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India will survive this climate of intolerance

From where I sit, I have a long view of history, right from the Mauryan period. One thing I can say: India survives these noxious bouts of intolerance; but there’s no denying that in the interregnum, one has to hold one’s nose.

columns Updated: Sep 19, 2015 22:51 IST
Hindustan Times
Intolerance,APJ Abdul Kalam,Aurangzeb road renaming
The Delhi government has decided to rename the Aurangzeb Road in the heart of the national capital after APJ Abdul Kalam to honour the former President. (Arun Sharma/HT Photo)

There’s a nasty breeze blowing across the country these days. Wherever you look, exclusion is the mantra; intolerance is the watchword; and banning, bullying and browbeating, the operating principles.

One day it’s a minister quoted as saying that a former president was a good nationalist despite being a Muslim; on the other, there is an insistence on using one language at the exclusion of others; and then there are bans, bans and more bans. Hoodlums go around shooting rationalists, enforcing moral “discipline” and bending a cowering populace to their will.

Obnoxiousness in action is accompanied by blustery speech; and bravery comes from the brute force of numbers, illustrating painfully the fall of a people that used to idolise the sort of fearlessness embodied by Mahatma Gandhi.

From where I sit, I have a long view of history, right from the Mauryan period. One thing I can say: We have seen this before, and will probably see it again. India survives these noxious bouts of intolerance; but there’s no denying that in the interregnum, one has to hold one’s nose.

Let us examine some of these cases more closely. Mahesh Sharma, the BJP’s culture minister, covered himself in glory last week. First he spoke of purging India of “western” and “polluting” influences; then delivered his insulting compliment on former President APJ Abdul Kalam. He was also probably instrumental in the resignation of a well-respected head of the Nehru Memorial Museum — and that amid reports of a revamp of the place that would de-Nehruise it.

His colleagues in other ministries are not much different. Interference in the operation of educational institutions is growing; the appointment of rightwing puppets to head some of these bodies is a trend; and one reads with regularity about the rewriting of history books in states controlled by the BJP. The Aryans are likely soon to be established as an indigenous people.

The home ministry, for its part, is pushing Hindi until it is blue in the face. The idea is not just to use it as a lingua franca in the ministry but as a language in which bureaucrats should sign. In other words, babus who may have been born and brought up in Chennai or Kolkata and have spent their lives transacting in Tamil, Bengali or English will overnight have to create a signature in a language as foreign to them as (but considerably less useful than) English.

Unreasoning hatred of English, accepted as a medium of communication the world over, usually reflects an inability to master the language, and a resentment of those who have. Such haters are usually the first ones to ensure their children study the “target” language.

Expect a move to create technical terms in Hindi, attempts to make it the language of science. The problem is, people (including solely Hindi speakers) already know the corresponding English terms, and will now have to learn the Hindi ones. This is a move that is difficult to forgive, one that seeks to make English less useful by creating a parallel track in a home language.

Are the states of the Hindi heartland a beacon of development, wealth and social justice, which may (or may not) justify the adoption of their language as the means of communication for everyone else? The numbers would suggest otherwise. The corresponding numbers from some of the southern and western states would add a stark layer of contrast.

Rationalists are being bumped off: the names Pansare and Kalburgi are now linked not just by their uncompromising attitude towards superstition but also by the common stripe of their suspected killers. Not just that, other rationalists have received threats from Hindutva goons, a declaration of intent and a reflection of the impunity with which they think they can strike.

The odd church in Delhi has been attacked by vandals. Ghar vapasi drives have been launched to attract back errant members of the flock. In Maharashtra, autorickshaw licences will be given only to Marathi speakers.

So that’s an impressive list of people who need to be reformed: Muslims, rationalists, historians believing in alternative versions of history, non-Hindi speakers, Hindi-speakers in Maharashtra, Christians, converted Hindus and so on. There’s more: Women wearing short dresses; homosexuals; inter-caste couples and so on.

Add to that non-vegetarians, or those selling meat. The meat bans were put in place initially to protect the sentiments of Jains; later the idea neatly extended itself to protect the interests of Hindus during their festivals. The fact is clear that they are driven by majoritarianism — a continuation of the trend of those larger in numbers telling others what to do.

To their credit, the country’s courts have taken a dim view of this, saying that the meat ban cannot be forced down people’s throats. One judge even quoted Kabir: “Even good teachings cannot be forced upon others, and people reap what they sow.”

And prime ministers from the Nehru-Gandhi clan are getting short shrift — the removal from circulation of stamps featuring Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi is a case in point. There were reports — unconfirmed as yet — that the Nehru museum would be contemporised. This could be a euphemism for de-emphasising Nehru.

Is all this a backlash? Perhaps there is an element of that — a Left liberal view of history was perhaps too prevalent for its own good. Perhaps the study of our recent modern history was too focused on the Congress and its leading lights. Votaries of Hindutva will tell you, with some justification, that for long Hindus were victimised in a country in which they formed the majority — for centuries they ‘fielded’ and now, it’s ‘their turn to bat’.

The problem with telling people what to do in a modern world (and indeed in most worlds gone by) is that it builds a huge amount of resentment. That resentment festers, and finds expression in either passive resistance or open rebellion. In what is still a modernising and multi-cultural India, it is likely to find expression in the ballot box.

I started out by saying that I had seen this many times in the past, and that India survives. The Muslim president who was certified to be nationalist by the respected minister had a road named after him soon after his death (an event marked by an outpouring of grief and affection). The name erased from the road signs was none other than that of Aurangzeb, the last of the great Mughals and a man widely reviled for his bigotry and persecution of Hindus.

Forget for a moment that the loudest voices behind his removal from the roadsigns were BJP politicians; the real message there is that history judges you with apt harshness if you misuse the time you have in power.

First Published: Sep 19, 2015 21:17 IST