The Modi Government — indeed, any government in any democratic country in the world — should follow the advice of Kabir, the 15th century Bhakti poet, on how to deal with its critics. The advice is contained in the following doha, a diamond of wisdom indeed.
“Nindak niyare rakhiye aangan kuti chhawaye; Bin sabun pani bina nirmal karat subhaye.” (“Keep your critics close to you; give him shelter in your courtyard. That way, you don’t need soap and water to keep yourself clean.”
Kabir tells us that critics are indeed our friends. They help us by letting us know our faults, thereby giving us an opportunity to correct ourselves. Very rarely do we get to know our faults from our friends — and never from sycophants. And when we are in power, sycophants surround us like ants around sweet things.
Narendra Modi’s government is currently at the receiving end of a lot of criticism from a section of society. A fairly large number of writers, artists, filmmakers and even scientists have chosen to express their criticism by returning the awards which previous governments had conferred upon them. All of them have done so to register their protest against what they perceive as the growing atmosphere of intolerance and communal polarisation in the country, for which they hold Prime Minister Narendra Modi, his government, his party and the supporting RSS parivar responsible. Whether they should have shown their protest by returning their awards is of secondary importance. The primary issue is how the government has chosen to react to this wave of criticism.
Far from heeding Kabir’s precept, a very senior minister in the government dismissed the protest by writers and others as a “manufactured revolt”. If this wasn’t disturbing enough, the minister of culture went a step further. He mouthed a patently uncultured statement by asking the protesting writers to first stop writing — and “then we shall see”. The president of the ruling party — who has made a highly irresponsible statement that a defeat of the BJP in Bihar elections would be greeted with firecrackers in Pakistan — disparagingly opined that the perception of intolerance in the country is only limited to Lutyens’ Delhi.
I read Amit Shah’ statement with shock and disbelief. Since Gulzar, one of the greatest lyricists to have enriched India’s film industry, too has lent his voice of support to the protesters, I wondered: “When did Bandra in Mumbai, where Gulzar Sahab lives, become geographically a part of Lutyens’ Delhi?” Has power blinded BJP leaders so much as to make them unable, or unwilling, to see that voices of concern over growing intolerance are coming from all over India — and some from abroad too, such as the global ratings agency Moody’s?
If those in the ruling party and the governing establishment think that concerns over the shrinking space of dissent and tolerance are a figment of their opponents’ imagination, it’s sheer self-deception, and dangerous self-deception at that. Let’s face it: the killings of Prof MM Kalburgi, Govind Pansare and Narendra Dabholkar, merely because their views were not in alignment with their killers’, have created understandable anguish among writers and intellectuals. The murder of Mohammed Akhalaq at a village near Dadri in UP, by a lynching mob of Hindu zealots, has caused even greater outrage in the country. The leaders of the BJP and its supporting organisations have sought to belittle the barbaric nature of this crime, committed on the basis of a manufactured rumour that Akhlaq had slaughtered a cow and consumed its meat. A similar incident happened in Kashmir too.
A Bajrang Dal activist in Karnataka, Prashanth Poojary, was murdered by Muslim fanatics for his opposition to the beef industry. This murder is also condemnable. But does one wrong make the other right?
True, many of those accusing the BJP and its government of spreading intolerance have also behaved intolerantly in the past. They also ignore the fact that beef ban of varying degrees already exists in as many as 24 out of the 29 states in India. In most cases the ban was imposed by non-BJP governments. However, the manner in which the ruling party and its supporting organisations have lately tried to make beef ban the centerpiece of political discourse in India is unparalleled. They seem not to care that the lynching mob’s triumphalism in Dadri, combined with several other developments, has made the Muslim community all over India feel insecure.
Unfortunately in India, anti-Muslim and anti-Pakistan prejudices often go hand in hand. These prejudices are sought to be covered by the mask of patriotism. This is evident in the many instances of intolerance in which the Shiv Sena has taken the law in its own hands and resorted to vandalism and violence. The current political tug-of-war between the BJP and the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra should not blind us to the fact that many supporters of the ruling party do not disapprove of the non-governmental ban on Pakistanis coming to India on valid visa.
This growing atmosphere of intolerance in the country ought to be a matter of concern for all Indians, irrespective of their political persuasion. In particular, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, his colleagues and his supporters should ask themselves a simple question: Why has the President of India, who is the Custodian of the Constitution, deemed it necessary to express his anguish over this matter thrice within a span of a month? Why did Pranab Mukherjee have to remind the countrymen that tolerance and diversity have been the core values of our civilisation for over 5,000 years? Clearly, the time has come for the Prime Minister to call the spade a spade.
Specifically, he should take three steps to change the prevailing atmosphere in the country.
First, he should invite writers, artists, filmmakers and scientists who have returned their awards for a frank discussion. After giving them a patient hearing, he should assure the people of India that his government is committed to safeguarding the freedom of expression and other freedoms granted by the Constitution. Second, Modi should especially assure the minorities that their security and their dignity is the government’s Constitutional duty.
Third, and this is very important, the Prime Minister must unequivocally state that he disapproves of the demand, insistently being raised by the RSS parivar, for making India a Hindu Rashtra. He must declare that the concept of Hindu Rashtra violates the principle of secularism enshrined in the Constitution. This point about Hindu Rashtra is important because a lot of concerns among Indians — not only among minorities but also among all secular Indians — are centred around this issue. There is a growing suspicion that the RSS parivar, of which the BJP is a member, is pursuing an agenda to transform the basic character of our society and the essential Idea of India. If this agenda gains ascendancy, the downfall of the Modi government will begin.
The writer was an aide to former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in the PMO