When I had my little spat with Shashi Tharoor over his praising the Modi government for its performance in its first few days of office, my main point was that the new establishment could not be assessed on the basis of its initial words and actions but in the longer perspective of the values and causes it stood for and where it wished to take the country. That view now stands vindicated.
For our ever-loquacious Prime Minister, whose oratorical abilities reach their heights when he is abusing the Gandhi family has, but for one brief statement, kept his mouth firmly closed while outrage at what his ideological clan are saying and doing sweeps across the liberal, secular, open-minded, freedom-loving and democratic upholders of our true nationhood. On the solitary occasion he spoke, an "exercise at deflection" as literary critic Ziya us Salam has called it, all he had to say was that Hindus and Muslims should not be fighting against each other but together fighting poverty.
Well, the one who was not fighting Hindus but fighting poverty all his life was poor Mohammed Akhlaq, as was his son, Danish, still fighting for his life after two brain surgeries. But where were Hindus and Muslims fighting each other? Nowhere. There had been the cold-blooded murder of three rationalist writers, followed by the lynching of one poor village blacksmith. It was not a communal riot; it was unilateral communalism. It had in it no element of mutual Hindu-Muslim rivalry. All it amounted to was one section of vicious militant Hindus, united in their ardent support of everything Hindutva stands for, targeting individuals they hate for not sharing their views to the point of killing them and then justifying the killing.
It is that which the Prime Minister was called upon to condemn. He elided the question, deliberately choosing to approach the matter in broad, general terms, rather than frontally confronting his most impassioned supporters who had resorted to violence and bloodshed, and then found excuses for these gross excesses. Moreover, these impassioned supporters included several of his Ministers, his MPs and his MLAs, and assorted Hindutva activists. Not one of them has been sacked. Not one has been repudiated. No one has been reprimanded. Instead, an "advisory" has been addressed to the UP government. No advisories have been sent out to Nagpur. No pledge has been made that as far as the Sangh Parivar is concerned, this must stop. No action has been taken to signal "zero tolerance" of any such words or actions in future.
In consequence, the entire establishment, ranging from government ministers to the lowliest cadres, has been reassured that they might continue their mayhem with little fear of being pulled up or thrown out. The real agenda of the RSS pracharak-turned-PM is being rolled out.
What a contrast to Mahatma Gandhi and Nehru before and after Independence and Partition. One's memory lingers on Gandhiji at Noakhali protecting the Hindus, at Bihar protecting the Muslims, at Calcutta stopping the madness, at Delhi soothing tempers and bringing back good sense: a "One Man Boundary Force". One seems to hear today what Gandhiji cited at his prayer meeting in Birla House on 22 December 1947: "I always like to be with a minority, for a minority as a rule does not commit mistakes, and even if it does, it can be rectified. But a majority is drunk with power and it is difficult to reform it".
The Modi majority is drunk with power. It mistakes majority rule for majoritarian rule. It believes it has the mandate to do as it likes, even up to and including condoning murder.
One also recalls the immortal words of Jawaharlal Nehru at the Ram Lila grounds on Gandhi Jayanti 1951 after he had vanquished the forces of communalism within the Congress party: "If anyone raises his hand against another in the name of religion, I shall fight him till the last breath of my life, whether from within the government or outside". That is leading from the front, not hiding behind the words of the Rashtrapati in order to save himself the trouble of confronting head-on the forces of hatred and violence within his own ranks.
Fortunately for all of us, the last of the Nehrus is still with us. Panditji's niece, Nayantara Sahgal, has spoken and acted, returning her Sahitya Akademi award because the Akademi "remains silent" even as the Prime Minister "dare not alienate evil-doers who support his ideology". That ideology is at variance with our Constitution, for, as Vice President Hamid Ansari whom she quotes has pointed out, our Constitution promises to all citizens "liberty of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship". This is the Constitution that "We, the People of India" - that is the Argumentative Indian - have given ourselves, incorporating the precious right to dissent. The right to dissent, whether it is I from the RSS or the RSS from me, can only be exercised if, as Nayantara says, India's "culture of diversity" is celebrated, not subjected, as it has been in recent times, to "vicious assault".
She has proved an exemplar with three other Sahitya Akademi award winners, Uday Prakash (who actually preceded her), Ashok Vajpeyi and Shashi Deshpande, and a host of regional Sahitya Akademi awardees - nine Kannada writers, Rahman Abbas the Urdu writer, Aman Sethi based in Delhi, GN Devy of Gujarat and three eminent Punjabi literati - following suit.
Vajpeyi points to our trembling "on the brink of a tyranny of uniformity and parochialism (with) violence, murder, intolerance, bans creating a fearful ethos (in which) being in a minority is almost a crime", echoing Nayantara's warning that "anyone who questions any aspect of the ugly and dangerous distortion of Hinduism known as Hindutva - whether in the intellectual or artistic sphere, or whether in terms of food habits and lifestyle - are being marginalized, persecuted, or murdered".
India's most renowned public intellectual, Pratap Bhanu Mehta, quoted by the Vice President, has said, "Indian democracy is a cacophony of voices. But if you scratch the surface, dissent in India labours under an immense maze of threats and interdictions". Shashi Deshpande aims straight at our conscience, individual and collective, when she points out that "silence is a form of abetment". She insists that now "is the right time for writers to reclaim their voices", to stand against "such acts of violence" and fight "the growing intolerance in our country". And Prof. Devy of Gujarat warns against the "increasing intolerance and shrinking space for dissent and free expression in the country."
This then is the time to remember the immortal words of Pastor Niemoller, who initially welcomed Hitler and, having kept quiet while others were being persecuted, incarcerated and killed, spent seven years in Hitler's concentration camps:
"First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out -
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out -
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out -
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me - and there was no one left to speak for me."
Before it comes to that in our much-valued secular democracy, it is, as Rahman Abbas has stressed while returning his award, "our duty to raise our voices against fascism, right-wing intolerant forces and lawlessness." Will we rise to the occasion - or "not speak out" NOW?
(Mani Shankar Aiyar is a Congress MP in the Rajya Sabha.)
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