be sensitive to having relationship contextual conversations.

J: Social media is such a powerful tool for connecting people. Is there a way to use this medium to have meaningful conversations?

M: I haven't found a way to do that yet. In such a diverse user base, the non-negotiables of communication, words we can say or not, for example, are very different. I was part of a youth group with Israeli students online and that's where I understood that Jews are not essentially white but brown, and not colonial settlers in the Middle East like we used to think. So online spaces can be used for us to know people with different life experiences and stories. To know people, but not to debate with them.

J: Modi has moved policies or laws that previous governments were not able to. For some people getting shit done is more important than religious identities being threatened. But the privileged can afford to have this stand because their lives are not threatened by mob vigilantes. But say with someone living in Kashmir right now; how do we have a conversation with people whose lives are on the line because of government policies and actions, and it's not just an intellectual debate?

M: Again, we have to take it on a case by case basis. If the other person's life is on the line, and mine is not, I acknowledge her difficult experience, and that I haven't had that, and I defer to her to have her opinion. I don't have to agree, but I say - I understand you hate Palestinians infringing on Jewish land because you're a Holocaust survivor, and move on.

J: How do we respond to governments that are violating human rights?

M: It's a very big question, so when making a decision to respond (where voting is our response to a government's actions), we inevitably break it down into smaller questions. For example, I know a little something about Israeli politics, but I'm not a voter, so I'm not going to go to protests against or for the government. Or try to tell Israeli voters how to vote. In the Indian context, if one will vote for Modi or not is a complex decision. It is not dependent just on one issue, like Kashmir or demonetisation. It's a complex combination of the party's many policies, implementation, other party members, etc. I don't believe in protesting, speaking, writing on FB about my opinion and trying to convince others of it. That's just a product of who I am as a person. If others feel they want to protest and express, etc., I understand that that's who they are. Live and let live. 

J: How would you react to a criticism that you're being a passive bystander?

M: If I don't feel very strongly about something, I'm not going to do it because of social, peer pressure to do so. I have come across most people who don't know much at all about Israeli-Palestinian politics but express their opinions about it. I'd rather be quiet. I don't want to be an armchair activist. In 2012, every other day a world leader would call for the removal of Assad. 7 years later, he's still there and has basically won the war. So what if I don't like Assad? If not him, who? ISIS? No other better leader has emerged from the area. That doesn't mean I support Assad. But it doesn't matter what I think about him. One needs to have a very bloated sense of self to think that their opinion on Asad or any leader or issue actually matters to actually bring change. How will one bring peace in the Middle East by rallying in Brooklyn? We can't. So I choose to accept that my opinions and actions won't bring real change, because of my position in the world.

J: Where is this coming from?

M: One is the kind of work I do. As a Foreign Policy and IR journalist I see the problem with taking sides because each side is so complex, how do you choose? And if you choose, the side you choose doesn't matter in changing what's actually happening in the world. The strongest statement that came out of India's central govt on Syria was that we hope the violence stops. The Indian government’s stance has been for many decades to not impose our ideas of democracy on other countries as the US does. Let other countries sort their own problems out.

The Arab Spring was a defining moment for me in defining my stance in Foreign Policy. It was my first story and I spent the next 7 years following that story. I really thought India's approach to it was effective. Back then I thought India should do more, get more involved if we are to establish ourselves as a superpower. Now I see that India needs to keep its good relations with Middle Eastern governments because of labour exchanges, trade, economy.

However, I have dilemmas too about just being a bystander. Syria was too far, but Afghanistan is in our backyard, and I felt like India did have a moral responsibility to intervene to not let the Taliban government. In the 90s we didn't, but now India has the military wherewithal to do something about it.

J: What I hear you say is we should do something about it if we can, and if we can't, then we don't interfere.

M: Yes, exactly. I loved history. When I first started covering foreign policy, early on in my career, before I started work I was anti-Asad. He was on the Time Magazine cover in 2011 and I was so angry. But that's when I didn't know enough about what was going on in Syria. I was asked to write editorials in my first job supporting the Indian government's non-interfering foreign policy. I struggled with it. But the more I learnt how complex it was, I understood that India couldn't do anything, so their non-interference policy made sense. Interfering for the sake of interference as a bystander can do more harm than keeping away. Also, this ‘live and let live’ philosophy is what I learnt being brought up in a pluralist Hindu home.

Susmita Choudhury (fondly called Sushi) is a proudly millennial youngster from Assam, currently living in Hyderabad. She owns and runs a sustainable fashion brand named Nirlojyo; known for recycled and organically dyed fabrics locally sourced from Assamese weavers who have complete design-freedom over their artwork. A poet, mental health advocate, classical dancer, event organizer, cosplayer and colour enthusiast (if that’s even a thing!), she also adds that she’s graduated with a BSc in Fashion Design (if that even matters).

J: Let’s begin. 

S: Nirlojyo is the name of my brand. It simply means “shameless”. I grew up listening to that word every day as people tried to bring me down for my unstereotypical behaviour, it’s an insult given to anyone who doesn’t act the right way, talk the right way, dress the right way or just don’t exist the right way. I decided to take that and own it, to be Nirlojyo with pride because in being shameless. I don’t see any loss from my side other than the satisfaction of pissing off some aunties every now and then. When I was having a conversation with someone about why the older generation just can’t seem to understand why certain things matter to us, the person replied with, “Aunties and Uncles grew up in a pre-technology and awareness era and we cannot expect them to change their view on life overnight”. At first, I thought he was right but then I reminded myself of how my parents who also grew up in the same era and had the same beliefs changed their outlook as I grew up. As I started having conversations with them about mental health, queer youth, fashion amongst other things and then they took it upon themselves to research and educate themselves about such matters. This is why “Aunties” piss me off when they refuse to accept the idea of the generation changing and things not being the same anymore and that what they thought was right isn’t that right anymore and most importantly how significant the freedom to express is. 

