Rajya Sabha member Chandan Mitra's demand for stripping economist Amartya Sen of the Bharat Ratna on Thursday triggered a slugfest with parties attacking BJP and the Nobel laureate offering to return the award if Atal Bihari Vajpayee asks him to do so.
However, an unfazed Sen stuck to his views that he does not want Narendra Modi as Prime Minister and said he would not "surrender his right to speak his mind" as an individual just because he is a Bharat Ratna. He said his reservations were over Gujarat chief minister and not BJP.
"Do I regret my views on Modi. No. By getting Bharat Ratna, I do not lose my right to speak my views as an individual.
"It is my right to speak up. I thought it was my duty to stand and speak up for the majority. I got Bharat Ratna but...," the noted economist said as a controversy raged on Mitra's demand that NDA, which had conferred Bharat Ratna on him, should take it away when it comes to power.
"Bharat Ratna is a jewel of the whole country. No BR should speak for or against any party or leader. Sen should join Congress political team," Mitra had said on Twitter on Tuesday.
Mitra, himself, declined to comment any further on Thursday while his party spokesperson Nirmala Sitharaman said that the Bharat Ratna debate was unfortunate. She and another senior leader Murli Manohar Joshi said it was Mitra's personal opinion. Another leader Rajiv Pratap Rudy said Sen's views on Modi were not acceptable.
Congress waded into the row attacking the BJP for its "fascist mentality".
Information and broadcasting minister Manish Tewari hit out at the BJP for its attack on Sen saying it was "regrettable" that BJP resorted not only to the "ignominy" of asking Sen to return the Bharat Ratna, something that happened for the first time, but some of its spokespersons also sought return of his Nobel prize.
"What kind of mentality is this. What is this if not fascism. That either you are with us or against us and if you are against us, return the Bharat Ratna. What wrong Amartya Sen has done? Does the BJP believe in the freedom of expression. This is a big blow to the right to express, write and speak," Tewari said.
He said while Gujarat chief minister gave statements daily and the party defends its right to speak, "they think the voice of others should be muzzled".
Home minister Sushilkumar Shinde also disapproved of the demand and said Sen's views on Modi were "correct".
Sen said it was unfortunate that such a demand had come forth and termed it as a "personal" view of Mitra.
"Mr Chandan Mitra may not know that the Bharat Ratna was given to me by the BJP-led government and was handed to me by Atal Bihari Vajpayee. If Mr Vajpayee wants me to return it, I will certainly return it," he said.
He added that during the BJP-led NDA government, he has had a lot of discussion with leaders like LK Advani, Yashwant Sinha, Jaswant Singh and Arun Jaitley.
Sen said he believed in individual liberty and minority rights. "Protection of minority rights and individual liberty depends on support of the majority. It is the duty of the majority to make sure violations do not take place.
"I am making a simple point. It would be unfortunate if a Prime Minister has to carry a load," he said in an apparent reference to the Modi's handling 2002 riots.
Asked if Sen should be stripped of his Bharat Ratna as sought by Mitra, HRD minister Shashi Tharoor said, "the question does not arise".
"Amartya Sen doesn't want Modi as PM, rates him below Nitish. For this sin BJP wants to strip his Bharat Ratna. Isn't it height of intolerance?" Congress general secretary Shakeel Ahmed said on twitter.
Senior BJP leader Murli Manohar Joshi, however, steered clear of the controversy over Mitra's demand, saying, "this is his personal opinion".
Party spokesperson Nirmala Sitharaman said, "Bharat Ratna debate is unfortunate. BJP is not a part of it. Views expressed by members can only be construed as their personal opinion."
JD-U leader KC Tyagi said the BJP demand only reinforces the total demise of the Vajpayee-Advani era based on tolerance, flexibility and accommodation of dissenting views.
"It's a crude attempt to stifle intellectual dissent which is the inherent right of any self respecting Indian. It represents the new personality driven cult of an intolerant India," he said in a statement.