Climate of Intolerance: Question still begs an answer
The climate of intolerance that has taken hold of the country cannot be controlled by reduction in carbon emissions, but it can surely be tempered if the leader in Modi, who can sway the masses with his speeches, makes up his mind
Sanjay Kapoor Delhi
If it hadn’t been for the noisy, though colourful, Bollywood-style extravaganza organised on a cold wintry evening at Wembley Stadium, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to London would have been marked for the fierce protest mounted against him by the British media and civil society.
When he left for his 29th foreign visit in the 18 months he has been in power, some of his supporters may have perceived his trip to London and Antalya, Turkey, as a therapeutic break after a pulverising defeat in Bihar at the hands of his bête noir, Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad Yadav. The pugnacity of the protesters and the media belied these expectations.
A day or two before Modi landed in London, the online protest organisation, Avaaz, beamed a holographic image on the Houses of Parliament showing the PM with a sword that foregrounded the sign of Om, designed like the Nazi Swastika. The image was up for more than eight minutes and drew some criticism for its unedifying depiction of the visiting PM. There was an aggressive push-back against plans to host Modi on British campuses. He was supposed to address the Senate in the University of Cambridge, but it had to be called off due to trenchant opposition. When the PM arrived, the protests were intensifying and influencing the MPs and the media to ask tough questions of the host, British Prime Minister David Cameron, demanding that he raise the issue of human rights violations in India with Modi. The protest was not peripheral but mainstream: Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn was one of the signatories to this campaign.
The protest was not just about what happened in Gujarat in 2002 but also against the ‘intolerance’ displayed by the dominant ideology of the government which threatens to alter the inclusive and plural character of India. Perhaps for the first time since becoming PM, Modi was forced to take questions from the media that were not fixed by his handlers. The BBC and The Guardian asked him questions that many in the Indian media had wanted to since a middleaged Muslim was lynched in Uttar Pradesh’s Dadri by some Hindu supremacists for consuming beef.
The Dadri death was the climaxing of a campaign of hate that had been unleashed against those who did not conform to the misplaced and misinterpreted ‘Hindu way of life’. There were hundreds of incidents that never made it to the media, but they were driving the minorities into a hopeless corner due to their choice of food. The BJP-ruled states put in place laws that severely punished anyone slaughtering cows or consuming beef. In Haryana, for instance, there is a jail term of 10 years if someone slaughters a cow. The local government is also setting up beef testing laboratories all over the state. It’s a strangely surreal and absurd reality that many found bizarrely disconnected with the globalised Indian community that voted Modi to power. Many wondered: “Wasn’t Modi about fast-tracking development and reducing corruption?”
London was raising questions, both in the media and on the streets, that couldn’t be raised here without being subjected to ridicule and suggestions of violence. Why are the writers, filmmakers and scientists returning their State awards? In India, the supporters of the BJP in social media, lovingly christened ‘bhakts’ by those who cannot pierce through their irrationality, have been quick to find a motive behind the writers’ agitation. Their inability to comprehend the Nehruvian refinement of creating an inclusive culture where the mind works without fear is escaping the hordes that rejoice and revel at this growing intolerance. Many of them find it difficult to comprehend why liberal spaces are required for articulation of ideas, and academic and literary attainment. “They are Congress agents,” some leader suggested or, like Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, thought it to be a “manufactured revolt” by a rabidly anti-Modi crowd. Former BJP minister and editor Arun Shourie hit back at these suggestions in an interview to Karan Thapar on India Today TV that deserves to be watched a few times over if someone wants to gauge the intellectual outrage at how the idea of India is being mutilated by a cabal that “hasn’t read a book in 20 years” and cannot write a paragraph on their own. It was a scathing indictment of the Modi government and its utter lack of capability to find solutions to the country’s problems.
Much of the distress and pain of the writers, filmmakers and scientists has found common cause in different parts of the world. Nobel laureates, writers, eminent academics in prestigious universities abroad have all condemned the climate of intolerance that has taken control of a country that is so rich in intellectual and cultural diversity. It is not just impatient and intolerant about the other, but about the reading of our history and our past. Academics worry whether any serious research would be possible in this environment of brazen distortion. Characters from history are being viewed, packaged and repackaged depending on how they fit into the Hindutva worldview. So Nehru is obviously a villain as he was too westernised or had contempt for the obscurantist. The Teen Murti Nehru Memorial Library located in Delhi that has served as an oasis for scholars is euphemistically going through a ‘makeover’. This means ‘enlarging’ the mandate of the library rather than just confining it to Nehru and his world. The Director of the library and the museum, Mahesh Rangarajan, resigned when the culture minister, Dr Mahesh Sharma, began to turn all the institutions under his charge into Hindutva-positive.
The other institution that has been subjected to unrelenting assault is the Film and Television Institute (FTII) where the students were on a fast for many days, protesting against the appointment of an actor whose claim to fame was a role as Hanuman in the celluloid version of Ramayana. Filmmakers and FTII students were not opposed to the appointment of someone who was close to the party as long as he was deserving. Sadly, save for film star Anupam Kher, who ironically took out a march against those who were criticising the growing intolerance, and Pahlaj Nihalani, who is the chief of the censor board and is happy to be called Modi’s sycophant, there is no talent that can be at the helm of such institutions.
Modi, who seemed to have been taken aback by the sharp questions from the BBC and The Guardian, said that his government would take firm action if any incident took place in the country. He was strangely inarticulate when dealing with questions pertaining to the raging protests in the country. Many found such questions directed at the PM rather demeaning for a country of 1.25 billion people. Is it edifying for a country that its democratically elected PM is asked disturbing questions about his past or how his silence is undermining the inclusive character of the Constitution?
The climate of intolerance that has taken hold of the country cannot be controlled by reduction in carbon emissions, but it can surely be tempered if the leader in Modi, who can sway the masses with his speeches, makes up his mind. After all, as Shourie and others have stated so many times, nothing happens in the government and the party without his approval.