The only way we can confront him is by rebuilding our democracy into one which protects the likes of Afrazul and Akhlaq.

Shambhulal is the middle-class protagonist of Hindutva who destroys our secular dreams and our plural worlds. Credit: Bharath Joshi/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
On December 12, I read Syeda Hameed’s article in the Indian Express on Mohammed Afrazul and my blood ran cold. There was something stark and surreal about the event, a dance macabre dismissed as another banal case. Afrazul was a Bengali worker from Malda, a migrant – and Muslim – working to earn a living in Rajasthan. An ordinary, faceless, nameless man who would have lived anonymously if not for Shambhulal.

Shambhulal is not faceless. He is a middle-class avatar of hate and confusion. Our country today is not a collection of people. We are a collection of symptoms of hate and revenge, much of which is surreal. It is based on a sickness of history where our mind and our memories are still overcoming the Mughals. This generates a series of diseases like love jihad, the lynch squad or people trying to protect the virginity and purity of Padmavati. Our history itself seems to have become a disease because it is no longer historical. It is a narrative of melodrama drawn in thin air where a middle-class man can play Shivaji or Rana Pratap purging the land of alien invaders and infidels, pretending the Muslim worker is a Mughal infidel.

The Muslim is no longer the neighbour we lived with. Islam is no longer the religion which provided the creative syncretism of the Sufi culture and the poems of Kabir. The Muslim is the enemy we want to exterminate. The Hindu in the Hindutva movement virtually feels that unless he has brutalised a Muslim or some member of a minority community, his rites of manhood and citizenship are not complete.

The monster in us is banalised, following predictable social science categories where the victim as a target is already boxed into categories like Muslim, minority, meat eaters, perpetrators of love jihad. Daily violence – normalised as routine – has become as banal as a weather report. The language of description and closure has become common enough to erase the event from memory. The next murder has the same brutality and yet sounds disconnected. There is little sense of memory, or of remembrance. There is no painter, poet or playwright to mark the event. No Picasso with his Guernica, no Wilfred Owen to condemn the brutality of it.

Yet, it is almost as if memory and violence have become acts of consumption. Today, almost every public act of violence is accompanied by a video. So whether it is Akhlaq or Afrazul, the replay of the violent imagery becomes a crucial part of the act itself. As an acute observer suggested, Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmavati was an incomplete film. Padmavati, the historical piece, was the part before the interval. The second part was the modern day reaction, the making of the Karni Singh group, the confrontation between English accented broadcasters and the women fighting for a ban.
What really completes the drama is the emergence of Shambhulal as the new Hindutva Indian. In contrast, what one confronts is the weakness of the liberal-radical critique, and the very effectiveness of the protests. Shambhulal is now the new hit, not Deepika Padukone. His hate does not need explanation. Even a recitation of gibberish is enough. The contemporary response is an inversion and one realises as the full narrative comes out that Citizen Shambhulal is the play, the spectacle we are watching. He does not need a script. Any hurried telegram of words juxtaposed will do. Love jihad, Babri, anything.

As one confronts a closed mind and a closed majority, one realises that a parallel world of categories is being created before which words like democracy and human rights carry little meaning. The great Indian movie is Citizen Shambhulal. He has a solidity, power and presence which push even the great classic Citizen Kane to disappear into the margins.

Citizen Shambhulal is the other face of the BJP era. As long as Shambhulal is in the majority, the Modi regime is intact. The Shambhulals, in fact, exude a piety they call patriotism and project a machismo where a lynch squad confronts a random victim. Citizen Shambhulal has emerged from our unconscious. He is the middle-class protagonist of Hindutva who destroys our secular dreams and our plural worlds. Padmavati, the film, is like those wall paintings. As you erase the surface, a new picture emerges and below Padukone lies Shambhulal. The modern Indian has come of age. He is the custodian of imaginary histories and an ethnic cleanser. He seeks to exorcise history to create a home for his imagined self.
Shambhulal is not new. He comes in many avatars. Last year his hit movie was not Afrazul, it was Akhlaq. Shambhulal lives with impunity in the Ram rajya created by a majoritarian democracy. Neither modern human rights nor modern radical social science has an answer to him. One needs the power of absurd drama, a touch of a Kafka to confront him. He is the common man as the new genocidal self, the new idea India has built for itself.

Citizen Shambhulal is us. He has an epidemic everyday quality. As one stands to protest against him or write about his brutality to Afrazul, one realises his almost mythic, folkloric power. It stems not from him but from the billion hates that we, as a population, have sustained.

How does one confront Shambhulal? The human rights approach of speaking a minoritarian language, seeking compensation, has little appeal in the era of Shambhulals. Gandhians look more irrelevant because Shambhulal like Godse seeks to exorcise Gandhi from history. Shambhulal carries a certain sense of impunity. He is the new patriot who, in destroying or brutalising a helpless Muslim, believes himself to be every man’s Rana Pratap.

Activists have to continue the fight but one needs a new ethical, moral and political imagination to understand how modern society factory farms the Shambhulals. One needs a new kind of storytelling where the artist and the poet lampoon Shambhulal. The storyteller has to begin with Modi because Modi and Amit Shah are who have made Shambhulal possible. In establishing this link and challenging it, the forces of concern might create a new dream of citizenship where the other is sacred and a democracy which is never complete without protecting Akhlaq and Afrazul.

Shiv Visvanathan is a professor at the Jindal Global Law School and director, Centre for the Study of Knowledge Systems, O. P. Jindal Global University.

This article was originally published in The Wire.