The Stakes Are High
- If the current intolerance goes unabated, internal strife could tear apart Indian society
- Resulting instability would scare away potential investors, worsening the economic situation
Last weekend, an MP from northern India was in San Francisco, doing ‘chai pe charcha’ with veteran Democratic Party senator Dianne Feinstein. “I asked her how she read the ‘India Story’ now,” says the two-time parliamentarian. “She picked up that day’s San Francisco Chronicle which was lying on the table. It had three stories from home. One was on scientists joining writers, artistes and filmwallahs in returning awards against the growing intolerance. One was on the President reminding the nation of its core civilisational values for the third time in a fortnight. And the other was on Narendra Modi’s upcoming visit to UK in the context of Xi Jinping’s. This is the India story, she said.”
Around the same time, on the eastern seaboard of the United States, a debutant MP from western India was in Washington DC, attending a dialogue at Georgetown University, where the former US secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, is a distinguished professor of diplomacy. “As usual, the chatter swerved towards India in the Modi era. She said that the promise that Modi had generated in 2014 had quickly dissipated. Despite the roaring reception Modi has received on his two visits, she speculated that the US administration would strive to stay equidistant from India and Pakistan after the recent incidents.”
To both MPs, both of the BJP, neither Feinstein nor Albright would appear as ‘rabid’ or ‘Congressi’. After all, they are foreigners, Americans at that, and theirs is the only criticism that can move a very touchy government. But make no mistake. As ‘bhakts’ and their masters slap labels and shout down decent men and women of words and deeds, whose conscience could hold it no more, there is growing alarm at the ferocity with which religion-based hatred and bigotry is being mainstreamed under the nose of a majority BJP government and the impact it could have in the medium term on Modi’s dreams, and in the long term on India’s.
|“There is no difference in the language of Shahrukh Khan and Hafiz Saeed. He is welcome to go to Pakistan.” Yogi Adityanath, BJP MP||‘Shahrukh lives in India but his soul (aatma) is in Pakistan. His films make crores here but he finds India intolerant.” Kailash Vijayvargiya, BJP general secretary||“Shahrukh is an agent of Pakistan as he reflects their (Pakistan’s) ideology. Such a man should go to Pakistan.” Sadhvi Prachi, Hindutva leader|
Two questions are being asked by those who worry about the state of the nation: One, is the idea of a liberal, secular, forward-looking India where all feel safe and free under increasing threat from loonies? And two, is India in grave danger of becoming a ‘Hindu’ Pakistan if the madness goes unquestioned and unchecked by those who have been given the mandate to do so?
At first sight, that comparison might seem entirely misplaced and out of proportion. To some, it might even appear needlessly provocative, even anti-national. After all, India is a giant, throbbing democracy with its pillars, despite having taken occasional hits, being very much intact. Elections take place freely and fairly. The judiciary fearlessly tells the executive where to get off. The military has no role in civilian life. The media is free. The voter is wise. Et cetera.
Still, when the President of the republic and the Vice-President have to remind citizens of what we cannot afford to lose six times in two months; when everybody from actor Shahrukh Khan to banker Raghuram Rajan and entrepreneur N.R. Narayana Murthy to investment firms joins scientists, historians and academics in a growing clamour to a return to the country’s fundamentals, when TV debates ‘tolerance’ every night, it shows that something is probably going woefully wrong.
“Even if we are not yet on the way to becoming Pakistanised, and there are many reasons why we are not, the very fact that people are beginning to ask such a question shows that we are not on the road to Mandalay,” says a BJP leader. Last fortnight, the respected Pakistani commentator Ayaz Amir wrote in The News: “Narendra Modi is the best thing that could have happened to Pakistan. He is making India look like General Zia’s Pakistan.... More power to Hindutva, more power to the saffron Nazism of the RSS, the spiritual fountainhead before which the Indian PM bows.”
