Issues in Focus

In denial mode

Print edition : November 27, 2015

Eminent writers and artists march to the Sahitya Akademi office in New Delhi on October 23. Photo: V. Sudershan

Members of Parliament from Kerala staging a protest against the raid on Kerala House in New Delhi on October 27. Photo: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

More and more eminent persons join the protests as the Narendra Modi government refuses to acknowledge the growing tide of intolerance on the ground, despite its exemplification in the utterances of several BJP leaders.

It is difficult to pinpoint when it all began. But once the ball of protest started rolling, there was little that the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government at the Centre could do but insist that the reason for the cascading protests—a clawing atmosphere of growing intolerance—did not exist. The expression of a “collective conscience”, from individuals separated by region, language and locality, gave the impression that the anti-Nazi theologian Pastor Martin Niemoller’s poem for intellectuals in Nazi Germany had found allegorical resonance in the 21st century. The surprising part was that no political party or organisation was coordinating the protests led by writers, artists and historians, the first of its kind in independent India. They had acquired a momentum of their own.

If more than three dozen writers, poets and artists have returned their Sahitya Akademi awards since September in a symbolic protest against the killings of writers and rationalists, prompting the Akademi to convene a meeting and pass a resolution against attacks on writers, in particular the murder of M.M. Kalburgi in Dharwad, the next round of protests has emanated from some 50 historians, 300 artists, photographers, publishers and scientists. In a signed statement circulated by the Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust, 50 historians wrote that “differences of opinion are being sought to be settled by using physical violence. Arguments are met not with counterarguments but with bullets. When a poor man is suspected to have kept a food item that certain sections do not approve of, his fate is nothing short of death by lynching. At the launch of a book whose author happens to be from a country disapproved of by certain groups, the organiser is disfigured with ink thrown on his face. And when it is hoped that the head of government will make a statement about improving the prevailing conditions, he chooses to speak only about general poverty; and it takes the head of the state to make the required reassuring statement, not once but twice. When writer after writer is returning their award of recognition in protest, no comment is made about the conditions that caused the protest; instead the Ministers call it a paper revolution and advise the writers to stop writing. This is as good as saying that intellectuals will be silenced if they protest. This is particularly worrying for us as historians as we have already experienced attempts to ban our books and expunge statements of history despite the fact that they are supported by sources and the interpretation is transparent. What the regime seems to want is a kind of legislated history, a manufactured image of the past, glorifying certain aspects of it and denigrating others, without any regard for chronology, sources or methods of enquiry that are the building blocks of the edifice of history” (see box).

It was a sense of deep hurt and insecurity, including to their physical selves, that perhaps prompted the academics to come out with a written protest. It was a symbolic gesture but one which riled the government as it perceived that such actions were hurting India’s image and investor confidence.

Although some Union Ministers like Arun Jaitely described the lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq in Dadri, Uttar Pradesh, as condemnable, and Home Minister Rajnath Singh expressed concern over the phenomenon of intolerance, they continued to maintain that it was an isolated incident, an aberration, a law and order issue. Perhaps the weakest argument was that the protests were hurting India’s image. But two more fatal lynchings, one each in Himachal Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir, took place after the killing of Akhlaq, for suspected possession of beef. Less than a fortnight after the Dadri lynching, five Muslim men were nearly lynched in Mainpuri (Uttar Pradesh) on the basis of rumours of cow slaughter. This was followed by the shocking raid by the Delhi Police on the premises of Kerala House on October 26 after activists of the Hindu Sena, a little-known organisation (even its website does not give much information about it), spread the canard that cow meat was being served in the Kerala House canteen. Members of this outfit attained notoriety recently after they blackened the face of Engineer Rashid, an independent legislator from Jammu and Kashmir, as he emerged from a press conference in New Delhi. Rashid was targeted for organising a beef party at the legislators’ home in his State. Led by their leader Vishnu Gupta, Sena activists intimidated the employees of Kerala House in spite of being told that carabeef (buffalo meat) and not cow meat was on the canteen’s menu.

