Interview: Nilanjana Roy

‘People will reject Hindu nationalist vision for India’

Print edition : October 30, 2015

Nilanjana Roy. Photo: NAINA REDHU

Interview with Nilanjana S. Roy, literary critic.

From the killing of rationalists Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare, and M.M. Kalburgi to the lynching of Mohammed Akhlaq, the organised Hindu Right continues to function with a sense of impunity that is as distressing as it is dangerous. In this context, Frontline spoke to Nilanjana S. Roy, author, literary critic and social commentator, on the ramifications of an unbridled Hindutva brigade and the role of public intellectuals in shaping a culture of debate and dissent. Roy, a regular columnist, writes consistently on issues such as censorship and gender and has been a vocal critic of the increasing “ban culture” in India. She is the author of three books, of which The Wildings (Aleph Book Company, 2012) won the Shakti Bhatt First Book Award (2013).

The public lynching of Mohammed Akhlaq and other murderous attacks in the name of cow protection point towards an environment of growing religious intolerance under the present political dispensation at the Centre. These incidents have left public opinion sharply polarised on communal lines. What are your observations?

It started with the Love Jehad and Ghar Wapsi campaigns last year, and it has grown steadily worse. Communalism and incendiary violence do not happen in a vacuum; because of the government’s inaction and the tacit permission given to supposedly “fringe elements”, we now live in a climate of intolerance that actively sustains and nurtures these acts of violence. The lynching of Mohammed Akhlaq and the attacks on his family were fuelled by this communal polarisation, and both the Uttar Pradesh government and those who allow the right wing’s preachers of hate to foment trouble are to blame. We are in a sense moving back to the India of the 1920s and 1930s, a time of intense bitterness, communalisation and riots, where citizens had to work actively for peace and tolerance against forces that wanted the country to descend into an abyss.

Calls for bans on various things, including meat and books, pervade the political environment these days. Fundamentalisms of all hues seem to dominate. Recently, the Raza Academy pulled up A.R. Rahman for composing music for an Iranian film. The Hindu nationalists also forced the Malayalam author M.M. Basheer to refrain from writing his column on Hindu epics. What, according to you, bothers the fundamentalists the most? And why have such trends become resurgent?

It is a mistake to see these calls for bans, whether they come from the Hindu right wing, Muslim fundamentalist groups or intolerant Christian pressure groups, as evidence of anything other than demonstrations of religious power. We have, as a state and also as supposedly liberal citizens, allowed the dangerous idea that people have a right to be offended to take hold over the last three decades, not just over the last few years.

The great liberal failure is that we have not sufficiently defended the right of creative freedoms, religious or atheist freedom of thought. This must be understood: if you allow anyone to shut down anything because they feel offended, you will spark this sort of competitive intolerance. Demanding a ban has become a way of claiming cultural and intellectual space and frightening ordinary citizens into staying silent over religious malpractices. It does absolutely no service to the millions of genuinely devout, faithful believers across all religions.

What bothers the fundamentalists most is simply whatever they think will get them the maximum space on TV debates; what really bothers them is the idea that religions and the way they are practised should be open to question, from people inside and outside those faiths. Religion cannot be above the law—this is not good for citizens, and, curiously, it is not good for faith itself—but at the moment, religion in India is a law unto itself.

I think we are moving dangerously close to losing our identity as a plural republic. We have enough examples in the subcontinent that show us what a mistake it would be to become a religious republic, and to make that choice would be to strike at the heart of the diversity and tolerance that has always made India a great country.

There is a renewed interest to govern each and every aspect of an individual’s life. Everything, from what we read to what we wear to who we fall in love with, is being monitored. Moral policing is on the rise. Has this also contributed to the rising intolerance?

