September 23, 2015

India: The Government’s Failure to Control Elements Like Sanatan Sanstha Astonishes Me (Meena Karnik, The Wire)

The Wire

The Government’s Failure to Control Elements Like Sanatan Sanstha Astonishes Me

Nikhil Wagle, centre, here seen with Medha Patkar at a function. Photo: Ravivyas93 (Wiki commons) Telephone calls, Whatsapp messages, texts, all asking us to take care began flooding in. TV crews and their cameras made my small home look even smaller. On Monday, all of them wanted to interview my husband Nikhil about the threats made by the Sanatan Sanstha, a right wing Hindutva organisation. There is a threat to Nikhil’s life and he has refused to take police protection. For me, it is a feeling of déjà vu.
All this — the threats, the media coverage, the messages of support —  took me back to 1991, when the Shiv Sena first attacked our office, Mahanagar, an evening newspaper in Marathi that Nikhil and a few of us had started and which had become an instant hit with the readers. Nikhil wasn’t new to violence of this sort, having already experienced a personal assault, again by Shiv Sena activists when he edited a Marathi weekly called Dinank. Before that he had been attacked by Right Wingers while in college.
All that was long before I married him. Till Mahanagar, we were, at least I was, quite content with the sports and film oriented magazine that we published. But Nikhil always wanted a newspaper of his own to say and write the things he believed in. The result was Mahanagar, which immediately became popular but also made enemies.
For me, therefore, the first attack was a shock. Yes, I was frightened. My son was six months old and the ringing of the landline after well past midnight made me paranoid. The threats of kidnapping my son, the abusive language and the barrage of obscene remarks were something that I wasn’t prepared for. Those were the most horrible days (and nights) of my life. I remember we had had a meeting of like-minded friends at the Vanmali hall in Dadar where some goons entered with tube lights in their hands and tried to disrupt the proceedings. When we came downstairs, the windshield of our car was shattered and our driver was completely shaken.
The Shiv Sena had asked for a boycott on Mahanagar and the vendors were scared to sell the paper. All of us, including the journalists and proofreaders and those from advertising and circulation department took it upon ourselves to go around hawking the paper. Nobody was afraid of the might of the Sena. They were shouting slogans; some of the younger reporters went straight to the Sena’s headquarters in Central Mumbai shouting and asking the public to buy the paper. And the readers did. From these young, enthusiastic young journalists, I drew my courage. But that was when we were all together; at home I often felt helpless.
Eminent journalists like Prabhash Joshi, Nikhil Chakravarty and N. Ram came to Mumbai and litterateurs like Vijay Tendulkar, Y. D. Phadke and Ratnakar Matkari showed their solidarity. There were phone calls and letters that poured in to show support asking us to take care and reporters from English newspapers and magazines came home for an interview. (Another similarity between this time round and the last incident 24 years ago, if I may say so, is that very, very few from Marathi media took the matter seriously or were openly supporting us. I fail to understand the reason).
Today it is no different. Almost 25 years have passed since that first attack and things have not really changed. And today the need to talk about fundamentalism is more than it ever was. The Sanatan Sanstha – in their mouthpiece Sanatan Prabhat — called Nikhil an anti-Hindu journalist. One has to be profoundly ill informed to call Nikhil anti-Hindu. He has been against all kind of fundamentalism, be it of the Hindu kind or the Muslim variety; he will criticize the Santana Sanstha as much as he will criticize the Raza Academy.
What astonishes me is the failure of the government to control these elements. In an interview to Mumbai Mirror, the Managing Trustee of Sanatan Sanstha, Virendra Marathe openly said they give arms training. Why does a spiritual organization need to do hat? The viciousness of the Sanatan Sanstha can be easily summed up when it calls RSS a moderate organisation. And as a journalist, if one does not talk against them, then who and what do we talk about? The proliferation of such elements goes against the idea of our Constitution. A response to a book is a book not a bullet. But organisations like these are beyond comprehending this simple thought.
When I see Mukta Dabholkar I often wonder what the killers of Narendra Dabholkar must be thinking. Do they ever look at their children and try to put Mukta in their place? Is the animal within them so powerful that they forget the very religion that they claim to follow? How can anybody justify murder? Naïve questions may be because if was so simple, at least the abuses on twitter would stop.
How has all this impacted me? As a journalist and a strong believer in freedom of expression I was of course firmly with Nikhil. But I was not as fearless as he was and still is. One day while talking about the threats of kidnapping our son, I casually asked him what his reaction would be if something like that really happened and he said, “It would be the price we would have to pay for my kind of journalism!” I hated him for this reply.
But then I came to terms with his kind of journalism. It is fair, gives space to all ideologies but is based firmly in a strong belief in the Indian Constitution. Being neutral doesn’t mean you sit on the fence; hence there never was any ambiguity in his stand. He has always been a firm believer in non- violence and free speech. I remember his argument with some Dalit organizations when they came to our office protesting against Arun Shourie, whose weekly column appeared in Mahanagar and who had written a series of articles against Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar. He defended Shourie’s right to write what he feels is right. Whether as an editor he agreed with it or not was beside the point.
It took me a little while to get used to living with the journalist Nikhil Wagle. We have had our share of arguments and fights. And I realized that not just journalism, but the values that he believes in the way he lives; it’s a way of life. He never ever preached anything that he did not practice, in his professional and personal life. Also, I understood that while we might disagree on certain issues, our basic principles are same and if I have to be true to myself, I need to support this man. This also meant that I will have to accept these threats and attacks as a part of our life. I would have to get used to police officers coming home to offer security and Nikhil asking them to go back. I would have to act normal while pacifying his worried mother.
I still haven’t got used to these abuses and threats. It still disturbs me, though I try to not show it. It still makes me look back every time we go for a walk. It still makes me insecure when he refuses police protection. I still try to argue with him for being so aggressive. But I will never ever try to stop him from what he is doing. Come what may!