While VK Singh was dismissive of those returning awards, the President put the whole thing in perspective.
Minister of state for external affairs VK Singh is not known for his subtlety and finesse. Speaking to reporters on the sidelines of the Regional Pravasi Bharatiya Divas in Los Angeles, he said that the debate on intolerance was an “unnecessary creation of very imaginative minds who are being paid with a lot of money”.
He was referring to the recent instances where writers, scientists, scholars and film-makers had returned their national awards, citing a growing atmosphere of intolerance. What he seems to have overlooked is that there can be differences of opinion on the forms of protest, but protest itself is an inalienable right.
President Pranab Mukherjee’s remarks on the same subject were infinitely more measured and worth noting. He said that “emotions should not overrun reason, and disagreement should be expressed through debate and discussion”. He also asked everyone to have confidence in the idea of India.
Given this, it will be in the fitness of things for the awardees to assess the effectiveness of their form of protest — especially that it lends itself to being misinterpreted and politicised — and look at the message they are conveying in returning awards that have been given by the nation (and not the political establishment).
Both the President and the minister were discussing the same issue, the difference being in style — one reassuring, the other dismissive. Attributing motives to the actions of the awardees is not only ridiculing a section of our intelligentsia but also moving away from addressing the problem.
There is no running away from the unfortunate fact that acts of intolerance take place across India; the concern is: What steps is this government taking to check them? The government could inform the public about the measures it is taking to protect our democracy and promote harmony.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, while in London last week, was conveying this message when he said that “India does not accept intolerance even if it is one or two or three incidents... India is a vibrant democracy which under the Constitution provides protection to all citizens, their lives and thoughts. We are committed to it”. If only all his ministers shared his vision and zeal.