Protesting Authors : Time Government Paid Attention

Brutal lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq in Dadri for allegedly consuming beef has divided political discourse and civil society in the country down the middle. Such a divide may have the seed of derailing prime minister Modi’s development agenda. For the first time in Indian history, right wing fringe element hooligans have tacit support of party in power at the centre. A  storm of protest has erupted against the environment of intolerance and effort to undermine pluralistic future of India.  Many noted writers who were awarded Sahitya Academy recognition for their work have returned their Sahitya Academy awards to government. Luminaries like Salman Rushdie, Amitabh Ghosh, and Vikram Seth and many columnists like Gopalkrishna GandhiMrinal Pande, have spoken out in support of the protest. 

Predictably, some people have criticised the move. 

Timing and motive behind outrage of writers has been questioned  Many riots, interference with freedom of expression, instances of massive corruption have happened in India. Why no writer have ever surrendered his / her award before?

  •  Mr. Arun Jaitley, finance minister of India has called the protest a paper rebellion stemming from ideological intolerance.
  • Author Tasleema Nasreen who had faced protest in India from Islamic fundamentalists while launching her book in India, has blamed Indian authors to exhibit double standard.  According to Nasreen, Indian writers defend Islamic fundamentalism, while flaying Hindu right.
  • Columnist Swapan Dasgupta wrote that authors protest has politics at its base. Some authors like Ms. Nayantara Sahgal and Mr. Ashok Vajpeyi, have dislike for Prime Minister and his ideologies. Besides, Ms. Sahgal is niece of first Prime Minister of India, who legacy Modi is trying to unravel. Mr. Ashok Bajpeyi is a member of a left political dispensation. So their antipathy to Mr. Modi may be understandable. Other authors may have joined the protest movement when they found the moment opportune. 
  • Columnist Chitra Subramaniam went on to claim that plurality of India is an abstract idea which is never on threat. Only disgruntled authors upset for not getting adequate importance in present dispensation are spearheading the movement.
  • Chetan Bhagat also commented on political dimensions in writers protest.
  • BJP spokespeople and sympathisers have tried to point out if Narendra Modi can be blamed for Gujarat riot, why not chief ministers of states ruled by opposition parties. Conversely, if Narendra Modi and BJP can be blamed for lynching of Akhlaq, blame congress party for killing of rationalists and intellectuals. For example,
    • Lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq happened in UP, a state governed by Samajwadi Party;
    • M. M. Kalburgi was gunned down in Karnataka, a state ruled by Congress Party.
    • Narendra Dabholkar and Govind Pansare were shot and killed in Maharashtra, when there was congress lead government in both state and at the centre.

There may be merit to all such arguments. The following are my take on the controversy.

  • I think, authors protest is a very unique nonviolent attempt at shaming the government. It is a very Gandhian way. It appears to be working. More BJP and/or government tries to attack the protestors by imputing motive, more they look small. Timing of the protest cannot be questioned, because may be time for such an idea has come now. At the same time, authors have opened themselves to criticism, if in future they desist from criticising any ruling dispensation for similar offence with comparable or better tactics.
  • An author must pick up his / her pen to defend the defenceless and protest against atrocities committed by powerful against the poor and downtrodden. So by nature, authors will always be left of centre in their political ideology. There may be a synergy between left leaning parties and authors. But that being the nature of things, one cannot attribute special motive to such synergy.
  • There is undoubtedly a deep seated antipathy that exists between left leaning intellectual class of India and Prime Minister Modi. Mr. Gopalkrishna Gandhi, grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, had written an open letter in Hindu about how Mr. Modi does not have the mandate to govern India. Murder of rationalists and Mohammad Akhlaq have simply reinforced such a stereotype. Case of Mr. Modi was not helped by party members and spokespeople, who have tried to rationalize such killings and/or tried to downplay an abhorrent communal lynching to a simple law and order problem. So much so, NDA alliance partner Akali Dal has also urged Mr Modi to rein in loud mouthed and crass BJP / Sangh functionaries, or damage his own image.
  • Mr. Modi has come to power promising growth, development, opportunites and jobs. Mr. Modi had promised a transparent, corruption free administration. Mr. Modi, however, has to balance his development agenda against Hindu supremacist agenda of his fellow travellers. After one year of corruption free governance, chauvinists are raising their head. Mr. Modi must nip such divisive forces in the bud, or his development agenda may go for a toss. Already, congress party with majority in Rajya Sabha has been successful in slowing down progress of government by stalling key bills. The protest of authors in the backdrop of growing intolerance may give them further opportunity.

