Discourse about intolerance in India

Intolerance in the Air

Posted on 1-December-2015

     In October this year, after the lynching of a Muslim in a village near Dadri in Uttar Pradesh close to Delhi because he was believed to have beef stored in his house, Nayantara Sehgal, best known to ordinary public as a daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru's sister, Vijayalkshmi Pandit publicly protested against the rising tide of intolerance in India under the present RSS/BJP federal government in Delhi and said that she was returning the award given to her by the Sahitya Akadami of India ( the national literature academy). Since then many writers, poets, historians, artistes and even scientists have voiced concerns about the rise in intolerance in the country. Some more people returned their awards, while others contented themselves with issuing statements. Spokesmen of the government and the RSS/BJP--most prominently the Finance Minister of India, often described as the third most powerful man in the present ruling dispensation--either dismissed the protests or accused the protesters of being politically partisan, or disgruntled over the lack of recognition they had been used to in the past or of themselves being intolerant towards the BJP and the RSS and of being viscerally opposed to Narendra Modi. The upshot of these exchanges is that the word intolerance has been bandied about in much of public discourse in the country for the last six weeks or so.

     In trying to understand this debate, in my unintellectual mind one question kept on returning: intolerance against what? People on either side of this discussion simply repeatedly used the word intolerance. Going back to Nayantara Sehgal's statement, she mentioned two specific incidents. One was the murder of M. Kalburgi, a Kannada writer who in much of his writing had debunked many Hindu beliefs and practices and had in the process sinned against true Hindu faith--whatever that may be. Nayantara Sahgal was unhappy that the Sahitya Akadami, a forum of literateurs, had not said anything over a writer's murder for his opinions (It belatedly did issue a statement after her initial protest had cascaded into a much wider protest). The second incident mentioned by Nayantara Sehgal was that of the lynching of the Muslim man in Dadri--an incident which had nothing to do with the Sahitya Akadami. It is evident that the two incidents are symptomatic of two distinct phenomena--the first of intolerance of opinions opposed to those held by a group and the second of intolerance towards religious minorities each of which is worthy of a different protest and must be treated separately. By conflating the two the protesting intellectuals have unfortunately blunted the force of their protest. In the interest of clarity it is necessary to look at the two phenomena--intolerance towards religious minorities and intolerance of criticism of one's opinions--separately. But first of all there are two views expressed in this discourse that need to be disposed of quickly. One was that it was wrong of the intellectuals to have returned their Sahitya Akadami or national awards--this is a strange thing to say in a country which remembers with pride the decision of Rabindranath Thakur to return his knighthood in the wake of the Jallianwala Bagh masscre. The second is the statement of the Indian finance minister that the protesting intellectuals are themselves guilty of being intolerant towards the RSS/BJP ideology. If the protesters are being critical of the present intellectual/emotional atmosphere which they see as being fostered by the present ruling group--this can hardly be called intolerance. Also the finance minister of India will do well to remember that for a healthy polity, intolerance towards negative and harmful forces is a necessity. For example, it is right to be intolerant of current attempts to glorify Nathuram Godse--for the criminal action of a man who in a preplanned manner went and killed an unarmed man not engaged in any harmful activity, there can be no justification. Another question that needs to be settled quickly is that of relations between the Rashtriya Svayam Sevak Sangh (RSS) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The claim that the two are separate is a myth that no one really believes in. They are as together or separate as two symbionts.

