Monday, December 4, 2023

Idea of India under Threat

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There have been numerous acts of intolerance in India, a country known for its secular and inclusive nature. But with PM Modi preferring to embrace silence, there are fears of where this will lead to
By Smruti

IN the 18 months that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has led India, he has attempted to package the country in various acronyms and pithy slogans, mainly for his audiences abroad. Yet, the one slogan, more precisely a phrase, which has come to qualify India in recent weeks, is the one that must rile him the most—“intolerant India”. It threatened not only Modi’s carefully packaged marketing of the country, but more importantly, it cleaved into the very idea of India as a pluralist and secular democracy.

Now, as the government braces up for another parliament session this winter, the signs are on the wall. The opposition, especially the Congress under a resurgent Rahul Gandhi, is expected to corner the Modi government on intolerance. The defeat of the BJP-led NDA in the Bihar assembly elections to the Nitish Kumar-led mega-alliance has provided the necessary boost to opposition parties to press home the point about the country turning intolerant.

The government will undoubtedly unleash its defense in parliament and attempt to bolster it outside. After all, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley dismissed the resistance against intolerance and bigotry as “manufactured rebellion” earlier. Others will attempt to dismiss the movement too. But this is more than a political issue. The resistance to the threat of India turning into a bigoted, fanatical and narrow-minded society has gathered social momentum and brought a wide range of protestors out into the public domain.

Two incidents in recent times acted as catalysts: the cold-blooded murders of rationalists Dr MM Kalburgi in Dharwad, Karnataka, and Govind Pansare in Kolhapur, allegedly by right-wing Hindu fundamentalists on August 30, and the horrific lynching of Mohammed Akhlaq in Dadri, near Delhi, following allegations that he and his family had consumed and stored beef in their house.

AAmir khan (1)

“For the first time, Kiran said, should we move out of India? That’s a disastrous and big statement for Kiran to make to me. She fears for her child. She fears about what the atmosphere around us will be.”
By-Aamir Khan, actor.

The latest to voice his insecurity about an intolerant India has been actor Aamir Khan, who on November 23, said: “Kiran (wife) and I have lived all our lives in India. For the first time, she said, should we move out of India? That’s a disastrous and big statement for Kiran to make to me. She fears for her child. She fears about what the atmosphere around us will be. She feels scared to open the newspapers everyday. That does indicate that there is a sense of growing disquiet,” he said. “As an individual, as a citizen, certainly I have also been alarmed, I can’t deny it, by a number of incidents,” he said, and added: “For us, as Indians, to feel a sense of security, two-three things are important. The sense of justice gives a lot of security to the common man. The second thing, that is important, are the people who are the elected representatives… we look upon these representatives to take a strong stance, make strong statements and speed up the legal process to prosecute such cases. It doesn’t matter who the ruling party is.”

The resistance started with writers returning their awards to the Sahitya Akademi to symbolically protest against its studied silence as writers’ freedom came under the shadow of guns and open threats after Kalburgi’s murder. Soon, scientists, a community that rarely takes a public stand on social issues, joined their voices to the protests. Shah Rukh Khan too spoke up. As many of the protestors pointed out, the stifling of dissent, curbs on freedom of expre-ssion and diktats being issued on what one should eat, wear, read or watch by right-wing Hindutva outfits seemingly enjoyed tacit support from those in power.

Shah rukh khan With family (1)

“It is stupid to be intolerant and this is our biggest issue, not just an issue… Religious
intolerance and not being secular in this country is the worst kind of crime that you can do as a patriot.”
By-Shah Rukh Khan, actor.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, meanwhile, chose complete silence instead of words of reassurance or commitment to the constitution. It was not lost on people that a man who embraced social media and wished colleagues on their birthdays and remembered leaders on anniversaries, did not offer any comment on the rising intolerance. When finally he did, under pressure, it was the most wishy-washy statement in the circumstances: Hindus and Muslims must fight poverty together.

Anand Patwardhan
                                                                                      Anand Patwardhan

Jaitley, Home Minister Rajnath Singh and others attempted to change the narrative but the tag “intolerant India” had stuck. Instead, BJP’s spokespersons and apologists mocked the Idea of India that stands for a plural, secular, multi-denominational, inclusive and egalitarian country. Cultural Affairs Minister Mahesh Sharma mocked that “writers should stop writing”. Together, they were effectively undermining the letter and spirit of the constitution.
This began to inform international perception, provided ammunition for Modi jokes and allowed people to move away from the rah-rah narrative that had been built up. On social media platforms, where Modi and his managers had unleashed a blitzkrieg in the run-up to the 2014 general election and his loyalists continued to drum up support for him later, the tone had altered.

 Hamid Ansari, vice-president; MM Kalburgi, Kannada writer; Mohammad Akhlaq, Dadri resident
Hamid Ansari, vice-president; MM Kalburgi, Kannada writer; Mohammad Akhlaq, Dadri resident

Though “Modi toadies”, as author Salman Rushdie termed them, persisted in their abuse of anyone who spoke for the Idea of India, there was comparatively less bile and sharpness. The only defense that they were left with was “Go to Pakistan”, hurled at anyone who remarked on the growing intolerance. It sounded juvenile and funny. This was ironic because many protestors had been pointing out that intolerance and bigotry was turning India into a “Hindu Pakistan”.

