It was clear that President Pranab Mukherjee was obviously in great distress when he, as the first citizen, sounded a warning note to the nation that has in the recent past witnessed threatening developments looming large with increased incidence of intolerance and hatred. During a visit to his ancestral house in Bhirbum district of West Bengalon the eve of Durga puja he minced no words at a public meeting to drive his message home that India’s civilization had survived thousands of years only because of its core values of tolerance and acceptance of dissent.
This was the second such message from the President in a fortnight. His earlier message had come in the aftermath of mob lynching of a 50-year-old man in Dadri over rumours of consuming beef.
In the wake of a series of acts of violence and hatred that caused public outrage, the President felt impelled to appeal to the people to continue to cherish the nation’s diversity and promote tolerance and humanism.
The recent events of intolerance which became a talking point prompted vociferous protests by over 30 writers leading to their returning Sahitya Academi awards.
Whether the writers’ move was “politically motivated” to corner Prime Minister Narendra Modi or out of serious concern for fellow intellectuals is a billion-dollar question.
Both right wing and Left-leaning intellectuals have been vertically divided on the issue in the aftermath of MM Kalburgi and Narendra Dabholkar murders. Known CPI cardholder Govind Pansare has also been brought into this list.
And the debate on appropriateness of different approaches adopted by writers raged on while rival groups of people were at daggers drawn. In the bargain several questions remained unanswered.
Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, arguably the most articulate right-winger, has termed the writers’ move as a “manufactured revolt” and “playing politics by other means.” In one of his blogs, Jaitley has termed this “ideological intolerance” against the BJP and by extension, rise and spread of the entire Sangh Parivar.
Well, this has not gone well with left-leaning academics like Ramachandra Guha. He termed Arun Jaitley’s articulation as “an insult to intelligence of writers”.
Former finance minister and Harvard-educated Palaniappan Chidambaram throws the ball into the court of Hindu organizations like the RSS and the Shiv Sena for abject intolerance. But, Tavleen Singh in her Sunday column maintained that writers would not have made “intolerance” an issue, if Narendra Modi were not the Prime Minister.
In this maze has jumped Taslima Nasrin whose book Lajja was banned in West Bengal with Muslim clergy issuing at least five fatwas against her, her mega TV serial banned and she kept under house arrest for months on end in New Delhi before being deported.
Nasrin pursued the line that “many writers (in India) are guilty of double standards when it comes to dissent”. In her latest interview, she lamented on the kind of secularism practiced in India.
“Most secular people are pro- Muslim and anti-Hindu. They protest against the acts of Hindu fundamentalists and defend the heinous acts of Muslim fundamentalists,” she said giving her trademark twist to the already complicated narrative.
Veteran Bollywood actor Anupam Kher joined the fray and lashed out at writers who returned their awards dubbing their move “politically motivated to corner and discredit Prime Minister Narendra Modi”.
His poser was straight. He questioned their hypocrisy and selective outrage and asked those writers why they maintained stoic silence during the 1984 anti-Sikh riots when hundreds were brutally massacred and thereafter during the decade-long genocide of Kashmiri Pandits and the killings in various States by terrorists.
Now, the big issue: who was to blame for a series of unconnected acts of “intolerance” and hooliganism taking the focus away from development? And the moot question is:“Were the writers justified in putting the blame for all the unbridled violence on the Narendra Modi government?
From the murder of rationalist writers to the Dadri lynching under the Congress and the Samajwadi Party regimes respectively, were Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his right wing BJP to blame? Were RSS leaders and Sangh Parivar volunteers involved in ravaging the “peace and tranquillity” across States “by design”?
On the other hand, were writers like Nayantara Sahgal, Sara Joseph, Surjit Patar, Uday Prakash, Ashok Vajpeyi, Aravind Malagutti and twenty others directly linked to the Left of centre political formation? Or, was their act quite spontaneous and individualistic in nature? Writers’ Rage
These questions, however, cannot elicit simple Yes or No answers given the complex socio-political dynamics in the country.
While the right-wingers have to recognize the writers’ inalienable right to dissent, the latter may have to reconcile themselves to the reality that the BJP and its alliance partners are the democratically elected dispensation enjoying the mandate of the people at the Centre and over a dozen States.
What’s most unsettling is the unwillingness of these perpetrators of religious intolerance to understand and recognize the “creative and intellectual freedom” enjoyed by writers.
Paulo Coelho, Brazil’s one of the most revered authors, refused to make an appearance at the Frankfurt Book Fair, as several of his comrades- writers were not invited. Turkish writers got together in 2013 to join the people against government that unleashed violence following abolishment of a park in Istanbul.
History of writers participating in public action has been fairly common across the UK, the US, Russia and even China though in a limited way.
So, no government has the right to curb protests by writers, even if it thinks the latter were attached to parties with diametrically opposite ideologies. It’s also a fact that writers have been allowed to return their awards since their right to protest has been intact.
While the debate is on, writers and government have to think of ways to prevent recurrence acts of hooliganism such as the ones involving ink-attacks on Sudheendra Kulkarni and Sheikh Abdul Rashid, Jammu & Kashmir MLA.
The need of the hour is to restrain trigger-happy goons from creating mayhem. This is possible only when leaders of different communities actively promote harmony by eschewing divisive tendencies so that the fabric of Indian cultural pluralism can be safeguarded.