‘These are trivial issues’

Print edition : November 13, 2015

Mahesh Sharma. Photo: PTI

Interview with Dr Mahesh Sharma, Minister of State (Independent charge) for Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation.

Mahesh Sharma, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Member of Parliament from Gautam Budh Nagar in Uttar Pradesh, is among those Ministers who have been told by the party’s central leadership to exercise restraint. Sharma, who is the Minister of State (independent charge) for Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation, had sparked a controversy by describing the killing of Mohammad Akhlaq in Dadri as an accident. Before that, he courted controversy when he said that the late President Dr A.P. J. Abdul Kalam was a nationalist despite being a Muslim. He questioned the “ideology” of the writers who returned their Sahitya Akademi awards and was of the firm belief that Indian culture and civilisation had to be restored. With the party leadership asking Sharma not to express himself freely, the Minister skirted the issue of writers returning their national literary awards, saying that party spokespersons were dealing with the matter. Excerpts from an interview he gave Frontline:

There is this feeling that a standard culture is being imposed. Is there any reason to fear that culture is under threat?

Pluralism and diversity is our strength. People are looking to us. They ask: How is it that people with different religions, cultures, almost 740 languages with over 29 official languages live here, and the country is one? The whole world is looking to us.

So all these things that are happening, people have nothing to fear about?

We have to work within the framework of our Constitution and harmoniously. Our culture is Sarva Dharma Sambhav, Vasudaiva Kumtumbakam. We have to work within that framework.

Do you feel that the writers should not have returned their awards?

The Finance Minister and the government are addressing the issue.

So, the issues for the country should be good governance and not these issues.

Our issues should be good governance and the growth agenda. These are trivial issues.

Do you think the country will get over this phase?

India’s plurality and diversity have weathered many storms.

Do you feel disappointed when these issues come up?

From the point of view of tourism, it takes us several years back.

What has impacted the image of the country, the writers’ decision to return the awards or the incidents that preceded it?

I was not involved in this issue. From the point of view of tourism, it is a question of perception.

You had stated that women should not stay out late at night and that it was not part of Indian culture.

No, I did not say anything like that. I have five daughters. My daughter works on night duty. I don’t advise anyone what to wear, eat, or where to go in the day or night.

There is this impression that you are a hardliner.

I have been called an “uncultured” Culture Minister. One litterateur has used some unprintable language against me in some journal.

The Sahitya Akademi comes under your Ministry. So should the Ministry not have taken note of the writers’ protest?

It is an autonomous body. It gets finances from the Ministry. The literary people are our pride. I would love to talk to them. No one has raised this issue with me. I don’t think it is proper [the form of protest].

Is the Centre planning a law on cow slaughter? There are apprehensions about this as well.

It is not in my purview.

T.K. Rajalakshmi