  • It appears Mr. Modi and his team are losing the battle of perception, despite many good work. For this reason, it is important to cultivate intellectuals and thinkers who can convey the message of government to masses. Mr. Modi has successfully, bypassed media and intelligentsia and tried to speak to masses. He may be successful in wining elections, as many others had done before him. But if intelligentsia is alienated, they will forever paint him in black despite good work.
  • Mr. Modi has been elected to govern all of India. If minorities do not feel secure under his rule, it will usher in parties that believe in political dynasty, corruption and inefficiency. Many members of minority community have joined Mr. Modi to usher in a change of clean, developed, corruption free India. Repeated attacks on minorities, not only put minority members of BJP  in an uncomfortable position, it also damages prospect of BJP widening its base among all caste and communities of India.
  • Finally, as a prime minister of India, it is responsibility of Mr. Modi to give a healing touch to all people, from any caste or community, affected by right wing violence initiated by religious extremists from any community. Mr. Modi must make it clear in unequivocal voice that his government will not brook any intolerance and caste and communal violence as long as it is in power. No development agenda can work over dead bodies of India citizens.


Digital India, Beef Ban and Mohammad Akhlaq

Indian prime minster was in the US, in the last week of Sep, 2015, wooing top businessmen of the United States to invest in India. Prime minister was talking to heads of Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Apple about e-governance and digital India, Around the same time, Mohammad Akhlaq a small time handyman was dragged out of his home in village Bisara, near Dadri and killed. Mohammad Akhlaq was accused of eating beef in his house on the occasion of Id. 

What I find atrocious and Taliban like is that a mob of Hindu youth barged into Akhlaq’s house, searched his refrigerator for meat. When they found meat, they beat Akhlaq to death. Questions emerge,

  • Is this the sign of a civilised society, where a cow is given more value than a human being?
  • The mob did not know if the man had eaten beef. They searched his refrigerator. That is an outrage in itself.
  • They found meat and beat the owner to death. How do the mob know that the meat is beef?
  • Who are these people to decide what anyone else should eat?
  • An announcement was made using public address system of a temple nearby that Akhlaq and his family had consumed meat.  How did the priest and his accomplishes know about what the person is eating in his home unless it is a preplanned conspiracy?
  • Apparently killers were computer literate. They had spread the message using whatsapp. A primitive mind, that kills a man over a suspected slaughter of a cow, with technology can be dangerous. Do not arm a monkey with a sword, it can be disastrous.

To add insult to the injury, BJP party leaders MPs, MLAs from far and near were more concerned about killing of a cow. It was appalling that BJP leaders at the local level had very little to offer in the form of a soothing balm to the aggrieved family. Are they really that crass or are they blinded by loyalty to mother cow? 

Dr. Mahesh Sharma, local member of parliament and the minister of culture in central government, had said the death was an accident. It is difficult to understand the logic, when a human being is killed by fellow humans? More so when the mob was organised after making an announcement from the local temple? There is no denying that grievously injured son of Mohammad Akhlaq was treated in the nursing home / hospital of Dr. Mahesh Sharma. What good is such generosity, if local member of parliament could not stop loss of an innocent life in his own constituency over a false charge?

Another BJP MLA, Mr. Sangeet Som has not only not expressed  any remorse for the killing of Akhlaq, he blamed state government of politics of minority appeasement. Mr. Som also demanded release of innocent youths arrested by police and threatened a strong response if demands are not met. 

A lot needs to be said about state government’s law and order machinery and its preparedness. 

  • Why police did not anticipate the conspiracy and stop the killing by acting proactively? 
  • Villagers were beating up journalists covering the incidence right in front of the police. Police remained a mute spectator. 
  • A BJP MP addressed a public meeting in the village when section 144 was in place, why was such a meeting permitted? 
  • I think a lot of effort is underway to polarise the voters. BJP and Samajwadi Party may get benefit of polarisation India will lose the plot.

It is important to note however, that cow meat was eaten by a Hindu  in ancient times. As society became increasingly agrarian in nature, cow was considered an asset. It not only helped in  agriculture, it also gave nourishment in the form of milk. Overtime, society has started considering cow to be equivalent to mother. Many Hindus consider cow to be holy, as a result cow slaughter is banned in almost all of India, barring a few states. It is important to point out though in increasingly in urbanised India, many cow owners let their cows loose, beyond productive age, to find their food on their own. Cows roam around streets. Some get injured, some die, others feed on garbage and plastic. Many cows, despite their holy status, die painful death. 

