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In the age of anger, stop thinking your way of life is superior
My neighbour makes resolutions diligently each New Year’s Day and breaks them promptly before January is out. We usually meet in the first week of the year to exchange our resolutions but as I was away in Myanmar this year, we could only meet this week, when my wife asked him politely over a mug of masala chai: ‘So tell us, what resolutions do you intend to break this year?’ My neighbour is adept at stepping over the minefield of my wife’s bon mots and confessed that one of his resolutions was to be less angry over politics and religion.
We live in an ‘Age of Anger’, according to Pankaj Mishra in an insightful book with the same title. The resurgence of nationalist political movements has polarised the world, including India. We are experiencing endemic violence, fuelled by hatred towards minorities and a toxic form of nationalism. It is not only the right that is angry but the left has also lost its sanity at the loss of its privileges. The violence of rightwing extremists is matched by the arrogance of the liberals, who in the name of tolerance behave just as intolerantly towards those whose beliefs differ from theirs. The fault lies on both sides and one of Narendra Modi’s best resolutions for 2018 should be to heal the divide, bring more equipoise to social media, and make our lives calmer by returning to a more civil political discourse.
India today is a troubled and discontented nation. The intelligentsia is angry at Modi for trying to turn India into a Hindu Pakistan. The left has still not got over his victory in 2014 and finds it galling that he continues to remain popular with no alternative in sight in 2019. Hindus are angry because they are made to feel ashamed of their Hindu identity. Muslims feel insecure by persistent assertions of Hindutva. Dalits and lower OBCs are angry because they feel humiliated and excluded by the BJP’s upper-caste prejudice. The middle classes are angry because India’s policies have left us far behind East and Southeast Asia. Underlying these realities is a resentment of India’s English-speaking elites who have cornered ‘modernity’s choicest fruits’. The dispossessed are angry because Modi has failed to deliver the promised jobs and achhe din. All these angers find a ready tool in assertions of identity — the agitations of the Patidars in Gujarat, Jats in Haryana, Gujjars in Rajasthan, Kapus in Andhra, and Ahoms in Assam are symptoms of this.
Anger usually contains an implicit wish for some kind of revenge, a desire that the wrongdoer suffer. This is, of course, irrational for the wrongdoer’s suffering cannot cancel or undo the suffering, as Martha Nussbaum explains in her recent book, Anger and Forgiveness. The answer to anger is either to ‘laugh at itself till it goes away’ or find a leader with ‘compassionate hope’ like Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, or Nelson Mandela, who can teach people the value of forgiveness. Resisting anger, Nussbaum thinks, is a mark not only of our humanity, but of our sanity. Although she writes about the US, her arguments apply equally to India, also an ‘aspiring society’. The only benefit of political anger, it seems, is to make us go out and vote.
What then is the right response to the politics of anger? Yudhishthira’s answer in the Mahabharata was forgiveness — his character was influenced by the deeds of Ashoka Maurya — and the starting point for both was tolerance. Not only must believers tolerate each other’s different beliefs, but also the atheism of non-believers. Disbelieving secularists must value the convictions of religious citizens and stop seeing India’s politics only through the lens of Hindu hatred for Muslims. By treating Hindus condescendingly, they reinforce resentment and throw them deeper into Hindutva’s embrace. Above all, everyone must suspend the belief that their way of life is superior. Modi must remain single-mindedly focused on creating jobs while showing zero tolerance for any act of communal violence — he must condemn lynching instantly.
As my neighbour got up to leave, he asked my wife what lessons could India learn from a Buddhist country like Myanmar about controlling anger. They too are angry over the Rohingya, she replied, but they are constantly reminded of what Buddha said: You will not be punished for your anger, you will be punished by your anger.
Gurcharan Das, January 26th 2018