Charges and countercharges flew thick and fast. It was only after the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the Congress and the Aam Aadmi Party protested strongly that the police booked the Hindu Sena activists. There were serious jurisdictional issues as well. Kerala Chief Minister Oommen Chandy wrote to the Prime Minister asking him to issue a directive to the Home Ministry to take action against the Delhi Police for trespass. A. Sampath, CPI(M) Lok Sabha member from Attingal, said the incident was “humiliating” for Kerala. The inquiry report of the Divisional Commissioner of Delhi said it was a clear violation of jurisdiction and that the “Delhi Police had no authority to enter, inquire and search the alleged presence and sale of cow meat in the canteen”.

To underscore the point that everyone had a right to eat what they wanted, M.A. Baby, CPI(M) Polit Bureau member, and Nilotpal Basu, former MP, had lunch in the canteen. The menu included the usual item, buffalo meat. Interestingly, the BJP and the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) have not dissociated themselves from the Hindu Sena, which is described as a fringe outfit.

The tide of extreme reactions from MPs of the NDA and their sympathisers continued. Channabasappa, a BJP leader from Shivamogga, declared that he would “behead” Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramiah for stating that he had the right to eat whatever he wanted, including beef. Siddaramiah had made the statement at the general body meeting of the Youth Congress.

When the historian Irfan Habib likened the RSS to the Islamic State in terms of “intellect”, he was reviled. And, ironically, his namesake, S. Irfan Habib, who is also a historian, was subject to hate mail and “trolling” on social media.

The peculiar refusal of the Central government to acknowledge the growing tide of intolerance on the ground despite its exemplification in the utterances of some of the BJP’s office-bearers is a matter of concern. Kailash Vijayvargiya, senior office-bearer of the BJP, lashed out at the actor Shah Rukh Khan for saying that extreme intolerance prevailed in the country. Vijayvargiya said the actor lived in India but his soul was in Pakistan, and did not apologise for making such remarks. A day later, Yogi Adityanath, BJP MP from Gorakhpur, attacked the actor and said there was no difference between his language and that of Hafiz Sayeed (the chief of the militant group Jamaat-ud-Dawah). Other BJP leaders and Ministers too joined in the criticism of the actor but in different degrees even as BJP Ministers like Prakash Javadekar and M. Venkaiah Naidu were at pains to point out that the statements did not reflect the views of the party.

But the government got a jolt when on October 31 Reserve Bank of India Governor Raghuram Rajan had a curious topic for his convocation address at the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi. The title of the address was “Tolerance and respect for economic progress”. The seeming connectedness between the two aspects in the title appeared most apposite. Rajan pointed out why India’s tradition of debate and an open spirit of enquiry were critical for its economic progress. While he exhorted “competition in the marketplace for ideas” in order to keep the “idea factory” open, he asked whether ideas or behaviour that hurt a particular position of a group should be banned. He said it should not be so as a “quick resort to bans will chill all debate as everyone will be anguished by ideas they dislike”. Rajan’s views on “group sentiment” and the right to protection not of “specific ideas and traditions but the right to question and challenge, the right to behave differently so long it does not hurt others seriously” was a view shared by the writers, historians and artists who had either returned their awards or voiced their concern over the growing intolerance. Unlike others in the government, the RBI Governor did seem to think that there was a general tolerance deficit. He was concerned about economic reforms, too. The timing of the convocation may have been a coincidence, but what was not coincidental was the plea for tolerance, a plea that found its echo elsewhere as well by those who were dismissed as stooges of the Congress or the Left. Rajan made his speech two days after the World Bank announced that India’s ranking in “ease in doing business” had improved by 12 positions.

Union Finance and Information and Broadcasting Minister Arun Jaitely, in a blog post titled “The Ease of Doing Business”, shared on his Facebook page, highlighted this achievement and at the same time lambasted the Congress and the Left for their “ideological intolerance”. He argued that if anyone was a victim of intolerance, it was the Prime Minister. He wrote that while the government led by Narendra Modi was trying to accelerate India’s growth, “there were many who had never intellectually accepted the idea of BJP in power”. This, he said, “obviously includes the Congress, many Left thinkers and activists”. Jaitely, who has been the most outspoken face in defence of the government and perhaps the only one authorised to speak, wrote that “their strategy was twofold. First, obstruct Parliament and do not permit reforms which will bring credit to the Modi government. Secondly, create by structured and organised propaganda an environment that there is social strife in India.”