Emergency was independent India’s closest brush with how life could be without what we take for granted. But that was a moment of madness Indira Gandhi unleashed on an unsuspecting nation. As it happened, the ‘systems’ quickly restored status quo ante.
The current strife is uncharted territory. It has the imprimatur of the “first Hindu ruler after 800 years” (to quote the late Ashok Singhal of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad on Modi’s election victory). It is directed by supposedly non-state actors like the RSS, who have obtained a stranglehold over the government. And its victims—individuals and institutions—are targeted with pinpoint accuracy. The possibilities down this road of infamy are endless; and the prospects are scary.
The killing of the rationalist M.M. Kalburgi, the lynching of Mohammed Akhlaq in Dadri, allegedly because he was suspected to have stored beef in his refrigerator and the ink wasted on former L.K. Advani aide Sudheendra Kulkarni gave a fresh lease of life to a 1980s poem written by the Pakistani writer and feminist Fahmida Riaz (who was born in Meerut): “You turned out to be just like us/ Equally stupid, wallowing in the past.../ Your demon of religion dances like a clown/ Whatever you do will be upside down/ You too will sit deep in thought/ Who is Hindu, who is not.”
In its cut-throat nature of parry and riposte, the heat, dust and grime of the Bihar polls have given the nation a preview of what is in store. BJP president Amit Shah said crackers would go off in Pakistan if “by mistake” his party lost. When Shahrukh Khan—whose family served in the army and whose wife Gauri is as Hindu as they come—spoke of the “growing intolerance”, Kailash Vijayavargiya, a BJP general secretary, said the actor lived in India but his soul was in Pakistan, and BJP MP Yogi Adityanath compared him to the Pakistani mastermind of 26/11, Hafiz Saeed, no less.
“There is an attempt now to change the fundamental narrative of India through coercion and force to make religious minorities second-class citizens,” says Congress leader and former Information & Broadcasting minister Manish Tiwari.
Is India taking a firm right turn, towards intolerance, like our western neighbour?
To many observers, all this is nothing new. For, if ‘the Idea of India’ was to turn a diverse, predominantly agrarian, feudal society into a modern, pluralistic, vibrant, secular, all-inclusive democratic republic, it was always a “work in progress”.
A process that began in the 19th century by figures like Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar, Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay and others in Bengal, spread across India and taken forward by Mahatma Gandhi, Rabindranath Tagore, Jawaharlal Nehru, Vallabhbhai Patel, Abul Kalam Azad, B.R. Ambedkar and the other founding fathers of the nation, was perhaps a project never “fully achieved”.
The idea of India as an inclusive, secular nation-state was not only anathema to colonial rulers, it was also contested by forces from within. Religious sectarianism, both Hindu and Muslim, reared its head. It took a few decades for Pakistan to be carved out of the subcontinent.
Nearly seven decades later, independent India is yet again being put to a severe test—where the ‘core values’ that went into the nation’s making is being hotly contested and, as many apprehend, serious attempts are afoot to alter its secular fabric. That altered, unholy land is being described with trepidation as a ‘Hindu Pakistan’.
“The idea of India was always a struggle, a movement. It was never fully achieved. And that movement is still on,” says Sunil Khilnani, author of The Idea of India. He argues that since that “idea of India” was always contested, that is perhaps what we are now witnessing in the forms of intolerance both whispered and outspoken.
