India’s right turn

Mufti Mohammad Sayeed expresses disappointment as BJP members beat up an independent lawmaker for serving beef in a private party

India’s right turn
There is little discussion in India about communalism as an emerging threat. Instead, it looks like secularism poses a serious challenge to the country’s existence.

Incidents of intolerance have increased since the current government came to power, and have now taken the form of violence. The murder of noted writer Prof MM Kalburgi a month ago, and the mob killing of Mohammad Akhlaq – a resident of Dadri in Uttar Pradesh – after rumors that he had beef in his house, has shaken the very basis of an inclusive India. Murders like these have a strong psychological impact not only on the minorities living in the country, but also those who stand for secular values that were seen as the foundation of the largest democracy in the world.

The response to these murders, essentially by those in power, has raised more concerns about where India is actually heading. In other words, it seems that secularism, and not communalism, is being seen as the problem facing India. Prime Minister Narendra Modi took a very long time before breaking the silence on the Akhlaq’s murder, and did not condemn it directly. That says a lot about his “new India”. Statements by leaders of the ruling Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) were more than clear in condoning Akhlaq’s murder. For the people involved in the attacks such as the one in Dadri, this subtle patronage by those in government has the effect of strong backing when it becomes clear that the culprits are being given a free hand.
Secularism, not communalism, is being seen as the problem

Ironically, forensic tests revealed that what Akhlaq had stored in his refrigerator was not beef. But he still had to pay the price for a rumor.

The reaction from Akhlaq’s grandson, who is a corporal in the Indian Air Force, was loaded. “Saray Jahan Se Acha, Hindustan Hamara,” he said. This simple line speaks volumes about what an average Indian Muslim is thinking. He could not even have forgiven his grandfather’s killers to start a new life. The fear that his very identity creates suspicion made him take refuge under Allama Iqbal’s famous poem.

A section of Indian media did give fair space to all the views on the matter, but the way the right wingers tried to justify the murder says a lot about the lines that have been drawn between communities. The way the extremist political groups are being allowed to go scot-free will have a dangers impact on the very edifice of India, which has been protected by secular and democratic values for over six decades.

With right wing parties showing no let up in capitalizing on  communal frenzy, and almost taking over the middle class India with their populist politics, there seems to be no light at the end of a very dark tunnel. What 15 eminent writers of India did in the wake of these two murders has rarely been seen in the past. The first of them, who showed the way to the others, was Hindi author Uday Prakash. Later Nayantra Sehgal, Ashok Vajpayee, KK Daruwalla and K Sachithanandan, who have an unchallenged standing in their respective fields, spoke against this wave of communalism. They returned the Sahitya Akademi (Academy of Letters) awards that had been conferred upon them, and many resigned from top positions. Concerned about the direction the Indian society is being pushed to, they challenged the Sahitya Akademi on being silent at least over the death of Prof Kalburgi. The Akademi is a prestigious body that represents 24 Indian languages. Its president had been silent on the issue. “We clearly see a threat to our democracy, secularism and freedom,” Hindi poets Mangalesh Dabral and Rajesh Joshi said in a joint statement. “There have been attempts to curb free speech earlier also, but such trends have become more pronounced under the present government. These are visible all over.” Vadodra-based writer Ganesh Devy made an interesting reference: “It is ironic that the Akademi is located in Rabindra Bhavan in New Delhi, named after Rabindranath Tagore, who wrote the poem titled ‘Where the mind is without fear’.

This move did initiate a debate in India. Writers are considered to be reflections of the society. When one Uday Prakash did it, not many had hoped that 14 others would follow. But the kind of concern it raised about what was happening in “secular” India, seems to point to a silver lining behind the dark clouds of bigotry by those who want India to be a Hindu Rashtra and have been emboldened to dictate to others what they can and cannot eat.

The events that the literati rose a banner of revolt against have put a big question mark over the secular credentials of a nation that has been criticizing others, particularly Pakistan, for their intolerance and extremism. When the challenge comes from a citizen who is directed by his or her conscience, it is formidable. That is the message these writers have given to those who have assumed the authority to make India hostage to their frenzy.

Moved by the protest, Sahitya Akademi president Vishwanath Prasad Tiwari made an appeal to the writers to protect the prestigious body and uphold freedom of expression, and also condemned the murder.

Meanwhile, a new drama unfolded in Mumbai, where Shiv Sena tried to enforce a ban on the launch of former Pakistani foreign minister Khurshid Kasuri’s new book. They attacked Sudheendra Kulkarni, a former aide of AB Vajpayee who had organized the event, and smeared his face with black ink. This too came as a grim reminder of the increasing intolerance with which right wing India is dictating its terms. When Kasuri launched his book, ‘Neither a Hawk nor a Dove’, in Delhi, among those present was former deputy prime minister LK Advani. Kulkarni’s event did take place, but what happened to him has worsened concerns that the space for dissent is fast shrinking in India.

The silence of those in government is being seen as support to the forces who want to silence dissent, and secularism has certainly taken a beating in India.

The author is a veteran journalist from Srinagar and the editor-in-chief of Rising Kashmir