Is intolerance peaking?


The word ‘intolerance’ is a much-bandied word in India today, and with reason, says C.V. Aravind. He analyses the year gone past, when so many intellectuals and thinkers came out in protest against repeated attacks on various freedoms and says that Prime Minister Modi will have to do better at reigning in the ‘hotheads’ of his party. But will his party agree?

The spokespersons of the ruling BJP might go blue in their faces arguing that all the talk about rising intolerance is pure balderdash and that in reality a conspiracy is being hatched at various levels to discredit the government in general, and the Prime Minister (PM) in particular. For a party that has perfected the art of defending the indefensible as witnessed in its protracted inaction on the impropriety charges leveled against External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and the Rajasthan Chief Minister (CM) Vasundhara Raje in the Lalit Modi fiasco sometime back, this ostrich-like attitude is nothing new. But when the country’s First Citizen, the President of India, Pranab Mukherjee, thrice in quick succession asserts the need to defend and protect the country’s plurality, diversity and tolerance, a feeling gains ground that something is really amiss in the country and that there are problems that have to be tackled on a war footing.

PM Narendra Modi did in fact take a cue from the President’s first clarion call and exhorted the nation to take inspiration from his words and work towards the maintenance of peace and unity, but it was at best a fleeting reference, as his heart was more on the Bihar election campaign than on anything else. The party’s heavyweight ministers including Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, however refuse to concede that a wave of intolerance is in fact sweeping the nation and that several incidents in the recent past have been suggestive of an atmosphere where majoritarianism and authoritarianism have been rearing their ugly heads, and the stifling of dissent whichever quarter it emerges from, appears paramount.

The irrational attacks
A number of incidents in the recent past have rattled the conscience of the nation and topping it all have been the brutal murders of three rationalists, Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare and M.M. Kalburgi, all senior citizens who have obviously been killed as their writings and speeches over the years have been considered an affront to the Hindu religion. All three had been facing death threats for long and had also been given police protection from time to time, but that did not prevent the sharpshooters from targeting them successfully when they were at their most vulnerable, and totally unprotected. The slow pace of the investigations in these cases and the failure so far to zero in on the culprits have only belied the hopes of the next of kin of these victims, that they will get justice anytime soon. While several theories have been floated about the involvement of fringe elements, there has been a general feeling that all the three crimes could be inter-connected and the same group could be involved in carrying out the assassinations. A number of other writers who too are rationalists like Professor Bhagwan of the Mysuru University in Karnataka have also been receiving death threats. It would also be worthwhile to recollect that the late Jnanpith awardee Dr. U. R. Ananthamurthy too was hounded all his life for his vitriolic comments on Hindu customs and rituals and a motley group even celebrated the announcement of his death by distributing sweets. It is not as if these writers had suddenly crawled out from the woodwork. Such anti-religious propaganda has been witnessed for several decades now and leaders like E. V. Ramaswamy Naicker (Periyar) had gone hammer and tongs against superstitious beliefs and had even floated a party, the Dravida Kazhagam to wage a crusade against religious practices including idol worship. The only difference now is that after the emergence of several fringe groups who stop at nothing and do not hesitate to strike with a great deal of vehemence at those whom they deem are the enemies of Hinduism, rationalists and a section of writers have had to run for cover as they are the prime targets of these outfits. Tolerance of all religions and respect for diverse views is now a thing of the past, and violence towards non-conformists and those who dare to question religious practices has become commonplace.

Very recently, N.R. Narayan Murthy, a highly respected technocrat and co-founder of the IT behemoth Infosys, had gone on record observing that minorities feel unsafe under the present dispensation. Considering the fact that a 50-year-old breadwinner of a family in Dadri in Uttar Pradesh, Mohamed Akhlaq, was brutally done to death by a mob on the suspicion that he had consumed beef, which by the way does not qualify as a crime under any law of the land, and also the continuous tirade against a particular minority community being carried out by loose cannons in the ruling party who use every opportunity to malign and question the bonafides of the community as a whole, Murthy certainly has a point and it is squarely up to the Prime Minister to allay these fears and to ensure every community that their interests will be protected, but such assurances have always been tardy in coming and his slogan Sab ka saath, sab ka vikas now has an empty ring to it. The Governor of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), Raghuram Rajan, while delivering an address at his alma mater, IIT (Indian Institute of Technology), Delhi, has also spoken out against the prevailing scenario of intolerance, and has even observed that it would be everyone’s patriotic duty to fight for tolerance. In a swift reaction to his observations, BJP MP (Member of Parliament) Subramanian Swamy commented that Rajan had made a mess at the RBI and should be sacked from his post. This again is a pointer to the fact that any dissenting view is hardly tolerated and this strengthens the belief that shooting the messenger is the main aim of the government, while turning a deaf year to the message. The latest to join the chorus in pointing out the need for the government to put the fringe elements in their place is the international rating agency, Moody’s Analytics, which has in a veiled warning to the Prime Minister urged him to rein in his party men or risk losing credibility both at home and abroad.

The BJP’s long term ally the Shiv Sena, which has always been known for its strong arm tactics, recently blackened the face of the onetime BJP ideologue, Sudheendra Kulkarni, who was once close to both Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Lal Krishna Advani, for his role in arranging the release of a book written by the former foreign minister of Pakistan, Khurshid Kasuri. Hardly repentant for the criminal act of its cadres, the Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray even felicitated the attackers, clearly underlining the party’s intolerance in matters involving Pakistan, its pet hate even during the days of its founder, the late Bal Thackeray. The Sena too had a hand in the cancelation of a concert in Mumbai by the reputed Pakistani ghazal singer Ghulam Ali, organised to pay tribute to another celebrated ghazal singer, the late Jagjit Singh, thus depriving aficionados of the musician of an opportunity to hear him. Although the local leadership of the BJP has frowned on these antics, they have not been able to do anything concrete to prevent their recurrence, and the Sena can be expected to carry on with its violent ways as in the past.

The emergence of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) as a highly potent force after Narendra Modi, a long time RSS pracharak, took over as the Prime Minister is being cited as one of the causes for the prevailing unrest, though the RSS bigwigs have been at pains to deny any involvement in any of the violent acts that have taken place in the recent past. This apart, the atmosphere has often been vitiated by the BJP leaders who have been adding fuel to the fire whenever there is a flare-up and Sakshi Maharaj, Sangeeth Som and Mahesh Sharma have been identified as serial offenders in this regard. The party President is supposed to have ticked them off, but they have denied that they have been reprimanded and if their statements are true, this again reflects on the BJP’s unwillingness to rein in those who cross the Lakshman rekha, despite the party’s credibility going for a toss.

In the final analysis, it is almost certain that intolerance is peaking in different pockets of the country and the ruthlessness involved in silencing dissent and in curbing cultural and literary activities and curtailing freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution, does not augur well for the future; and the sooner the ruling dispensation realises the gravity of the situation and comes to grips with the problem, the better.


C.V. Aravind

The writer is a Bangalore-based freelance journalist.