Surveillance and moral policing are indispensable to fundamentalists of all stamps; the urge to control every aspect of people’s lives comes from the deep-rooted fear that if citizens have sufficient choice, they will reject the fundamentalist way of thinking, living or being. Intolerance is a symptom of fear, and that fear is basically a terror of freedom: any time you hear someone saying “We won’t allow this”, or “This is against our culture”, they are actually saying they are very scared of people who make freer, happier, broader choices for themselves. In the short run, moral policing and surveillance works as a weapon; in the long run, it mitigates against real growth, which requires introspection and the claiming of freedoms not just for yourself but for groups that have been marginalised. Moral policing should not be seen as just a political problem but as a cancer that harms India’s development as a modern nation.

Could you tell us a little about how “ban” was used as a political instrument in independent India? How did it become a legitimate political tool? Do you see “ban” as a sure-shot marker of an authoritarian state?

Bans were an artefact of British rule and should be seen as a relic from the past. Every state does need the power to protect itself against hate speech that might incite violence, but we saw a relatively healthy evolution in independent India for a while: most governments learned the hard way not to use bans too freely, and Supreme Court cases against books, films and art have actually dropped in part because the courts have been fairly firm in upholding fundamental rights.

But it was a big mistake to pass religious offence laws in their present form and to allow the misuse of criminal defamation provisions—these are now used as instruments of harassment. The second development was not driven by the state but by right-wing and other fundamentalist forces: calls for bans have been increasingly accompanied by the real threat of violence. Between red tape and the fear of being harmed, or killed, too many of our freedoms—freedoms for ordinary citizens who want to speak up for their rights, women who want to address gender discrimination—have bled out.

The use of bans, and the lingering threat of bans, leads to a general numbing. The first few bans are greeted with shock, the next few are seen as inevitable, and what they foster most is internal censorship and pre-censorship—people are afraid to live freely, fall in love freely, read what they like, watch what they are curious about, or eat what they have traditionally eaten. Bans have no place in a country as lively as ours, where cultural and social traditions differ so widely. This is not complicated; no one should have the right to tell other people, other communities, how they should live their lives, and we have miserably failed to protect this very basic freedom.

There is also a sustained campaign by Hindu nationalists to change the nature of public institutions. There are efforts to reinterpret history and control literature coming out of India. Cultural media like films, plays, books and folk practices are all being closely monitored. The NDA government is actively aiding these efforts to reshape and control thought processes and imagination, in a way trying to manufacture the new “popular”. How do you view this?

This was expected, but it is still deeply disappointing, and I think many of those who are dismayed are voters who put their faith in Mr Modi’s promise of modernity. Now they find themselves regressing into an RSS-driven vision of India, which is not what they had signed up for. It is important for people to see that they are being deprived of their true heritage on all fronts. This is too large a country for only one version of history and culture to prevail, especially when that is the RSS’ monoculture. Those who try to control history, literature and Indian culture today display a contempt of their own past. I don’t believe, however, that this contempt is shared by the majority of Indians.

Many people are scared or disheartened at this cultural juggernaut grinding everything else under its wheels—we have seen a sharp descent in just the last two years. But I have a lot of faith in the independence of the average Indian, and our ability to choose wisely in the long run. Voters gave this government a chance out of hope and optimism in the idea of India as an economic giant, and out of that very Indian sense of justice, a feeling that the right wing had to have its chance in power. They did not, however, vote for this present blend of intolerance and ignorant and sadly often incompetent cultural imposition. People, just as they saw through the empty repetitiveness of the Congress agenda, will see through and reject the Hindu nationalist vision for India, which excludes far too many Indians. There is a very vocal, very aggressive minority putting forward the idea of a Hindu—read Hindutva—India, but the fact that they shout loudly does not change the fact that most Indians voted for a modern, progressive India. These two visions of India cannot occupy the same space; you cannot have modernity, cultural, social or intellectual, in a religious republic or a monocultural republic. I don’t underestimate the intelligence and shrewdness of the common man, or the thirst this generation of young Indians has for a modern country with deep roots in our very ancient, and very varied, cultural traditions.

Is public opinion slowly being moulded by unreason and superstition? The intermixing of history, science and religious mythology without adequate research is being promoted by the NDA government in all segments of society, both as curriculum and political campaign. Your comments?

