Human beings can be conditioned to eat at a certain hour every day. And they can be conditioned to hate, without reason

I am typing this the day after journalist Gauri Lankesh was gunned down in Bengaluru. We have just returned from a march held at Chennai’s Press Club to protest the brutal murder. It was not a flamboyant or long march, even our anger was a little dazed, and we were lost for words. We, who deal with words day after day, found ourselves struggling to articulate the horror we felt. When murder itself becomes commonplace, how do you find words to make the shock sound unique?

Most of us are still confused, trying to wrap our heads around the idea of belonging to a nation that might murder for a difference of opinion. The killers of Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare and M.M. Kalburgi haven’t been found yet, their killings a chilling mirror of Gauri’s — the motorcycles, the guns, the shots at point-blank range. Their writing, like Gauri’s, opposed communalism, casteism, religious fanaticism; like Gauri they fought for the idea of a country that all of us believed in at one point.

Divided we stand

From childhood we have spoken always of ‘two Indias’ — city India and village India, very rich India and very poor India. Now we have divided the country again, this time by something more unbridgeable and amorphous — hate.

Hate. Such a melodramatic word, so final and implacable. It spilled out of the screens of our various devices last night and this morning. Ugly, viscous, shape-shifting, like the organism in the sci-fi horror movie Life that grows and grows, sucking out the life force from everyone it touches, until it becomes an overpowering monster.

One half of the country was horrified about a life snuffed out, another was so steeped in hate they hailed the murder. Amen, said someone. More will die, said another. Did you cry for x or y or z, mocked a third.

It’s a bad word

At first I was appalled. How can people hate anyone so much? But when you step back, you realise that all of us, in the darkest recesses of our minds, are capable of intense hate. Hate and repugnance are as real and tangible as love or adoration. In the brutal honesty of the pre-dawn hour, we are all capable of welcoming the death of someone abhorred or feared. Or feel a complete sense of nothingness at a life taken. What does a mother feel when her child’s killer is hanged? Does a lover pray for the death of his beloved’s spouse? Does an acid survivor wish her attacker will be run over by a truck?

Hate is a legitimate emotion. It makes us who we are. I hate jackfruit and religion, stick-jaw toffee and deceit. I hate socialising and crowds and too much ice in my drink. I hate fundamentalists and misogynists, godmen. And hypocrites and prigs and rollercoaster rides.

But there will always be people who like all of the above. And they will hate everything I love. Their idea of life, love, nation and religion will be fundamentally, profoundly different from mine.

If we meet, online or offline, we would probably loathe each other, but the little hates and pet peeves we nurture so secretly would stay in the petri dish, locked carefully in a glass container, within the safe room of our individual lives and social enclaves. Like the dormant multi-cell organism in Life.

But in life, as in Life, we have let the dogs out. Hatred is no longer a private emotion that touches nobody else, meant only to govern our own choices of what we eat, who we speak to, the gods we worship.

We have institutionalised hate and let it loose. And like the creature in the film, it has oozed out and grown, feeding on everything that was good, normal and wise, turning the country into a riven and bleeding place.

Lessons from above

In the very first chapter of Orwell’s 1984, we areintroduced to the deeply disturbing session called Two Minutes Hate.

In the book, it’s not a computer or a smart phone, it’s a telescreen, and from it emerges ‘a hideous, grinding speech… that set one’s teeth on edge and bristled the hair at the back of one’s neck. The Hate had started.’

It is a daily fixed session when the party members in Oceania must get together and watch a film about an enemy and express hatred for him. Within 30 seconds of the film, ‘a hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness, a desire to kill, to torture, to smash faces in with a sledge hammer, seemed to flow through the whole group of people like an electric current….’

This is the brute fury we hear today. It is unreasoning and mindless, but it is organised from above, as in the book, and for the same purpose: to direct the frustration and anger of citizens away from the government and towards an enemy, any enemy, even a non-existent one. Humans can be conditioned to eat at a certain time or bear a degree of pain. And they can be conditioned to hate, without reason, without any real knowledge of what it is they hate.

And that is what we see today. Ordinary, everyday people from our lives — cousins, aunts, brothers, friends — spitting inchoate, immense anger at an ‘enemy’ who must be exterminated. They’ve been taught this.

The paid social media cells, with their vicious trolls and copy-pasted venom, the TV channels and their frenzied anchors who pump up rage — these are not mere accidents of a digital age. They are a hate manufacturing industry.

We have possibly trivialised these developments as the predictable zeitgeist of the times and underestimated the very real damage they can and have inflicted on the fabric of society.

Three years ago, if we had asked any Indian what they felt most angry about, the answer would almost certainly have been corruption, the Congress party, politicians, no water, no power, no jobs. Almost nobody would have said their life was most damaged and choked by a Christian eating beef, a woman wearing a skirt, a Muslim offering namaz, a Dalit demanding rights. A mere three years later, there’s an army out there, speaking in a single voice of enormous ugliness, focussing tutored hostility against people and ideas as normal to India as the monsoon.

Institutionalised hate is a dangerous thing. Institutionalised anything is dangerous, it makes sheep of humans. And the conditioning today is one up on 1984 — not Two Minutes Hate but 24 hours of 365 days.