Will someone please ask the culture minister to hold his peace?

  • Zehra Kazmi, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Oct 13, 2015 21:15 IST
Gautam Budh Nagar MP, Mahesh Sharma, speaks during an interview with Hindustan Times at his office, in Noida. (Burhaan Kinu/HT Photo)

It seems as if Union minister Mahesh Sharma is on a secret personal mission to outdo US presidential hopeful and one-man controversy machine Donald Trump with his political gaffes.

As writers and poets across the country returned their literary and national awards to protest against the perceived threat to free speech, one would assume that the government -- and especially its culture minister -- would be worried.

But instead of reassuring them, Sharma has been dismissive of the concerns raised by the writers. In his latest interview to the Indian Express, he retorted, “Let them first stop writing. We will then see.”

The culture minister also reportedly raised questions on the “ideology” of the writers, words which he later took back.

Sharma , who is the co-founder of a chain of hospitals in the National Capital Region (NCR), is a relative newcomer to politics. But, from the day he took office, the first-time MP has never been far from controversies.

First, in an interview to India Today TV, Sharma justified his decision to rename Aurangzeb Road after former president APJ Abdul Kalam, saying that “despite being a Muslim”, Kalam was a nationalist and a humanist

The remark appeared to embarrass the ruling BJP because many felt it smacked of bigotry -- Is being a Muslim and being a nationalist mutually exclusive?

Then in another interview, the minister said the Hindu epics Ramayana and Mahabharata will be made compulsory in schools and that he did not find the Bible and Quran central to the soul of India.

At a meeting between government representatives and the RSS on September 9, he reportedly said, “We will cleanse every area of public discourse that has been westernised and where Indian culture and civilisation need to be restored -- be it the history we read or our cultural heritage or our institutes that have been polluted over years.”

Such remarks then hardly inspire the hope of independent, secular cultural institutions thriving under his watch.

But Sharma’s most controversial remarks came when a 55-year old Muslim man was lynched over rumours of eating beef in Bisada village -- a constituency he represents in Parliament.

During his visit to the family of Mohammad Ikhlaq, Sharma called the killing an unfortunate “accident”. He also said the incident should not be given a “communal colour” since the mob did not “lay a finger” on the victim’s 17-year old daughter. Was he really expecting the family to be grateful to the mob for such mercies?

In this age of teleprompted speeches and prescripted interviews, a politician who gives extempore sound bytes is a delight. But, given Sharma’s propensity for shooting off his mouth, he is probably better off holding his peace. Otherwise, someone in the government should ask him to do so.

The views expressed by the author are personal.

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