A small Ahmedabad initiative holds out a different unity model
Even people who are materially worse off now, who are slumped and worried about their prospects, are still receptive to the messaging of religious supremacy or jingoism. Economic sentiment and political sentiment seem to have taken forking paths. Why is that? Because to many people, there is a holy cause that seems more pressing than the government’s economic record. Under its spell, even farmers and traders and workers and those out of work are not blaming the government for their lucklessness; they cheer it on for decisively inflicting pain on some perceived enemy, or for keeping minorities cowed.
Ashok Parmar may have come to the realisation that communal animosity doesn’t improve anyone’s life, but for many others, economic despair doesn’t dent majoritarian passions. In fact, material frustration may even increase support for such mass movements. It may answer a psychic need — when one is anxious, isolated and deprived, a mass movement that demands loyalty and submission can provide structure and identity, what Hannah Arendt called a “band of iron”. Unable to bear a self-sufficient existence, they merge gladly into a group identity; we see these energies in many parts of the world today. We don’t know what shape these reactionary movements will take, as they roll on, or how their recruits can be persuaded otherwise.
But either way, the Ekta chappal shop is a different model of peace and solidarity, where unity does not demand unifor mity, where we can be stronger together.
The poet Seamus Heaney told a memorable story about a bus of workers in Northern Ireland stopped by armed men. They make all the workers line up, and order the Catholics to step out. The group is mostly Protestant, except for one Catholic, who is terrified, preparing about to step out, when his neighbour squeezes his hand to signal: “no don’t worry, we won’t betray you, whatever your faith or party”. The man steps out of the line anyway.
But suddenly, he is thrown backwards, alive, as the armed men open fire on everybody else in the line, because in fact, these gunmen are from the IRA which claims the Catholic side. Heaney writes: “The birth of the future we desire is surely in the contraction which that terrified Catholic felt on the roadside when another hand gripped his hand, not in the gunfire that followed, so absolute and so desolate, if also so much a part of the music of what happens.”