If there is one word that occupies headlines in India today, it is intolerance. Pick up any newspaper; switch on any news channel, and the country is debating rising radicalism and the shrinking liberal space. Not long ago, the overriding mantra of the nation was development. Prime Minister Narendra Modi received a historic mandate in May 2014 by popularizing the slogan of development. The country bought his vision of a prosperous and developed nation.
In just over a year and a half, the ambitions of development have given way to a narrative of divisiveness. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) regime seems to have run out of steam in a very short time and seems to be in the grip of Hindu fringe elements. The BJP has not yet demonstrated any will to rein in the radical right groups, which have been causing unrest throughout the country. Modi has apparently remained silent on the issue, failing to articulate his opposition to the rising intolerance in any convincing manner.
The ambivalence of the government vis-à-vis the Hindu fringe elements has not gone down well with the liberal section of Indian society. The failure of the government to condemn the killing of a popular literary figure from Karnataka, M. M. Kalburgi, last month by extremist Hindu groups has disturbed artists all across India. They are angry that the Sahitya Academy (the Indian Academy of Letters,) has not condemned the killing of Kalburgi. They fear that the government-funded academy is not doing enough to defend literary freedom in the country today.
More than forty writers, poets and essayists have returned their literary prizes in protest against the rising intolerance in the country. What started as a protest against the killing of Kalburgi last month has turned into the most widespread collective revolt by the literary and liberal sections of the country against the Modi government. This has been compounded by the failure of the government to condemn the lynching of the Muslim man on the outskirt of Delhi over the issue of beef-eating few weeks ago.
Over the last couple of weeks, several incidents have taken place that reinforce the perception that India’s vaunted secularism is under siege. These include continued attacks on Muslims in the name of cow protection in different parts of the country, and the justification of the killing in the name of cow protection by Panchjanya Magazine, a known mouthpiece of Hindu extremists. All these incidents portray India as an increasingly intolerant society.
This has been exacerbated by the government’s belligerence towards the protesting writers. Senior minister and the number two in the Modi cabinet, Arun Jaitley, calls the protest by the literary minds a “manufactured revolt” and “intellectual intolerance towards the BJP.” Others call the anger against intolerance disguised left-liberal opposition towards the Modi government.
The government seems to be blind towards public opinion. Never before in independent India’s history have so many writers and public intellectuals mounted a collective protest against the government’s failure to protect freedom of expression and contain religious intolerance.
The politics of the BJP are not new. The party captured national attention in late 1980s when it led a movement to demolish the Babri mosque, a 16th century structure in the eastern Indian city of Ayodhya, which Hindus claims to be the birthplace of Ram, an important god in the Hindu pantheon. The movement led to large-scale religious violence across the country and catapulted the party to fame in a short time. The destruction of the mosque in 1992 brought large political gains to the party, and in a very short span of time the party became an important actor on the national stage.
When Modi was campaigning for the 2014 parliamentary elections, he ran on the slogan of “Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas”- “Together with all, development for all.” A major component of this policy was a guarantee that no religious discrimination would be tolerated. Despite the country being fully aware that the BJP leader presided over the worst ever religious violence in Gujarat in 2002 that claimed the lives of more than 1,000 Muslims, the BJP swept to power.
A well-known Indian historian, Romila Thapar, expresses deep concern at the present state of affairs. She says “we are now a society that fears the terror of extremist groups. They are terrorists, their function is to evoke terror and spread fear in various communities by killing and threatening people, while their patrons in mainstream politics protect them.”
Indeed, the perception is gradually building that Modi is using the slogan of development merely as a mask and that the real agenda of his government is to convert the nation into a Hindu state. This view is further reinforced by the intrusion of hardcore Hindu extremists into government-owned educational institutions and academies. These groups are attempting to change history textbooks to highlight the Hindu identity of India and by the open patronization of groups and individuals who are averse to the secular character of the country.
The unprecedented uprising by the writers is not only an anger against intolerance; it is also a cry to save the soul of India.