Just a day after he vehemently denied he ever did communal politics, Prime Minister Narendra Modi went back to his old refrain, alleging in a Maharashtra rally that the Congress during its previous rule had wanted to allocate 15 per cent of the government budget for minorities and vowed not to allow splitting of budget or reservation in jobs and education on the basis of religion.

His denials apart, the fact remains the drift of the entire BJP  campaign shows it is falling back on othering Muslims, more aggressively than in the past.

But how far will it work? Difficult to generalize. But I can see what is happening right before my eyes.

We lived in quiet gated colony of a coal town, with a diverse demographic. Or so we used to believe. At the other end of our street used to live a correspondent,Munna bhaiya (MB) for us, for the largest circulating local daily. He would return home each morning around 3-30 – 4 am. And there will often be a few people waiting for him.

His influence could get our events, local cultural or sports or such, featured in the newspaper next day. It would mean better sponsorship, chanda (donation) collection and overall audience whenever we organized an event. Bragging rights in the social circle was of course a big plus. We were in early teens then, making all this very exciting.

The power of finding a voice we were well aware of. And newspapers had been serving this function reasonably well. And then liberalization happened

Alongside us, there will always be people from far off places who walked or cycled three to six hours to get there. Since we were in the main town, this was a normal journey for anyone from the surroundings if they had a business in the town.

These were often villagers and frequently tribals. They have travelled to get something or other about their community published in the newspaper. Sometimes, they will carry a compilation of requests of all those who couldn’t make the journey at that time. It could be a wrong arrest, a need for a pond or handpump, some sudden deaths due to lack of medicines locally, rampant mafia oppression, no teacher in school… Some were there for reasons I still shudder to even mention.

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At one time, the father of a teenage girl was waiting there. The girl had been kidnapped by a local mafia’s driver who wanted to marry her. The father, a small time farmer, didn’t want to involve his immediate community to prevent bloodshed and humiliation. He travelled over six hours to reach MB, carrying fresh jaggery and fish with him. Waiting patiently with us. The news was published, the DC sent local daroga (police station in-charge) to investigate, but the local mafia chief had read the newspaper by then and the driver was whipped, while girl was handed over to the father.

The power of finding a voice we were well aware of. And newspapers had been serving this function reasonably well. And then liberalization happened. Not so surprisingly, the harbinger was a communal riot post the Mumbai bombings. The two Muslim families in the colony, though very apprehensive, were still carrying on with their daily businesses. Jittery they were, but life was on. And at least one person was checking up on them every hour, randomly, to reassure them.

The problems changed their nature slowly and their intensity multiplied in some, benefits far outweighing problematic  fallout in some cases. And where the benefits were meagre, the hope for benefits still acted as a balm. The immediate victims of sand mining, illegal mining, logging and maddeningly growing often illegal constructions will frame their problems in a manner that will make positivity peddlers proud. None wanted to upset the apple cart. No one wanted to be left out anyway.

At the very same time the chances of making oneself heard in mainstream media outlets were slimming down. People like MB were appointed to head offices in capital cities covering the assembly and interviewing ministers, their local functions were outsourced to ‘contractors’ who will be paid based on the potential of their stories. Electronic media had arrived, and it was changing the entire news trade.

Of course liberalization had its flip side – while some like MB could move up the ladder and news delivery became  glamorous, those at the bottom too became progressively  marginalized.

But those who could make themselves heard became ever more cynical in the pursuit of their own progress. Over a generation, people started giving up on the promises of ‘development’. It was no more about society based on reason and values, and the ‘spirit’ trade began to flourish, predictably.

More schools and colleges closed, the more people looked towards ashrams and god-forsaken-men and miracles. People were no longer trusting rationale, they were rushing to where the mob was finding solace. The larger the mobs with absurd beliefs, the more engaged the audiences started becoming. Unreasonable was/is no more about level of education or status in society, but is now a function of the fear of /ambition to be in the herd.

In our colony, four rows of houses consisted of drivers, peons, clerks, section officers, gardeners … And on a good day, which was often, an outsider will think they are all of one extended family given the mausis, nanis, chachas, mamas were being entertained.

Four decades later, these are mere memories. Most people have moved away. New occupants of those dilapidated quarters are a remote reflection of the earlier ones. There are dividing lines on dinner table.

What began as a compromise to overlook some marginal victims for the promise to a more prosperous society eventually snowballed into massive ruptures in our social fabric. There are a dozen Muslim families in the colony now. That segment  wears mostly a deserted look though.

More schools and colleges closed, the more people looked towards ashrams and god-forsaken-men and miracles. People were no longer trusting rationale, they were rushing to where the mob was finding solace

They were advised to stay away during the most glorious phase of Hindus. Apparently, during their prime moment of regaining lost glory, Hindus may not be able to guarantee the safety and sanctity of the weaker ones.

And it all happened while were still watching.

Am reminded of an encounter of one of my friends with the Muslim station manager of the Mumbai airport, a little after the Godhra riots.

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As the manager was recounting the ordeals of his immediate family in Gujarat, my friend wondered whether any of his Hindu colleagues showed any empathy.

“No, not even the chaprasi,” the manager said bitterly and recalled that during tense moments in the metropolis, rife with rumours of another bout of riots, his family too went through some agony, planning for all kinds of eventualities. But none of the others came to reassure or commiserate.

The nation has slid down the path of disintegration even further. Will it ever be reversed?

Keep your fingers and toes crossed.

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