     A good starting point for a discussion of the present concerns about attitudes towards India's Muslim and Christian minorities is the run up to last year's elections to the Lok Sabha. Spokesmen for the BJP started saaying that Muslims had started a planned campaign for converting unsuspecting young Hindu women to Islam by Muslim men alluring them into marriage and this was dubbed love jehad. Likewise, in the wake of violent incidents against Muslims in rural western Uttar Pradesh around the town of Muzaffarnagar, a low noise campaign was conducted to say that Muslims in the area were arming themselves with country made guns made in Monghyr in Bihar, mostly by Muslim artisans. During the election campaign, a politician from Bihar,  Giriraj Kishor Singh, who later became a junior minister in the Narendra Modi govenment, said that those who did not vote for Narendra Modi government should go to Pakistan. Then, soon after the Modi government came to power, a number of ghar vapasi--return home--events were organised ostensibly to welcome back to the Hindu fold those Hindus who had converted to Christianity or Islam. Whatever might be said about such events, they did arouse anxiety among India's Muslims and Christians. Those with memories of the past--and there are many--would remember the anti-Muslim and anti-Christian undertones of the shuddhi, that is purification, movements of the 1920's organised by diverse Hindu chauvinists. At another event where the original copy of India's constitution was unveiled, attention of the public was pointedly drawn to the fact the original preamble to the constitution did not contain the words secular and socialist, the sub-text being that these were unnecessarily added later, ergo, they should be removed. Almost exactly the same point was made by India's home minister in the Lok Sabha last week in a discussion to mark the adoption of the consttitution on 26th November 1949 and the 125th birth anniversary of B.R.Ambedkar. Christmas day 2014 was officially celebrated by the Indian government as Good Governance day and the Supreme Court of India decided to hold a conference of chief justices of Indian high courts on Easter Day 2015, provoking a reaction not only from Christian groups but from the one Christian judge of the Supreme Court who excused himself from the meeting saying he was celebrating the day with his family in Kerala. The counter that after all such conferences are not organised on important Hindu festivals such as Divali or Holi or the judges' conference could easily have been organised during the long summer vacation went unheeded.

     Towards the end of August this year the government released in a brief announcement the bare facts, without analytical comment, about religionwise break up of India's population according to the 2011 census. The media highlighted two figures: Muslims were 14.02 % of the population, having gone up from 13.4% in 2001 and Hindus were 79.8%, going down, for the first time, below the emotionally charged mark of 80%. Now given the fact that the RSS and its affiliates have for years expressed anxieties- without any good reason--about the increase in Muslim population in India, even about the possibility that Muslims would some day become a majority, it is quite clear that RSS and BJP workers would have quietly started spreading this fear, especially in election bound Bihar. While the elections in Bihar were taking place in October-November, Mohan Bhagvat, the head of the RSS publicly proposed a review of India's population policy and at an RSS organised discussion on the subject in Ranchi in the beginning of November a functionary of the RSS talked of the need to correct the demographic imbalance. During the election campaign in Bihar, Narendra Modi made two speeches in which he clearly sought to arouse anti-Muslim feelings among dalits and other beneficiaries of quotas for backward castes. Amit Shah, the BJP president said at one stage during the campaign that if the BJP led alliance lost in Bihar, there would be celebratory fireworks in Pakistan--almost a reprise of what Giriraj Kishor Singh had said during the Lok Sabha election campaign of 2014. In September, during the furore over beef eating and cow slaughter, the BJP Chief Minister of Haryana said that if Muslims wanted to stay in India, they would have to stop eating beef. Very recently, in November, the BJP appointed governor of Nagaland and Assam said that Hindustan was for Hindus and he added for good measure that Muslims could go to Pakistan if they so wished--even though the gentleman is barred due to the office he holds from belonging to any political party, he could not but express an opinion typical of an RSS/BJP functionary. There are others, notably Sakshi Maharaj, Yogi Adityanath and Sadhvi Niranjana Jyoti--all BJP members of parliament and all wearing renouncer's garbs--whose anti-Muslim pronouncements have been much more intemperate. As if to add to all this two recent statements by judges--one from the Supreme Court and another from Gujarat High Court--even though probably correct within the limits of  discussions of points of law, could easily be taken to mean that Muslim personal law was being put under the scanner. Obviously, many people would link such  statements to the BJP's long held desire to enact a uniform civil code, a proposal that has always caused unease among Muslim intelligentsia. As Muslim personal law is something that leaders of India's Muslims hold very dearly to, this is one ground that must be treaded on very gingerly--if there are political minefields in India, this is one of them.

