India’s visionary prime minister Pundit Jawaharlal Nehru – the architect of its secular democratic constitution and the planner of its industrial and scientific underpinnings – had made it a practice to write a monthly letter to chief ministers of the Indian states, in which he reviewed and commented on important national and international issues of the day. His following comments made in a letter written in January 1948, appear eerily prescient and highly relevant in today’s political climate in India.
“The RSS has played an important role in recent developments and evidence has been collected to implicate it in certain horrible happenings. It is openly stated by their leaders that the [Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh] is not a political body, but there can be no doubt that their policy and program are political, intensely communal and based on violent activities. They have to be kept in check and we must not be misled by their professions which are completely at variance with their policy.” (Letters for a Nation: From Jawaharlal Nehru to His Chief Ministers 1947-1963, editor Madhkav Khosla.)
An uncompromising secularist, Nehru abhorred communalism and sectarianism and believed that they posed existential threats to India’s integrity and progress. The legacy of pluralism and syncretism left by India’s founding fathers, Gandhi and Nehru, lasted to a varying extent for many decades, during which India was often held as a model for third world countries, embodying sublime ideals of religious tolerance and inclusive democracy, even though at times these claims appeared somewhat overblown.
However, strident voices of extremism, calling for the recrudescence of Hindu nationalism and Hindutva ideology, have been gaining strength for some time in India. The ascendency of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the political wing of the RSS, in the May 2014 elections, and the elevation of Mr Narendra Modi as prime minister have given a major boost to these forces. Some on them freely preach their narrow, hateful agenda, inflaming religious passions against minorities, especially Muslims. A particularly vicious campaign has been launched in the name of cow protection, targeting those accused of slaughtering cows or eating beef.
South Indian rationalist and scholar MM Kalburgi was shot dead in August
Despite his dismal human rights record as chief minister of the state of Gujarat, Modi’s victory in national elections had raised hopes that as the prime minister he would project a broader vision, focusing on issues facing the country and attenuate his followers’ ardent communal fervors. On a visit to the US in September of this year, Modi travelled to the Facebook and Google headquarters in California, met Mark Zuckerberg, chairman of Facebook Inc, to promote India’s potential as a huge market and its eagerness for collaboration with Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. He was lauded as a “modernizer, open-minded and progressive leader of the world’s largest democracy.”
Yet, in India, the political wind has been blowing in the opposite direction. In a recent article in the New York Times, authors David Barstow and Suhasini Raj wryly commented that “the ascendency of Mr Modi has been accompanied by activism by nationalists who seek to suppress forms of expression they view as offensive to their religion. They have pressured publishers to withdraw books, pushed universities to remove texts from syllabuses and filed complaints against those they deem to have insulted Hinduism.”
The climate of vigilantism by self-styled protectors of Hindu religion and culture has made it difficult for secular, progressive organizations to stage even cultural and musical events in which Muslims have some role. In October, two scheduled concerts at Bombay and Pune by Pakistani artist Ghulam Ali had to be cancelled by the sponsors for fear of opposition by Shiv Sena, a fascist organization.
Two recent incidents have especially put international spotlight on the growing climate of intolerance and bigotry in India. In September, an innocent man in a village in Uttar Pradesh, near Delhi, was dragged out of his house and lynched by an angry mob, inflamed by the false rumor that the family had slaughtered a cow in their house. Forensic tests showed that the meat in their house was in fact that of a goat, not of a cow.
There have been other similar incidents in which innocent men have been fatally beaten or killed by vigilante gangs. Mr Modi, to the dismay of many, failed to unequivocally condemn these wanton atrocities. He broke his silence after waiting for three weeks, expressed sadness, and characterized the murder in UP as undesirable — a strange choice of words, as if he was reacting to some fist fight in a school yard. Meanwhile, a number of his BJP colleagues continue to issue inflammatory statements against Muslims.
Religious bigotry and extremism, circumscribing the limits of free expression and free discourse, are not unique to India. However, the country also has a cadre of intellectuals, academics, scientists and many politicians who have the moral courage to risk their lives, to stand up against the evils of intolerance and fanaticism. At least 35 luminous writers, mostly Hindus, across the land have returned their Sahitya Akademi (Indian National Academy of Letters) awards or resigned their membership for its failure to take a stand against growing intolerance. The academy is a scholarly society dedicated to the promotion of literature and language studies.
Sudheendra Kulkarni, a journalist and chairman of the Observer Research Foundation, an Indian think tank, became the target of Shiv Sena’s rage in Mumbai when he agreed in early October to cosponsor the launch of a book authored by the former Pakistani foreign minister Khurshid Mehmood Kasuri. When Kulkarni refused to buckle under threats, he was attacked by militants of the group, who doused him with black ink. Nevertheless, Kulkarni showed up at the ceremony, in open defiance, with his face and clothes blackened.
The reprisal against intellectuals did not stop at throwing ink. A well-recognized rationalist and Kannada language scholar from South India, MM Kalburgi, who had questioned some Hindu religious practices and superstitions was threatened by death. When undeterred, he was shot dead in August. He was a distinguished award-winning member of theSahitya Akademi.
Besides writers, some 100 eminent scientists, some of them recipients of the country’s highest civilian awards, have in a joint statement expressed deep anguish over the “climate of intolerance and the way in which science and reason are being eroded in this country.”
Joining the protest was the famous novelist and human rights activist Arundhati Roy, and two dozen Bollywood artists who stated that they were alarmed by the climate of religious intolerance and violence prevailing in the country. The powerful Governor of the Reserve Bank of India, Raghuram Rajan, addressing students at the Indian Institute of Technology in October, emphasized the importance of preservation of a “multi-ethnic, multi-religious society.”
While India goes through this turmoil, Pakistan, unfortunately, cannot speak from a higher moral ground. It has also suffered the desolation for decades caused by a culture of militancy and religious intolerance that has targeted religious minorities, Christians, Shias and Ahmadis. Innocent people have been killed or forced to leave home under the false allegations that they had committed blasphemy. Significantly, unlike India, few voices have been raised in Pakistan against such atrocities for fear of reprisals by militants.
Salmaan Taseer, the former Governor of Punjab, was assassinated by one of his own bodyguards in January 2011 for speaking out against the abuse of blasphemy laws. It was a sorry spectacle when 500 lawyers, who had sworn to uphold the rule of law, showed up to applaud the assassin during his court hearing and showered him with flowers. The self-confessed assassin has since become an icon in the eyes of some to be celebrated and glorified for his brutal act.