Something is rotten in the state of Denmark,” says a minor character in Shakespeare’s iconic play Hamlet, expressing a sense that the affairs of the kingdom are no longer being ethically conducted, and that even the highest authority in the land is sullied by some moral turpitude. More than 400 years after Shakespeare wrote the play, citizens are so jaded that we are no longer surprised at any kind of abuse of power by government. We are too used to scams and the favourite response of the middle-class and educated Indians when critiquing politics is to quip, “All politicians are the same.” Or, “Politics is a dirty game.”
But, behind these hollow sayings is a cop-out that hides a deep rot. Many things are deeply rotten in India—our polity, politics, politicians, media, and once ‘neutral’ institutions. But, perhaps, the deepest rot is the one that festers in our society, in people like us.
Every other week there is fresh proof of this rot in the form of a heinous crime often enacted in public and, we, the proud inheritors of an ancient land and great culture hum and haw and make insipid remarks on social media, but never really shake off the cynicism and indifference that has brought us where we are today.
Recently, a ghastly video from Delhi captured a man repeatedly stabbing a young girl in a street as passersby kept witnessing the crime but rushing off. The man then smashed the girl’s head with a large stone. She died. Eventually, the Delhi Police arrested the 22-year-old Sahil Khan who apparently killed the 16-year-old girl because she broke up with him. I have seen the video. To me what is even more disturbing is the number of onlookers who witness the crime and stroll on, without intervening.
The horrifying video seems like an apt tribute to Indians of this decade. We, the educated Indians, who gathered in large droves at Ramlila Maidan in 2011 to support the India Against Corruption movement, but didn’t flinch when dalits in Una were tied to a jeep and flogged in public. We, who celebrated when a Kashmiri civilian was used as a human shield and later justified the blindings of Kashmiri protestors by pellet guns. We, the Indians, who have been undisturbed by the continued lynchings of Muslims to date. We, who didn’t flinch when an eight-year-old child was gang-raped in a temple in Jammu in a pre-planned crime. We, who name call protestors—be they students, farmers or sportswomen—because it is easier to discredit ordinary people than question those in power. We, who brush under the carpet unsavoury historical facts like the 2002 Gujarat riots, but believe lies and propaganda as long as it is in cinematic form. We, who light candles and beat utensils but never ask why oxygen did not reach the lakhs of Indians who died during the pandemic. We, who applaud the pomp and show of the inauguration of a new home to India’s much beleaguered democracy, but turn our faces away from the Olympic champions who are manhandled by Delhi Police.
We are the Indians who just don’t care! We don’t care about justice. Nothing pricks our conscience.
It is, perhaps, then no surprise that when we witness a woman being murdered on the street, we stroll by unconcerned.
Because, we, the Indians, have mastered the art of a split hypocritical existence. We are friendly, civilised and most of us fairly decent human beings in our personal spaces, trying to live honourable lives, but in public we are a disinterested, disconnected, cowardly lot scurrying to safety, willing to let a crime go unreported as long as we are not inconvenienced. We are so scared of some unknown retribution that we don’t have the moral courage to call murder or rape wrong. We prefer finding a way to blame the Congress from the 1970s for everything.
A society that couldn’t care less will one day turn its face away when we are at the receiving end of injustice. If only for selfish purposes, fellow Indians, speak up for justice now because one day the cause may be you!
The writer is an award-winning Bollywood actor and sometime writer and social commentator.