     Ever since its establishment, the RSS and its affiliates, have openly said that  India is a country for Hindus and, by implication, Muslims and Christians can stay here as second class citizens. Narendra Modi, though no law enforcement agency has found anything against him, still carries the baggage of the organised killings of Muslims in Gujarat in 2002  when he was the chief minister of the state. When these two facts are looked at together with all that has been done and said by people in authority--and not only the lunatic fringe-- in India, since Narendra Modi became prime minister have given good cause to India's Muslims and Christians to feel insecure. Some have publicly expressed their feelings. The first Christian group to speak was the Catholic Bishops' Conference which expressed its anxieties on hearing of the Conference of Chief Justices being organised on  Easter Day this year: one of the eminent Catholics said that after the observance of Good Governance Day on Christmas Day last year they were concerned that there might be an emerging pattern. Then came an article written by Julio Ribeiro, a policeman best known for effectively dealing with crime in Mumbai and with militancy in the Punjab, in which he said that for the first time as a Christian he was made to feel he was a stranger in his own country. Then came a statement in a television interview by Naseeruddin Shah, one of the finest and most respected actors in Hindi cinema that he for the first time was made to think of himself as a Muslim. Another Hindi film actor, the matinee idol Shahrukh Khan, said he was worried about the rise in intolerance in society. Then a third film actor, Aaamir Khan said that his wife Kiran Rao one day said to him she was worried about the safety and well being of their son and wondered whether they should move to some other country. There can be no question that the Catholic bishops, Julio Ribeiro, Naseeruddin Shah, Shahrukh Khan and Aamir Khan are any less good citizens of India than the most ardent believer in the ideas of Hindutva. While not much was said in response to the Catholic bishops, Julio Ribeiro or Naseeruddin Shah, the reactions to Shahrukh Khan and Aamir Khan were vicious; in the case of the former a general secretary of the BJP, no less, said that his soul was in Pakistan. There is no evidence that anyone in the RSS/BJP is paying attention to the expressed and, even more importantly, unexpressed angst of the Muslims and Christians of India, other than making an occasional unctuous statement about India always having been a tolerant society. Narendra Modi said in London in mid-November something to the effect that every citizen's life and property will be protected irrespective of his religion, caste or region. In the Lok Sabha last week he repeated similar sentiments. Narendra Modi's ability to make orotund pronouncements has already been amply demonstrated. What remain to be demonstrated are clear actions by him to reassure India's Muslims and Christians.

     When it comes to the treatment of Muslims and Christians--other religious minorities such as Sikhs, Buddhists and Jains are but sects of Hinduism in the Hindutva firmament--BJP people point out that there have been no communal riots since Narendra Modi became prime minister. But it is not riots that are the problem but the deliberate, quiet and not so quiet encouragement to anti-Muslim and anti-Christian sentiments which is worrisome. Muslims are especially vulnerable because they are often apt to be accused of loyalty to Pakistan. In this kind of emotional atmosphere one of three things can happen: the targeted community can be frightened into sullen silence; members of the majority community can be easily motivated into acts of violence against members of the targeted community, either on a large scale or sporadically such as the killing of a man in Dadri because he was thought to be storing beef in his house or of a man in Udhampur because people said he was transporting slaughtered cattle or thirdly, but very importantly, people in the targeted community can be radicalised into themselves committing acts of terrorism and violence against the majority, a distinct possibility in today's world. Hitler's rise became possible because many parts of Europe of l'entre deux guerres were dominated by conservative, anti-semitic and anti-communist elites who were primed by their inclinations not to see any danger in his rise. There is at least one precedent in India to remember. In the weeks preceding 6th December 1992, Lal Krishna Advani made slow progress from Ahmadabad, along with a procession of his followers, across much of central India with the intention of arriving in Ayodhya to assemble a group of volunteers to start the construction of a Ram Temple at the supposed site of the birth of Ramachandra. He never arrived in Ayodhya because he was arrested and his procession halted in Bihar. But on 6th December a mob that had gathered in Ayodhya in anticipation of Advani's arrival destroyed a 16th century mosque built there during the reign of Babar, the founder of the Mogul dynasty of India. From everything that Advani said after the destruction of the mosque--there is no reason to doubt his honesty--the destruction of the mosque was not part of his plan. But quite obviously his procession created the atmosphere in which the destruction became possible. This was followed by anti-Muslim violence in Mumbai in January 1993 which in its turn resulted in serial bomb blasts in Mumbai in February 1993 which were organised by Muslim groups led by Daood Ibrahim and Tiger Memon, both whom are now living in Pakistan.