 Kailash Vijayvargiya, BJP leader; Mahesh Sharma, culture minister; Dinanath Batra, RSS ideologue
Kailash Vijayvargiya, BJP leader; Mahesh Sharma, culture minister; Dinanath Batra, RSS ideologue

The national and international conversation about “Intolerant India” coming on the back of a less-than-stellar performance on the economic front, rising prices that saw pulses sell in retail outlets at `200-220 a kilo and the loss in Bihar means Modi is on the backfoot. His standard response in such a situation is to brazen it out and go on the offensive. Will he, indeed can he, do it against a revived opposition in parliament and the new-found confidence of many Indians to speak the truth to those in power?

The Kalburgi murder and the Dadri incident were the last in a series of events that have been cause of much concern. Beef bans, meat bans during Jain festivals, lynching of truck drivers on suspicion that they were transporting beef, disruption of book launches and art exhibitions, the mythification of science with Ganesh’s head being the first plastic surgery in the world, selective hounding of activists and NGOs believed to be Left-of-centre have all happened in the last one-and-a-half years.

Ghulam Ali Pakistani ghazal singer
                                              Ghulam Ali (Pakistani ghazal singer)

Other “intolerant” incidents include: threatening music concerts of Pakistani artistes such as Ghulam Ali, increasing visibility of RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat, Modi and his cabinet at a governance status update program of the RSS, a Muslim scholar being stopped from writing columns on Ramayana, Nobel-awardee Dr Amartya Sen being ridi-culed and vilified, Vice-President Hamid Ansari being taunted for his religion, the systematic saffronization of cultural and educational institutions, appointment of Dina Nath Batra to education boards, the Machiavellian twisting of the religious census to bring alive the BJP’s old bogey of “Muslim population growing faster” and much more.

It was the worst nightmare coming true for many, especially those who always suspected that the BJP and Modi’s talk of development and good governance was a market-savvy mask for the right-wing agenda of turning India into a Hindu state. It was a spiral of darkness of the kind that India had not seen in decades.

The government strategy to dismiss the writers as disgruntled leftists with failed Nehruvian ideals did not help. Banal questions like—they have returned the award but what about the prize money (`1 lakh), why are they protesting now—proved ineffective.

In fact, when Hindi writer Kashinath Singh, who hails from Varanasi, Modi’s constituency, returned his award on October 16, he pointed out that he was upset by the dismissive manner in which the government treated the protest by writers. He told news channel APN that he was particularly anno-yed by the response of some of the ministers in the Union cabinet: “The statements one heard from our ministers showed that they were in the least concerned about the issues that were being raised. The ministers have insulted the writers.”

Even BJP’s allies, the Shiv Sena and the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) have been critical of the intemperate remarks made by BJP leaders and ministers. SAD MP Naresh Gujaral reportedly said: “The prime minister had spoken (against Dadri lynching) earlier, but these motormouths have not paid eno-ugh heed to what he said. It’s high time that the BJP leadership takes action against at least against one such person so that there is some kind of sanity back in national affairs.”

Pradnya Daya Pawar, writer and poet, and daughter of path-breaking Dalit writer Daya Pawar, in her letter to Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis in October, while returning the state award and prize money, even stated it was “undeclared emergency”. Joining her were three other writers and poets in Maharashtra.

What is happening now seems worse than even the Emergency, said noted documentary filmmaker Anand Patwardhan. The undercurrent of his sentiment found a release in well-known novelist Shashi Deshpande resigning from the Sahitya Akademi general council and in noted writer Nayantara Sahgal’s letter returning her award. In it, Sahgal explained: “The Prime Minister remains silent about this reign of terror. We must assume he dare not alienate evil-doers who support his ideology. It is a matter of sorrow that the Sahitya Akademi remains silent…In memory of the Indians who have been murdered, in support of all Indians who uphold the right to dissent, and of all dissenters who now live in fear and uncertainty, I am returning my Sahitya Akademi Award.”

The rising protests meant that a section of the intelligentsia had come awake from the “comatose state” that award-winning novelist Kiran Nagarkar had lamented they were in last year. Yet, instead of paying some attention, the Prime Minister chose to disregard it all and move on as if he did not grasp the full import of what the bigotry was doing to the country’s social fabric. This was no fringe group, this was the mainstream and majoritarian political party leaders or elected MPs.

What is the way out of this spiral? Nagar-kar, Patwardhan and others say that all those who believe in the Idea of India must stand up for it now, irrespective of the profession they pursue, and speak up against the storm of hatred and intolerance.

Though such incidents took place during the Congress governments too, there was a difference. As a Mumbai-based social scientist put it: “There were hate crimes before 2014 too and the Congress was guilty of colluding in some of them. But there’s a difference. There is now a systematic diminishing of the plurality and tolerance, there is a triumphalism of Hindu majoritarianism, and there is visibly less acceptance of the other. Writers and thin-kers, who are considered the soul of the society, are resisting by returning their awards. Others will have to find their own language of protest.”

The fight against this spiral of darkness, clearly, cannot be one-dimensional and uniform, or short in tenure. A wider range of Indians, those in other fields, must discover their means of protest and find the nerve to say what they want to. Let no one tell us that the Idea of India as enshrined in the constitution is not worth fighting for, irrespective of how Modi and his ministers handle the parliament session.

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