It is an axiom that people who control the schools think they will control the future, and this is just another round of the textbook wars that have raged for decades. But while I am dismayed at the propaganda being pushed into the school curriculum, it must be noted that it is also very poor-quality, ill-researched propaganda. The big gamble is based on the understanding that if this regime can control and narrow what children learn in schools, they control how they vote in the future. But this is a large country, and wherever you go the desire for a high-quality education, not a rigid education, but a useful one, is so strong. We will have to see what people decide; if they feel that this sort of education will not give their children a good future, or will narrow their chances of getting good jobs, they will reject it. This is a very pragmatic nation.

More often than not, the Liberal versus Hindu Nationalist debate is articulated by the right wing in terms of social elite versus aam aadmi. The right wing has, in a way, successfully appropriated aam aadmi status, at least in the online space. Do you feel that liberals have failed to articulate aam aadmi concerns in the past few decades?

There is no liberal party. There are no liberal spokespeople, and there is no formal liberal organisation. My respect for people who believe in the liberal and inclusive vision of India put forward by not just Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru but Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Gopal Krishna Gokhale, Vallabhbhai Patel, Sarojini Naidu, Aruna Asaf Ali, Maulana Azad and many others is that they have stayed strong and continued to be articulate under tremendous pressure from an organised, well-funded Hindu right-wing movement. I think it is a mistake to assume that the aam aadmi is not liberal. The failure has been the media’s failure to hand the mike to voices from outside metros; there is no shortage of powerful liberal thought elsewhere, but we do not make space for those voices. The right wing has certainly vitiated the atmosphere online, especially with its armies of paid trolls, but the liberal voice has survived this onslaught, and will continue to survive.

The problem is that liberals, by their nature, tend not to organise very well—they tend to be individualistic thinkers, not herd animals. And, as you say, one of the big failures of Indian politics is that no party has had the guts to fight consistently for liberal principles, to declare that the Constitution is the most important book we have. It is this vacuum that the right wing has exploited, and if political parties really want to emerge from their shadow, they must understand that they cannot imitate the Hindu nationalists—they must create their own, strong vision of a free, inclusive and independent India. Not one party has done it.

Why have independent public intellectuals become unimportant in shaping public opinion in today’s day and age? There are communal interests reshaping the very idea of India. And suddenly the intellectual is anyone who is immersed in these interests.

This is strongly TV-driven, and more specifically TV news-driven. TV news shows have become like angry reality television: if you depend on people who can create drama, who can deliver great sound bites, then you will automatically edit out those who are more contemplative and more thoughtful. But there is also a larger failure, the failure to take humanities, which used to be the bedrock of Indian thought, seriously. The emphasis on higher education that focusses only on science and technology, and that too only in a narrow framework, has cost India greatly. I will say this: you cannot, as the media, or as a university, only bring out your thinkers, artists and most creative minds in a time of controversy and ignore them for the rest of the year. If you place politicians or godmen or even businessmen centre stage, and encourage only shallow discussions, then you get the intellectual climate you deserve.

How do you locate such fundamentalisms and growing intolerant behaviour within the feminist narrative? Gender equality seems to have been made invisible in the broad spectrum of “development” that the NDA government talks about all the time.

The Hindu nationalist agenda is fundamentally at odds with traditional Indian feminism, which encourages not just gender equality but a solidarity between feminists and those fighting against majoritarianism, against caste oppression, those working towards broad and massive systemic change. Indian feminism, as it has been practised, also gives itself the right to question the state, and interrogate the government in power. This does not sit well with Hindu nationalists.

The right wing gives women agency—the freedom to operate within certain well-defined limits—but discourages them from questioning religious divides, caste divides. So gender equality, which must translate into a broader equality for all citizens, is fundamentally in opposition to a government that allows its Ministers to say that there should be curbs on women’s movements, on what they wear, where they work, etc. You can give many women agency and limited power within Hindu nationalist movements, but the moment they stray from obedience to the party line, the moment they try to question deeper divides, they are silenced.

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