     Nayantara Sahgal mentioned the killing of Kalburgi in Karnataka in August this year by some Hindu group ostensibly because of his iconoclastic views about Hinduism as an example rising intolerance in India. Others who have followed Nayantara Sahgal have also mentioned the earlier murder of Narayan Dabholkar, a communist and Govind Pansare, a campaigner against superstition as examples of rising intolerance. It may perhaps be more accurate to say that Nayantara Sahgal et al are concerned about intolerance towards dissident opinion. Since the rise of the BJP to power at the federal level, it is true that different Hindu groups--not all of them affiliated to the BJP/RSS--have sought to silence writers and others whose views of Hinduism are unpalatable to them: not only Govind Pansare and M. Kalburgi have been killed but earlier this year Perumal Murugan was targeted and Wendy Doniger's book, Hindus was not allowed to be published in India. These examples can be linked to the rise of BJP/RSS to power. But India has a much longer and wider history of difficulty with dissident views which has nothing to do with the BJP/RSS. Previous governments in India have banned Aubrey Menen's book on the Ramayana, Michael Edwardes' biography of Nehru, Stanley Wolpert's film Nine Hours to Rama among others. Till the time V.S.Naipaul received the Nobel Prize for literature, at least for official India, he was a hate figure for having written The Area of Darkness and India, a Wounded Civilisation. Other more notable instances are for example Mamata Banerjee's treatment of a university teacher for a satirical cartoon about her or the treatment given to Tasleema Nasreen because one of her books had incensed some Indian Muslims. Not long thereafter, a group of Kolkata Muslims marched to the offices of The Statesman to protest against the reprinting by the newspaper of an article from The Independent by their columnist Johann Hari in which he wrote about the tendency to shut out some discussions of questions about religion by saying that religious faith cannot be questioned. The article was not against Islam, except that the protesting Muslims thought it was. The Marxist government of the state, rather than ask the protesting Muslims to go home tried to work out a fudged compromise between the protesters and the editors of the statesman. The Rajiv Gandhi government banned Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses in 1988. Beyond these specific examples, intolerance of criticism of various icons goes far beyond BJP/RSS. Poor Stanley Wolpert was mauled by the Congress Party for his biography of Nehru and that too for spurious reasons. The fact is that  some iconoclastic views are very difficult to express in India of today. No one who says that the person responsible for the disastrous border war with China in 1962 was Jawaharlal Nehru can hope to escape having his name thoroughly sullied by the large tribe of Nehruwallahs of India. Anyone expressing iconoclastic opinions in public in Kolakata about Rabindranath Thakur, Subhash Chandra Bose or Vivekananda will be lucky to be allowed to speak for more than five minutes and one wonders how easy it is to make even mildly critical remarks about M. G. Ramachandran or C.N. Annadurai in Jayalalitha's Tamilnadu. If this is the kind of intolerance India's intellectuals are talking about, they would need to think a little more deeply and ponder over the wider phenomenon of intolerance of dissent rather than facilely blame it all on the BJP/RSS.

     India's intellectuals protesting against intolerance have first of all committed the mistake of mixing two entirely different phenomena: for the first, the rise of anti-Muslim and anti-Christian sentiments, the BJP/RSS are clearly responsible; the second, intolerance of dissident opinion, not only the BJP/RSS but many others are to blame. The crictics of the BJP/RSS should have clearly said that they were against the systematic encouragement of anti-Muslim and anti-Christian sentiments in India and should have called for a halt to it, for that is what needs to be done and soon. Unfortunately by choosing to use an amorphous expression like the rise of intolerance, they have made their attack diffuse. This catch all expression has allowed the BJP minister of finance to then blame the opposition for being intolerant towards the BJP ideology. In this kind of discussion, the meaning of words like tolerance and intolerance have gotten lost. Yet the real problem of edginess and fear among India's Muslims and Christians must needs be dealt with honestly and frontally and not through elegant utterances about India's tradition of tolerance and respect for diversity.      


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