I don’t think the BJP is surprised by the current intolerance debate. But I’m surprised at the way the party has reacted to it. While at one end party leaders make intolerant statements at the other the BJP is disassociating itself from it. In a hurry to distance itself from the issue, the party has gone on the offensive, little realising that what is often important is not the situation, but the manner in which it is addressed.
With the exception of a few, most of the award returnees can be asked ‘why now?’ At a stretch they can even be accused of remaining silent when acts of intolerance took place under previous governments. But one has the right to choose her battles — negating that freedom is yet another form of intolerance. They not protesting earlier should not weaken the case for why they are protesting now. If a scientist did not return her award after the 1984 anti-Sikh riots or after the 2002 Gujarat riots she does not lose the right to protest now.
Those who suspect a plot behind this intolerance debate are quick to give it a political subtext. But to say that the Congress has engineered this ‘protest movement’ is giving too much credit to the grand old party. The Congress, among other Opposition parties, is just trying to make political capital out of it. It is the BJP — through its actions and inactions — that brought things to this pass.
In the din of accusations and counter-accusations a question remains unanswered: What is being done to reduce the existing levels of intolerance? The ruling party and its supporters are yet to say what measures are being taken to clear this miasma of communal intolerance.
What steps have been taken to reassure the religious minorities who are being told at regular intervals that if they do not follow a particular line they can prepare for an exodus? What is being done to reassure a majority of Hindus who are watching in horror how their faith is being misappropriated by fringe groups? What is being done to reassure an aspiring India that the government’s agenda is still development (as Prime Minister Narendra Modi had promised) and it has not been usurped by sections within the BJP and the Right?
Unfortunately, precious little. On Thursday, the BJP released a book Know The Truth, explaining how the protesting ‘so-called intellectuals’ were ‘silent then and violent now’, and that their protests were nothing but ‘ideological intolerance’. This does not show the party in a good light. The government will, at its own peril, ignore (or ridicule) the combined voices of the intellectuals and derive motives for it.
Post-Script: The ‘Let’s-Return-The-Award-India’s-Too-Intolerant’ cycle has brought to light an interesting aspect. Notice that credible voices, even when they are against public sentiment, are respected. Anupam Kher’s opposition was largely welcomed, even if a few reflected suspicion. But the reaction to Chetan Bhagat was an eye-opener. It was a revelation to see so much hatred against the popular writer. But when Kamal Haasan and Vidya Balan refused to join the chorus of returnees they have not been panned. Rather they have managed to bring a perspective to the debate — something that was lacking till now. And in that is a lesson for the BJP.