What is worrying people is the fact that India’s secular fabric is sought to be punctured by sections within the government in New Delhi or leaders and members of affiliate bodies close to the BJP, which won a popular mandate to revive the economy, root out corruption and put India back on the path of development.
|“The PM is not a section officer of the homoeopathy department. He has to show the country the moral path.” Arun Shourie, Former NDA minister||“I concur with many individuals that religious and cultural intolerance is a deeply disturbing trend in India today.” Audrey Truschke, Scholar, Stanford University|
|“Intolerance, or hatred of difference has an old history in India. Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination was its most glaring instance.” Dilip Simeon, Historian||“There is definitely a growing tendency of India moving in the direction of being a Hindu clone of Muslim Pakistan.” Markandey Katju, Former SC chief justice|
|“There’s an attempt to change the basic narrative of India through force to make religious minorities second-class citizens.” Manish Tiwari, Congress leader||“I doubt we will go the Pakistan way. Sooner rather than later, we will see corrective measures being taken by PM Modi.” Rahul Ram, Musician, Indian Ocean|
|“If other political parties get involved, and balance extremism via the ballot box, the Indian people can rectify the situation.” Stephen P. Cohen, Brookings Institution||“The idea of India has always been a struggle, a movement. It was never fully achieved. And that movement is still going on.” Sunil Khilnani, Author|
|“There is significant intolerance in our society. Not only that but fear and apathy has also risen in society at large, further dividing it.” Kailash Satyarthi, Nobel laureate||“The government and the RSS are trying to dictate what we eat and do. This constraint on my freedom is something I don’t like.” P.M. Bhargava, Scientist|
|“Communal harmony has to be preserved for economic progress. If we don’t deal with disharmony, it can go out of control.’’Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, Entrepreneur||“It’s important that both fringes, extreme left and extreme right, do not say ‘I am going to shut you off if you don’t say what I want to hear’.” Raghuram Rajan, RBI governor|
|“Religious intolerance is the worst kind of crime that you can do as a patriot.” Shah Rukh Khan, Actor||“There are attacks on ordinary liberties, the right of assembly, to organise events...that seems to be in grave danger in India today.” Salman Rushdie, Writer|
|“I will not perform in India until things settle down. I’m hurt by recent incidents in India. As of now I have decided not to come.” Ghulam Ali, Singer||“What is under attack is...democracy and humanism. Kabir spoke against superstition, but he was not killed, why is this happening now?” Shekhar Pathak, Historian|
“Intolerace, or rather hatred of difference, has an old history in India,” says historian Dilip Simeon. He points out that during his daily evening ‘pravachans’, Mahatma Gandhi would read out passages from all major religious texts, and in 1947 there were those—mainly from the RSS—who hated him for reading passages from the Quran. “His assassination was the most glaring instance of intolerance—and that was at the dawn of independence.”
Gandhiji’s assassination led to a ban on the RSS—a move initiated by the then home minister, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, but did not heal the fissures within society, especially on the basis of religion, bubbling up to the surface from time to time.
“Gandhi’s sacrifice calmed down the climate of hatred, but there have been forces that have worked unceasingly not to heal the wounds of communal strife but to rub salt into them to make them septic,” says Simeon.
Describing the growing incidents of intolerance as not a “passing phase” but an “endemic disease”, he points out that its root is the distinction between “an inclusive or composite idea of national identity, versus an exclusive idea that sits uneasily with our syncretic or luminal culture and seeks to purify it by incessant propaganda and intimidation.”
Referring to Hindutva icon V.D. Savarkar’s famous remark (“I have no quarrel with Mr Jinnah’s two-nation theory. We Hindus are a nation by ourselves and it is a historical fact that Hindus and Muslims are two nations”), Simeon says, “The Hindutva ideal is essentially the mirror image of the idea of a separate homeland for Indian Muslims.”
But now, are we as a state moving towards becoming a Hindu clone of Muslim Pakistan?
“There is definitely a growing tendency to move in that direction,” says former Supreme Court Chief Justice Markandey Katju. He points out that there have always been incidents of intolerance in India, but under the present BJP-led government they have intensified significantly. However, Katju feels the constitutional guarantees in India would prevent any serious move to change the character of India, though he does not rule out a long and chaotic spell ahead.
But despite such widespread concerns, many western observers of India, especially some known ‘South Asia hands’, are still confident that the Indian system, despite mounting pressure, will continue to hold stable and firm.
