October 18, 2015

India: Intolerance vs dignified dissent (Shiv Visvanathan)

Deccan Herald

Intolerance vs dignified dissent
Shiv Visvanathan, October 18, 2015

Famished road: Killing of writer M M Kalburgi and Dadri lynching strike at the very idea of India

Hardly a day passes without an incident or a statement being made that may rake up communal tension in the country. The killing of Kannada writer M M Kalburgi and the lynching of a Muslim blacksmith in Dadri for eating beef are but a reflection of this strife. These incidents triggered massive protests by writers and artists who returned their awards and relinquished to posts held by them at coveted literary organisations.

Sometimes, a single act can change the way you look at history. Prime Minister Narendra Modi was moving like a juggernaut confident in his majority, playing to the NRIs, convinced that the Congress was too effete to challenge him, smiling quietly to himself that the Nehruvian era was over. A new majority and a new world view had taken over India. Everything seemed to be going the way of the great celebration called the BJP. Yet, sometimes a small act, or a collection of small acts, can change the colours of politics.

Two events punctuated by a lynching changed the nature of the story. Firstly, 88-year-old writer Nayantara Sahgal returns her Sahitya Akademi award. It is a quiet gesture filled with dignity. There was none of the ranting and raving that the BJP was used to. No threats. No bullying. A voice of protest in the stillness of conformity. Sahgal objected to the killing of fellow writers and the lynching of an innocent blacksmith. She made two points. The idea of India is threatened when an innocent man can be lynched with impunity merely on the suspicion of cooking beef. Secondly, the India of ideas is threatened when writers lose the right to creativity. A society that condones murder is no longer civilised. A prime minister who remains silent through it all.

Quick compact statements that need unravelling: Sahgal was saying that an electoral majority was threatening democracy by suffocating dissent, eccentricity, the minority and the margins. A majoritarian regime then becomes an act of policing as classifications are created to prohibit or ban activities that the majority does not like. Thus, food bans threaten Muslims and the poor, censorship threatens the filmmaker and the author, and a fetishised security threatens ideas of dissent.

When murder becomes a site for celebration a la Sharma (Union minsiter) and Som (BJP MLA), politics acquires an ugly slapstick quality where governance is merely an act of bullying. Surveillance replaces transparency and silence becomes the lingua franca of conformity. Violence incarnates itself in several ways. Moral policing of sexuality, physical brutality against Muslims and ban against creative writers, all add up to a Hobbesian state for minorities and dissenters where the life of a citizen “is solitary, poor, nasty, short and brutish.”

Sahgal raised a small voice against that. Her sense of civility, her dream of India did not permit her to see a secular, socialist, plural and democratic India destroyed. Implicitly, it is clear that “Make in India” as a slogan for manufacture is going hand-in-hand with the unmaking of India as a culture. An idea of India needs an India of ideas which the BJP would not allow. Rectifying history does not create ideas. It is only an official form of vandalism.

Nehru Museum

The takeover of the Nehru Museum and Library in Delhi was a vandalisation of history, of governance as an act of philistinism. It is time to compare the pseudo-secularism of the Congress with the official intolerance of today. Secularism was a brilliant idea embedded into the wrong political context.

It was snooty and snobbish and alienated many people. But whatever its faults, it was not vindictive, vengeful or violent like the new intolerance and its Nehruvian envy. The new intolerance was an act of policing, a punitive notion of culture based on bans, a paranoid idea of security, a jingoism which would not allow for new ideas of sustainability or peace, especially with Pakistan. What Sahgal was questioning was the prime minister’s right to destroy a dream of India. For her, Modi’s majoritarian regime has destroyed the dream and turned India into a collection of nightmares. The silence of Modi is that final act of complicity.

In fact, when he finally did talk, he was mechanical. He blamed the Opposition which suddenly revived itself after a year of incompetence. Yet, there was no apology, no sign of mourning. It reminded one of Modi’s attitude to the riots of 2002. He had said “one felt sympathy for victims. It was like a dog getting caught under a car”. Akhlaq did not even summon that bit of emotion. Modi is more Rip.

The second event I want to discuss is the inking of Sudheendra Kulkarni, a very different kind of intellectual from Sahgal and both articulate different kinds of political imagination. Kulkarni’s book on Gandhi is a major effort at working through the Mahatma’s ideas. He has also been an aide of Atal Bihari Vajpayee and L K Advani and thus, in the thick of BJP politics.

Yet, unlike many of his colleagues, he believes in a dialogue with Pakistan and as part of his effort, launches former Pakistan minister Mahmud Kasuri’s book in India. A courageous act especially when the bully boys of Shiv Sena had threatened Kulkarni. He goes through with the promised event and the Sena blackens his face hoping it can also blacken his name.

Kulkarni survives with dignity though the Sena bosses are busy felicitating the ink throwers, as if they are soldiers who have fought Pakistan. His restraint and his dignity wins admirers. Two small acts by two intellectuals poles apart in their politics.

Two small acts of courage sustaining an idea of an India of human rights and peace. Both are ethical dramas of dignity saying no majority can ransom a city or silence a dissenting intellectual. Both are marked by the politics of dissent as a BJP regime attempts to bluster its way out.

Suddenly, the BJP record looks dismal. It is a string of book bans, beef bans, film bans, acts of censorship and the brutality of moral policing. One can add to it a definition of security that makes ecology an act of sedition and civil society activism anti-national. The party has no policy tool except syllabus reform. It emasculates the university and banalises IIM and IIT thinking it can clone such institutions. In fact, one sees a fascism that uses food, sexuality and books as targets of a philistine government.

There is no attempt to understand the creativity of the Nehru era. It is a movement to create a right which has no imagination. Just a sense of resentment. Resentment cannot serve as a vision of society because all it produces is a bully boy theory of revenge. Democracy is about the availability of decency, of fairness of empathy for the other and we see little of it in the Modi era.

Two events of protest. Two individuals have changed the tenor of history. Modi, no matter how orchestrated, no longer sounds musical. Two acts of protest usually seen as noise have done it. Communication theorist Colin Chermy defined noise as “unwelcome music”. It has been never more welcome than now.

(The writer is a noted social scientist and professor, Jindal School of Government and Public Policy, Haryana)