J: What is it that they, these “Aunties” do, that makes you angry? Is anger all you feel?

S: My words are often twisted and made to sound like something I never meant. I’m still struggling to understand how much vulnerability I can put into my expression, how much I can say about these things. I’m certainly not shy to talk about it and often have people coming to me for advice only because I’m the only one in their peers who talk loudly about it. But I still cannot talk about it with everyone, not because I’m scared or ashamed of it but because of the sheer ignorance of people of triggers. To the people who set off triggers, most often unintentionally, try being a little bit more aware of your surroundings. It’s not that difficult to observe and make note of how people react to certain things. For example, if I know someone lost a loved one recently, I make it a point to not mention my loved until they adjust to their lives again. This is a very obvious example but this goes for everything. FYI, triggers are words, phrases, gestures that send a person to a memory that traumatizes them and sends them into a loop of darkness. And it’s just common courtesy to not do that; in any kind of conversation and when talking to really any kind of person. 

J: You’re from Assam and have a reputation of being a fiery, young liberal. Are your thoughts on the NRC or other similar Modi policies predictable?

S: I lived a sheltered life back in Assam where I didn’t have to worry about much when it comes to legal things or political or financial. I am obviously grateful for that but it’s an embarrassing fact that I being a person who is so close to my homeland, was unaware of such a thing happening. People were suffering and panicking and I lived in luxurious negligence. The first-ever visceral realization of this fact came to me when I was applying for my passport and my dad told me to get it done myself and the officer in my hometown asked me to bring my dad in because he thought I wasn’t a “pure” Assamese because of my contemporary Assamese accent. That feeling is when I realized that there’s an issue there. I’m quite embarrassed to say that it took a friend of mine in Hyderabad to make me aware of NRC, despite me being from Assam. Then when I went on to do some research on it I found out that I had filled my NRC forms without even knowing what it was. That is the luxury I grew up with I guess; my parents taking care of these things without me ever having to worry about it. You don’t have to worry about certain things that are huge issues for others when you live a sheltered and privileged life. But just because one can afford to be oblivious, doesn’t mean one should. And that’s exactly what I’m learning now. 

J: Would you say you have concrete opinions on these policies or political rhetoric, then? And if not opinions, in what terms exactly do you think of these things?

S: So, I have two opinions on this in my head that fight a war with each other every day: one is the humanitarian side which sees the injustice being done the minority back home and my heart calls out to them and the other side is the realistic part of me that knows what my states economic situation is and how we cannot afford to have people depleting us of those resources. But do I agree with the measures taken? Absolutely not. It came at the wrong time, in the wrong way and most definitely it rained harsher on the ones who opposed it in a way that I will never stand for. Then again, it’s politics and like almost every “grown adult” likes to point it out, what would I, a young “adult” know about it? I think it is important to know about what you’re speaking of, not in detail but at least an overview of it because if you speak from made-up knowledge and assumptions, those false ideas will spread. 

J: How much do you think one needs to know before engaging in conversations about that something?

S: More than knowing about the matter, I personally think it’s so necessary to be aware of what they do not know about that matter and accept that they do not know that (as hard as this does feel) and be ready to gain that knowledge from others. That’s why I think people genuinely need to have open conversations with people from both the for and against teams of an idea. I have read enough how it’s political propaganda and what-not to have a clouded judgement on this matter, what can one actually believe in these days when what we say is so minutely scrutinized and edited to the readers benefit? I even read an article a few days ago that NRC will be executed in the entire country now and only one religion will be affected by it, am I to believe it or treat it as fake news? Facebook posts, Google news, everything seems like a pool of articles that I need to fish through for any legitimate facts. The same goes for Article 370, a change so big cannot be expected to be accepted overnight if it is to be accepted at all. For me, I think if the entire “woke” youth of a country sees there’s something wrong with an issue, it certainly can’t be ok, right? 

J: So, you’re saying you subscribe to the category or community you describe as ‘woke’?

S: 'Woke' is a millennial term used to sometimes describe the people who are self-aware of the situations around them, be it social, economic, racial, political etc. I do and do not see myself as a part of them. I cannot be aware of all that is wrong or right around me but only of those that matter to me. I don’t think anyone can know what’s wrong or right for everyone, and claiming that we do know is stupid. But that’s precisely why we need to talk to those we usually wouldn’t. The polar opposite of me would be someone who isn’t bothered by every single thing in life and doesn’t have an opinion on every small thing that goes on around them. I would actually envy that kind of a person because they can go on about life without being bothered by most things. I have met a few of these people in parties where they do not care about a stranger almost passing out in a corner because it doesn’t affect them while I can’t help but take him/her to safety, people who can just say that anxiety or depression is in their head and move on from it, or that something that is happening on the other side of the globe doesn’t bother them.  To someone who believes in everything or something I don’t, I’d like to ask just one thing; what would it take for them to realise that we live in an interlinked world where anything and everything trickles down to every single human being alive. 

J: Where is this coming from? 

S: My beliefs are an accumulation of the way I grew up and all the things I noticed while doing so. It also is thanks to people around me who keep talking to me about beliefs that matter to them and making me aware of what I need to be aware of. I don’t know if my beliefs are right or not or will they even stay the same one year from now but for now I came to this conclusion by myself and I’d like to stand by them as these opinions are mine alone. I just want a better world for everyone, it’s that simple. It may be childlike to talk like that in this day and age but that’s all I really want.