Dadri, he said, was a stray incident, which was both condemnable and unfortunate. “Notwithstanding such aberrations, India remains a highly tolerant and liberal society,” he said, sidestepping the fact that the role of the Central government, if any, is to ensure the continuity of the tradition of tolerance and liberalism. What he also did not mention is that several “stray” incidents happened in the aftermath of Dadri, all in a span of a month, including the inexplicable raid on Kerala House.

Speaking at a public meeting on November 1, the historian Romila Thapar, who had declined the Padma Shri award earlier on the grounds that she would only accept awards from academic institutions or those associated with her professional work, said that “in its inability to control its mobs, the only comeback that the BJP has is to describe the protesters as Leftists or those instigated by the Congress party. Many of us are Leftists and many of us are not Leftists. What the protest is about is the need for a liberal space and this is being emphasised again and again.”

The NDA has been in denial mode. Arun Jaitely had previously described the protests as “manufactured rebellion”. That the concerns were not exactly a political conspiracy got substantiated when Infosys founder N.R. Narayana Murthy, Biocon founder Kiran Mazumdar Shaw and the economist Meghnad Desai expressed similar concerns over the growing intolerance. Their concerns arose from a need to correct India’s image so that foreign investors are not put off. But they were concerns nevertheless. In the course of a discussion on a television channel, the Infosys founder urged the government to restore people’s confidence and ensure tolerance for the sake of economic progress. The renowned astrophysicist Jayant Narlikar, in a letter to President Pranab Mukherjee on November 5, expressed his concern over the increasing acts of intolerance in the country.

He, however, said that he did not plan to return the award conferred on him by the nation as public wrath should be directed at the government, which is responsible for maintaining law and order. “Nevertheless, I do share the general concern and hope that a statement at the highest level accompanied by reassuring action will come before long,” the letter said.

Controversial rating

In what seemed like a hard-hitting criticism of the Modi government, Moody’s Analytics, the economic and research analysis division of Moody’s Corporation, in a report titled “India Outlook: Searching for Potential”, observed that the NDA government did not have a majority in the Upper House to pass crucial reforms. “In recent times, the government also hasn’t helped itself with controversial comments from various BJP members,” the report observed, concerned with the apparently slow pace of the reform agenda of the government. Stung by the criticism, the government dismissed these views as those of a “junior consultant” and not that of the rating agency itself.

In an unusually strongly worded statement on November 4, the Information and Broadcasting Ministry criticised the Indian media for failing to make the distinction between the rating agency and a division of the rating agency. The opinion of a junior associate economist was splashed as the opinion of Moody’s Analytics, said the Ministry’s statement. “The government notes with distress that the personal opinion of a junior analyst was passed off as a commentary on India by a Rating Agency by the media to buttress the narrative it wants to portray,” it said, adding that the “media has a great role in enriching our national discourse, and such episodes seriously hamper its credibility, while spreading misinformation among the masses”.

The media’s narrative maybe questionable but so are the orchestrated fears about a “minority population explosion”, which is another topic that emerges with alarming regularity and which undeniably adds to the intolerant atmosphere under discussion. At its three-day national executive meeting in Ranchi, which concluded on October 31, the RSS passed a resolution demanding a review of the National Population Policy in view of what it called the “demographic imbalance”.

With the start of the Winter Session of Parliament, it is evident that the issue of shrinking democratic spaces will feature in some form or the other during the debates. It is likely that the opposition will press for a discussion on the issue. Not many see the apparent climate of insecurity caused by an intolerant atmosphere as an impediment to governance and the economic agenda of the government. Barring a few voices in the corporate sector, industry associations, known for their volubility, have largely remained silent on the “tolerance” debate. Whether it will be “business as usual” when there is such disquiet or whether the “image” of India will assume more importance than the right to life and liberty is the question.

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