Buffalo meat is consumed as beef in India. Ever since BJP lead government has come in power in different states, there has been a spate of banning meat eating on the pretext of hurting religious sentiments of Hindus and other non vegetarians during festival seasons. Now we hear that an effort is on to ban buffalo slaughter also on the pretext of buffalo and cow belong to same family of animals. While, it is morally superior to be a non vegetarian. But society is a mixture of all kind of people with differing food habits. Is it the responsibility of government to decide who eats what? Hardly!

Last year I voted for Mr. Narendra Modi. I voted to see a developed India. An India where corruption is minimised through use of technology. An India, where people are empowered to standup on their feet and not rely on government dole. An India that has clean streets in cities and towns. I am happy that Mr. Modi is encouraging business people to invest in India. This will create job and bring prosperity to India. 

`However, party that Mr. Modi heads has an underbelly that represents Hindu Chauvinism, that manifests as a dislike for minorities, an intolerance to dissenting voice critical of Hindu way of life. This has been evident in numerous statements of the party functionaries as well as party affiliates. Such sentiments manifest as love jihad, ghar wapsi, killing of rationalists and of late lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq. 

To me questions that come to my mind are :

  • What good is any digital India or e-governance, if a man can be killed right at the door step of national capital for eating meat in his own house. 
  • What good is prosperity, when our leaders that call a lynching an accident, are not sacked. 
  • What good is any development, if killer of an innocent Indian is not brought to book speedily, justice is delivered in an unbiased manner and divisive politics is nipped in the bud.
It is true honourable home minister had assured the nation of zero tolerance towards communal hatred. Honourable finance minister had said such incidents bring bad name to development agenda. Mr. Prime Minister sir, it is your government. As head of the government you have to assuage hurt feelings of Indian citizens that voted for you in the hope of better India. An India where minorities are not safe, is no different from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Middle East. By keeping the communal pot burning, BJP may gain in short term, but India will derail from progress and prosperity for a long time.

Relevance of Gandhi ji’s Teachings Today

I was listening to a NDTV debate on relevance of Gandhi in today’s environment. As usual, debate got polarised. Congress sympathiser, Mr Tehseen Poonawala started blaming RSS for murder of Gandhi ji. Ms. Tavleen Singh an independent journalist thought Gandhi ji to be encouraging passivity and against modernity. Prof. Vivek Kumar a scholar of sociology claimed there was nothing new in Gandhi ji’s approach. Non violence had been propagated by Buddha at least 2000 years earlier. 

To me, Gandhi ji represented two main principles – Truth and Non violence. I think, adherence to truth is quintessential to every being. Most of us do not adhere to truth for short term gains.  As society matures, as more and more people get educated, importance of truth in life will likely be inculcated to children from an early age. As we look at mature western  democracies, it becomes apparent that in routine life truth is so relevant. This is reflected in all spheres of public life be it police, be it bureaucracy, be it in academic institutions. Yes there is corruption, but corruption is mostly at high places and where large money is involved. In India, we see petty corruption, and lies are peddled at every step. May be things will change as we become more prosperous. Nevertheless, we need to become a more honest nation at the level of individuals, we would need to follow  Gandhi ji’s wisdom of adhering to truth. 

I am more doubtful about the principle of nonviolence. Gandhi ji had used it successfully against the British to attain freedom for India. Though there is doubt if nonviolent, noncooperation movement alone contributed to Indian independence. As a tactics against the better armed, better equipped rulers, non violence was good to mobilise impoverished population. Idea was to put the  ruler to shame,  if he had any sense of shame. It is, however, debatable if non violent movement will be successful against a ruthless enemy like Chenghis Khan or Timur Lane or Hitler or even Peoples Republic of China. If it was an effective tool, Tibet would be a free of Chinese occupation with His Holiness Dalai Lama leading nonviolent movement for last 60 years. Despite all the support of the West to Dalai Lama, China has consolidated its grip on Tibet and changed demography of Tibet by large scale migration of chinese people from the mainland. The consequence of non violence India had experienced during 1962 war, when we could not defend our border in the face of Chinese aggression. Pakistan had attacked us in 1965 considering Indian army to be incompetent. It was individual bravery of soldiers had saved the day. 

I think non violence should be an individual practice and should not become an instrument of state policy.  To live with dignity, a nation must be able to defend itself militarily, else be ready to be trampled over. Because like it or not, enemies are waiting outside the border to attack moment they realise there is chink in the armour.