“The Indian system is self-correcting, like democracies everywhere, in that extremism sooner or later is balanced out and gets stamped down,” says Stephen P. Cohen, senior fellow at Brookings Institution. Referring to India’s democratic institutions, he adds, “If other political parties get involved, and balance extremism via the ballot box, the Indian people can rectify the situation. There are also the courts and public interest groups, to balance out extremism.”
Though Cohen feels that even Pakistan is now “fortunately” moving in a similar direction, the presence of the military, which continues to act as a “balancer of politics”—not a role it was designed to perform—complicates matters.
But the army has always played a special role in Pakistan and has ruled the country for the better part of the seven decades. However, despite its creation on the basis of religion, the founding fathers, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, Liaqat Ali and others envisioned the new nation as a liberal, pluralistic one where irrespective of their religious beliefs, all citizens were equals. Though Pakistan’s democratic credentials were always suspect and it faced its first military coup in 1958, the army generals who seized power and ran the country thought of doing so on the basis of liberal, forward-looking policies both in the cultural and the economic spheres.
Unfortunately, a number of fast-paced developments both within and outside the country put paid to their liberal plans. The dismemberment of Pakistan’s eastern wing in 1971, leading to the creation of Bangladesh and other events in the region, especially the 1979 Iranian revolution and the Afghan crisis following Soviet intervention, created a situation that altered whatever pluralistic space was left in Pakistan when General Zia-ul-Haq took over. Pakistan was ripe for radicalisation. Not only did Zia trample democratic forces underfoot, starting with the execution of former premier Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, simultaneously he pushed the country firmly into a Islamic fundamentalist corner, towards Quran-thumping fanatics he was patronising to secure his own position.
“The Zia-ul-Haq era greatly increased intolerance and drastically reduced the intellectual space for alternative visions for Pakistan based on pluralism,” says British historian Ian Talbot. He adds that the “legacies of this period have been further intensified by post-9/11 developments at both state and society levels”. The resulting “conservatism” in Pakistan, he feels, has reinforced at a social level the state’s “narrowing of intellectual discourse and rejection of pluralism”.
India, on the other hand, he points out, is “still heir to a very different post-independence democratic tradition which has both created space for a more vibrant civil society and a greater acceptance of pluralism at the social level.”
There are many who are not willing to take comfort from these comparisions between the estranged neighbours. “Whether India is in any danger of following Pakistan’s path is not the primary issue. Rather, there are many ways for governments and societies to slide further down the scale towards intolerance,” says Audrey Truschke of the department of religious studies at Stanford University. “Any movement in this direction is troublesome, and recent events in India suggest the possibility for a rapid descent toward intolerance going forward.”
Making common cause with the growing criticism of recent happenings in India, she says, “I concur with many concerned individuals, both within and outside of India, that religious and cultural intolerance is a deeply disturbing trend in India today.”
It hasn’t escaped Truschke that religious minorities are under threat in India, along with anybody who dares to speak out against Modi sarkar and Hindutva ideology. “These developments are not meeting significant resistance from the current Indian administration, which makes the situation volatile and troubling.”
So what does the future hold for India? Are we likely to see more hate-filled incidents that will further shrink the space for dissent? Or are we likely to see a course correction from the prime minister, who will finally realise that if he continues to squander the goodwill he earned in 2014 and his definite mandate he may lose any chance of getting a second term in office?
“I doubt we will go the Pakistan way,” says musician Rahul Ram of Indian Ocean. He points how already people who voted for Narendra Modi are raising questions on how their support is being misused by the government and the BJP affiliates. “Sooner than later, we will see corrective measures being taken by PM Modi. Or at least, that is what I hope,” he added. Most Indians share his hope.
The story has been edited to correct an error. A remark ("first Hindu ruler after 800 years") made by the late Ashok Singhal of the VHP was erroneously attributed to Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh. Outlook deeply regrets the lack of diligence in verifying the source of this statement.