Mohammad Akhlaq, the 51-year-old ironsmith who was lynched and stoned to death in the west UP village, Dadri, upon suspicion that he had stored beef in his refrigerator, was a model Muslim. His elder son, Sartaj, patriotically enough, is a serving corporal at Indian Air Force. His younger son, Danish, who is battling for his life in a hospital now, is studying to be a stakeholder in Modi's young economy. His daughter, too, is educated.
If development were the only prism with which Modi Raj had been viewing the story of India, future forward, the Akhlaq family would have been at its very vortex, sipping digital nectar from the flower of opportunity, aglow with the blush of what days ahead would bring in their heels. But Akhlaq is dead, murdered most brutally, for performing development. Akhlaq is dead because development as monetary bulk alone is no guarantee of freedom, of civic security.
About 50km westwards, a random conversation on Delhi metro, or during the car ride to office, can be telling of the state of affairs in the country. The ubiquitous drone of "development", whirring from that slightly nasal, fearfully familiar voice of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, is the natural backdrop to any such Q&A - and whether he is on track or not forms the crux of most, if not all, of them.
Interestingly, most of these discussions and commentaries dwell on whether there is or isn't development. Very few actually ponder on the nature of what gets peddled/perceived as "development". While more jobs, clean cities, digital connectivity, more money to buy more goods, are economic indicators of development, there are other, equally profound, parameters that get brushed under the carpet. Parameters, which if given some consideration, would have not allowed the ghastly death of Akhlaq to happen.
Now that the honeymoon period is over, scathing dissections on Modi's economic performance have started doing the rounds. For example, criticisms abound that most of the newly created bank accounts under Jan Dhan Yojana are empty, that manual scavenging is hale and hearty despite the Swachh Bharat programme, that Adarsh Gram Yojana is languishing with MPs still in campaign mode for every upcoming Assembly election or by-poll, devoting little time for governance.
Every now and then, stories on how the Modi-led central government is piloting yet another project in the name of development are flashed on the front pages of our broadsheets and tabloids. For example, there's an initiative to train about 250 young women, whose parents are safai karmacharis, to become smart cab drivers for companies like Uber and Ola. Laudable, you'd say, even though its headline-grabbing, made-for-television superficiality looks gnawing. Others are more hilarious. Few months back, there was the rumble of information and broadcasting ministry training beggars to spread the word on Swachh Bharat on Indian Railways trains. This is development as a hearing aid.
Let's come to Modi's pet love - Digital India. What began as an initiative to enable e-governance and paperless government offices, to cut the red tape and bring in accountability among the ministers and bureaucrats, has fast become the cyber capillaries of an enormous surveillance machine. While the regime has been trying to establish complete and arbitrary control on the digital sphere - by enforcing sudden, legally untenable and constitutionally draconian bans and other forms of rights curtailment - it has learnt the hard way that it wouldn't succeed so easily. Whether it's #PornBan or #Section66A, the government has faced the full force of a judicial mindfulness in action. Hence, the focus has shifted from content regulation to connectivity, with PM Modi's much-hyped townhall discussion with Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg becoming the pivot of two wildly different stances on net neutrality and digital empowerment.
Even then, Modi's mantra of development as digital freedom has been exposed as a half-truth. The limited internet of Internet.org, in addition to having the usual drawback of ushering in technocorporate oligarchy in the garb of Facebook CSR, is also about fiercely policing what gets circulated in this really shrunk space of social media-heavy cyberspace. As this Sandip Roy article eloquently argues, the communal revolution, with its arsenal of out-of-context photoshopped images of sensitive issues like cow slaughter, religious riots, Hindu-Muslim love/hate, etc, will be henceforth WhatsApped, with no realtime mechanism to fact-check. The distrust of mainstream media is a fairly new odious and ominous by-product of development as impatience to break the fabric of secular, tolerant republic of India.
What good has Digital India done for the grieving family of the late Mohammad Akhlaq? How has connectivity and ability to WhasApp, Facebook, Twitter helped Sartaj and Danish, whose father was brutally murdered as a lynchmob was incited by fake or radically altered images from a different time or place? Where's the place for truth and patience to seek it in this digital dystopia of perpetual and homicidal belligerence?
What would have been development for the late Mohammad Akhlaq is equally true of what can possibly be development for a young Hindu working woman who faces sexist discrimination on a daily basis, or a left-liberal journalist out to get in-depth understanding of what prompted the Dadri lynchmob to murder a hapless 51-year-old ironsmith, who had worked shoulder to shoulder with Rajput farmers to produce top quality wheat year after year.
For each of them, "development" goes/went beyond mere monetary freedom. It is, to quote the brilliant Amartya Sen, "the removal of various types of unfreedoms that leave people with little choice and little opportunity of exercising reasoned agency. … There is strong evidence that economic and political freedoms help reinforce one another, rather than being hostile to one another."
Whatever growth and economic development Modi government is working towards, still has miles to go before it can add inclusivity to its list of virtues. As far as all-round empowerment is concerned, you can happily forget about it, unless empowerment simply means that the circle rate of the area you have been contemplating buying a house in does not scare you anymore. Or you get a non-resident hard-on thinking about the imaginary bullet train from Ahmedabad to wherever with which to tell off your American and Chinese colleagues at a tech MNC in Silicon Valley.
Development as all-round freedom for a thinking, acting, participating citizenry, with no fetters around its heart and tongue, with a free and intrepid media that acts not as a public relations arm of the regime but as a critical mirror, with as much economic dough as sociocultural and political flour, is exactly what the "idea of India" had been all about. Realpolitick, despite its many ugly manifestations, as in 1984, had steered clear of assaulting this inclusive nationalism.