The ugly side of India has been on view in recent weeks and months. Steady stream of misogynistic commentary by political figures, hate speech in Parliament targeting minorities, religious inter-marriages represented as the single-most important issue in Uttar Pradesh elections and vicious trolling of Kashmiris on social media even as they watch their homes submerge are a few trends of this disturbing phenomena. Intolerance of the other has become a reflex for many urban Indians, whose real numbers we fear to speculate.
This illiberal drift was again on view on Thursday when protestors of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, Rashtrawadi Shiv Sena and Hindu Sena disrupted the ongoing lifestyle exhibition in New Delhi where Pakistani fashion designers were displaying their wares. These groups staged protests outside the venue and some managed to slip in and raised slogans demanding closure of the exhibition. They were carted off by the police but the damage is done. The groups got publicity and their antics can put off prospective customers who thronged previous exhibitions by Pakistani designers. Several questions arise. Could not the government have done more to prevent the incident? These groups have been openly railing against the exhibition for at least two weeks. They forced the cancellation of a similar event in Mumbai last week and Right-wing websites openly celebrated the withdrawal of police permission for the exhibition. Of course, it is difficult to police individuals who are determined to slip in and raise a ruckus, but are these groups entirely impervious to the persuasion of the senior BJP leadership, if it tried?
The BJP must clearly and consistently disapprove of such tactics to send a firm message to these groups. Online trolling, disruption of seminars and film, theatre and painting exhibitions have gone on for too long and cannot be reined in on demand. They vitiate a fragile social climate and can eventually box the government into positions it may not want to adopt. Policy disagreements with the Pakistani government should not be allowed to translate into a cultivated animosity towards its citizens. Leading intellectuals have exhorted the BJP to use its stint in office “to transform public culture for the better”. A bunch of protestors unnerving foreign visitors at an exhibition is not a small incident. It is a distasteful embarrassment for India and indicative of a worrying trend. And such incidents should not be dismissed as just a law-enforcement issue. The police, weak as they are, take their cues from the political leadership. The drive has to come from the top.