It was the year 49 BC and a general in northeast Italy, Gaius Julius, took the momentous decision to cross a shallow river called the Rubicon to march into the city of Rome. Roman law forbade entering the city of Rome with armies. Julius’s action led to a civil war and eventual conquest of the empire by him. He became Julius Caesar. Through this action he gave birth to the metaphor ‘crossing the Rubicon’.
Mani Shankar Aiyar too crossed the Rubicon when he called Prime Minister Narendra Modi ‘neech’. It may look a small indiscretion for which he was asked to apologise and subsequently also suspended from his party. But then, crossing the Rubicon by Julius was also a small violation of Roman law. The only difference in the present case is that unlike Julius Caesar, Aiyar will take his party down in the Gujarat elections.
In politics, we bump into many such seemingly insignificant Rubicons, crossing of which would ultimately lead to significant developments. That is why it is important for politicians to be ever careful in public life. The ‘chaiwala’ jibe at the PM at the time of his swearing in, by the same Mani Shankar Aiyar, has come to haunt Congress party for a long time. Sonia Gandhi’s ‘maut ka saudagar’ (merchant of death) barb at Modi, then chief minister of Gujarat – during assembly elections in the state in 2007 – cost Congress a full election.
Around the time that Aiyar’s reprehensible comment was all over the news, there occurred another ghastly incident in Rajasthan. There was a reported murder of a Muslim man, which was allegedly filmed live by the murderer. It was brutal – the victim was half burnt and beaten to death. The murderer has allegedly recorded another video in which he ranted about love jihad, and promised to teach a lesson to those who indulge in it.
A couple of days after, in Karnataka, body of a Hindu boy was found, in a horrible condition, castrated, burnt and his head mutilated. He was allegedly a victim of a clash between two communities.
These incidents can be dismissed as crimes that happens in any country or society. After all murders happen in all countries. Law catches up with the murderers.
But the rants and reasons behind these incidents demand that we ponder a little more seriously. The raison d’être is elitist or ideological; a belief that ‘we can’t live together’.
I am reminded of an incident in America in 1991. In what was described as a race crime four white police officers had beaten Rodney King, a black youth in Los Angeles, almost to death. King survived, but the brutality of the attack and subsequent failure of the judiciary to punish the officers – all were set free by a LA jury – led to a severe reaction where riots, looting and violence rocked Los Angeles for almost a week. It even led to attacks on innocent white citizens.
In a televised interview on 1 May 1992, which stirred the conscience of the entire American nation, Rodney King famously asked this simple question to Americans: “Can we all get along?”
It is time for us to ask this pertinent question. Virtues and values are created by us. We can find justification using those very virtues. Cow protection is a sacred virtue; none other than Mahatma Gandhi had dedicated his life for it. He once wrote that he was prepared to postpone the freedom movement in order to achieve cow protection. Thousands of Indians are engaged in cow protection; millions worship the cow. But life itself is sacred. How can we allow one sacredness to violate another sacredness?
A virtuous man had once called me arrogant for insisting that we all should stand up against violence in the name of the sacred. His argument was that while there were a number of cases of cow vigilantes indulging in murder and mayhem, there are more cases where cattle smugglers indulge in the same. He may be right; criminals do indulge in unlawful things. Law should catch up with them. But when civilians find ideological justification in violating the sacred, society has to stand up.
That is when we, as leaders – political or otherwise – have to ‘cross the Rubicon’. We have to raise our voice against all forms of madness, oral of Aiyar’s kind, or physical. We have to march all our armies into the moral space and conquer it. Therein lies the real morality of a nation. “Morality is the extraordinary human capacity that made civilisations possible”, wrote Jonathan Haidt in his book The Righteous Mind.
The problem with us is that mostly we are selective in our indignation and outrage. We see a pattern in Rajasthan and not in Karnataka. We fume and scream at one set of incidents and maintain culpable silence on the other. We must cross the Rubicon, not selectively, but always.
Let me return to Rodney King once again. Fighting back his tears and often repetitive, King had said in that interview: “Please, we can get along here. We all can get along. I mean, we are all stuck here for a while. Let us try to work it out”.
(The article was originally published in the Times of India Blogs on December 12, 2017. Views expressed are personal)