Mr PM, We Could Have Saved Govind Pansare

(Rana Ayyub is an award-winning investigative journalist and political writer. She is working on a book on Prime Minister Narendra Modi which will be published later this year.)

As I landed for a debate on 'The Big Fight' for a segment focused on the PM's statement on religious intolerance, I had Govind Pansare on my mind.

Last week, Pansare, a self-confessed rationalist and a member of the CPI, was with his wife when he was shot by unidentified assailants. Pansare's recent views on Nathuram Godse and his criticism of the the right-wing is being investigated by the Maharashtra police as a possible cause for the attack.

While we were in the midst of the discussion in the studio, Pansare succumbed to his injuries at a Mumbai hospital.

There is a reason I mention the NDTV debate. In a response to my co-panelist Nalin Kohli of the BJP on the PM's statement, I asked him why is it that the tech-savvy PM, who had the time to tweet about a 10-year-old temple in his name post the BJP's Delhi rout, could not tweet a strong message suggesting that the assassination attempt on Govind Pansare would not be tolerated. To this I was told by Nalin that the PM cannot be expected to make a statement on every incident and individual.

I have been cynical of Narendra Modi's condemnation of the attacks on churches and what was presented as his strong message opposing religious conversion, close on the heels of American President Barack Obama's statement on religious intolerance in India. And I, like most who are worried about the simmering undercurrents of fascism in the country, have reasons to be cynical.

Barely a month ago, Govind Pansare had spoken at the Shivaji University in Kolhapur against the increasing glorification of Nathuram Godse, who assassinated Mahatma Gandhi. It must be remembered that a BJP MP had referred to Godse as a national icon late last year. Pansare stated emphatically that Mahatma Gandhi was shot at by Godse, who was a member of the RSS, at which point a youth in the hall allegedly associated with the BJP's youth wing questioned Pansare's 'distortion' of history.

In the past, radical Hindu outfits like the Sanatan Sanstha, which have been chargesheeted in the Thane and Goa blasts, had filed a defamation suit against Pansare. He had written that the activities of the Sanstha which he said bordered on terrorism, needed to be checked and that the organisation was radicalising Hindu youth.

Months after the murder of anti-superstition activist Narendra Dabholkar in 2013, Pansare received a threat letter stating "Tumcha Dabholkar Karu", which translated that he could also be killed like Dabholkar.

One of the reasons the Hindu Right was up in arms against Govind Pansare was over his views of Maharashtra leader Shivaji, who has for decades been appropriated by the RSS and many other fringe outfits in Maharashtra, who sought to call him a Hindu Hriday Samrat (King of Hindu Hearts). VHP and RSS leaders have over the years been successful in cultivating an image of Shivaji as an anti-Muslim leader and they have used life-size posters of Shivaji stabbing Afzal Khan, a medieval Indian commander who served the Adil Shahi Dynasty of Bijapur.

The image was symbolic - it represented Shivaji considering Muslims as traitors. In his book title 'Shivaji Kon Hota' (Who Was Shivaji), Pansare sought to pierce the myth stating, "Shivaji had not become popular because he was just a Hindu king, but because his priority was welfare of the common people. He fought for justice, ensured security to women, and recruited fighers irrespective of their caste and community to help the dream of Swarajya come true."

In Maharashtra, political outfits like the Shiv Sena used Shivaji to popularise an anti-Muslim agenda which, according to Pansare, continued with upper caste organizations shouting slogans of 'Jai Bhavani, Jai Shivaji', while attacking Dalit communities.

Both Dabholkar and Pansare, comrades-in-arms, were dismissed as atheists who were out to deface India's glorious Hindu history. So while BJP spokespersons might argue that the PM cannot make a statement on every attack that takes place in the country, his actions can speak for his words. And here is where my cynicism steps in, and why I believe that my Prime Minister could have saved the life of Govind Pansare.

After assuming charge as the Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, who had spoken of being a pradhan sevak of every citizen in the country, made appointments which sent out absolutely contradictory signals.

He appointed a former journalist and a member of the Vivekanada International Foundation as the head of the Prasar Bharti. The same man, in an editorial for the Pioneer in September 2007, titled "Prosecute these atheist bullies", had written, "Indians are a deeply religious people and a few non-believers cannot be allowed to disrupt national life through their disparaging comments about religious beliefs. Non-believers are just a handful. The 1991 Census data on religion shows that there were just 1,782 atheists and 101 nastiks in India at that time."

Does the PM claim ignorance over the past of this man whose views on atheists like Pansare and Dabholkar were no less than criminal? Yes, the PM suggested last week that religious intolerance would not be tolerated, but why did the same PM not speak on the floor of the Rajya Sabha a few months ago on the issue of communal violence, after he was asked by members to condemn the viciating Gharwapsi, or reconversion campaign?

He could have nipped the increasing rabid voices in the bud by stating unequivocally in the Rajya Sabha that his government would take stringent action against any minority or majority who dared to upset the secular fabric of the country.

Was the PM not aware that by drawing the Godse analogy, his MP was seeking to indicate that any voice which spoke against the Hindu interest would be taught the same lesson?

Yes, the PM has come a long way to, "My government will not allow any religious group, belonging to the minority or the majority, to incite hatred against others, overtly or covertly."

But sir, you are late in speaking out. We could have saved Govind Pansare and his voice had you chosen not to look the other way.

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