November Issue 2015

By | News & Politics | Published 8 years ago

There will always be many injustices in a country as huge, volatile and poor as India. Yet it was always imagined by many of us that India ultimately seeks to celebrate pluralism and protect the weaker sections of society. The republic is, after all, governed by a fine constitution that endorses the best human values of egalitarianism and justice. We could, therefore, have been a society that moved towards some degree of enlightenment.

But the reverse has happened. Today there is a wave of intolerance in India where anarchy born of hate is at work. Ever since the right-wing Hindu nationalist party, the BJP, won a simple majority in parliament last year, certain political and social forces have been emboldened. And they are engaged in acts that only widen the fault-lines of history and deepen social divisions.

The leadership of the BJP may not actually sanction the violence (and the public discourse that follows is an embarrassment to them), but they are from the same tradition, subscribe to the same ideology, and have fraternal links with the forces that spread the contagion of hate. Therefore, the political leadership, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, only make generalised statements condemning such acts. Even supporters of the PM have acknowledged that he has spoken too little, too late. So serious has this issue become that the country’s president, Pranab Mukherjee, has broken tradition by speaking forcefully and calling for restraint. The president expressed “apprehension about whether tolerance and acceptance of dissent are on the wane.”

Eventually, on October 25, Narendra Modi did make his strongest statement so far. At the end of his monthly radio talk, Mann Ki Baat, he said that India was a multi-cultural country, whose diversity was its pride. He also said that “peace, amity and unity are the building blocks of development.”  Yet, if words are not backed by action against increasingly aggressive groups from the Hindu right, it would appear that the consensus that held India together as a secular republic has been broken. The question now is whether it is a temporary phenomenon, or part of a process that will change contemporary India.

The victims of the wave of intolerance that has struck India are frequently Muslims, but all too often, they are Hindus too. In late August, M.M.Kalburgi, a 76-year old renowned writer and prominent scholar in the southern Indian state of Karnataka, was shot dead, allegedly by right-wing extremists who objected to his views on rituals and idol worship. The police investigating the murder immediately linked his killing to earlier assassinations in the neighbouring state of Maharashtra. In August 2013, Narendra Dabholkar, a known anti-superstition activist, had been shot dead in the town of Pune while he was taking a morning walk. In February this year, Govind Pansare, a social activist from the communist party of India, was shot dead in the town of Kolhapur. All three murders were executed in a similar manner: assassins came on motorcycles with a clear mind to kill. Sharad Yadav, the president of the JD(U), a party in the midst of an election in the northern Indian state of Bihar, told me the killings were a sign of “the Talibanisation of India.”


The month of September had different horrors. On the 28th, Mohammad Akhlaq was lynched by a mob in Dadri, Uttar Pradesh, 57 kilometres from the national capital, Delhi. The lynching happened because the local temple broadcast a rumour that he had killed and eaten a cow. Cow slaughter is banned in most Indian states and buffalo meat is the Indian “beef.” As it turned out, Akhlaq did not have any form of beef in his house where the only meat found was mutton.

Last week, the National Minorities Commission submitted a report saying the entire episode was “premeditated” and that calling it an accident would be an “understatement.” Two months ago, three Muslim males were attacked with petrol bombs while allegedly transporting cattle when they were actually carrying potatoes. One of them died of his injuries, while the other is still hospitalised. Now news reports have appeared suggesting that Akhlaq and his son (who survived the lynching) were targeted because the son was often seen with Hindu girls. All of this has happened in the state of Uttar Pradesh, where soon after the BJP came to power at the centre, a campaign began against Muslim men having relations with Hindu women. It was referred to as “Love Jihad,” with the underlying message that love was being used to convert nubile young Hindu girls to Islam. That campaign was led by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), one of the organisations that emerged from the parent body, the RSS, as did the BJP.

A year down the road, it is not the love jihad but holy cows that are being fiercely debated. Politics over the cow are not new to India, as many Hindus consider cow meat a taboo. Indeed, the 1857 Indian mutiny was sparked by rumours that cartridges for the rifles given out by the British were greased with the fat of beef and pork. In 1882, a movement demanding the end of cow slaughter began under the Hindu revivalist group, the Arya Samaj, and the first recorded riot on the issue took place in 1893 in Azamgarh district in what was then the United Provinces (today’s Uttar Pradesh). And it was politics over the cow and Hindi that formed part of the process that would lead to the demand for a separate Pakistan.

Independent India has broadly made peace with the issue by banning cow slaughter in most states and making buffalo our beef (in which there is also a growing export segment). Yet, there has also been a certain ambiguity on this front as many farmers want to sell off ageing cows that stop producing milk. The laws were therefore not strictly enforced in many states. But since the BJP came to power in Delhi, some states have, for ideological reasons, strengthened enforcement and even tried to expand the laws to buffalo beef. It’s a recipe for social disaster and violence, as the movement of cattle for slaughter is part of a traditional economic cycle. The cow vigilante groups are certainly emboldened in the northern part of the country that has for decades been referred to as the “cow belt.”

000_Del237925This uncouth and harsh attitude has also been visible in the treatment meted out to Pakistani visitors to India. In a sense it would be unfair to blame this on the BJP, as it is the Maharashtrian party, the Shiv Sena, that has been behind the recent violence and threats. The Sena has for decades been strident on the issue of cricket matches with Pakistan and cultural exchanges between the two countries. The recent incidents are actually a continuation of the regional party’s line. Currently the Sena is an ally of the BJP that rules Maharashtra, but the relations between the two parties have been strained in recent weeks. The Sena is a small but potent force that mixes regional chauvinism with anti-Muslim sentiment, although at different points in its history it has turned on different communities, ranging from south Indians to settlers from Bihar. It does have the muscle power to issue threats and disrupt life in Mumbai.

On October 12, the Shiv Sena lumpens poured black paint over the organiser of a launch of a book by former Pakistan Foreign Minister, Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri in Mumbai. The event occurred under ostensibly tight security. Earlier Kasuri had been welcomed in events in Delhi, Chandigarh and Kasauli in the hill state of Himachal Pradesh. I had attended a small dinner hosted for him by Congressman Mani Shankar Aiyer. Among the attendees was former Chief Minister of Jammu & Kashmir, Farooq Abdullah, and Yashwant Sinha, a former finance minister in the BJP government of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, besides a smattering of editors and columnists.

Kasuri was yet to arrive in Mumbai, but he was surely forewarned as just weeks ago the Sena had forced the cancellation of a performance in Mumbai by ghazal maestro Ghulam Ali. After the ‘black paint’ drama at the Kasuri event, the Sainiks stormed into a meeting of Indian and Pakistani cricket officials in Mumbai who were discussing future matches. Clearly, there can be no India-Pakistan matches in Mumbai.

The Shiv Sena going berserk on the issue of Pakistan and Pakistanis has actually begun to look like a caricature of their actions in the past and is, in itself, not new. It is the changes being attempted in college and university governing bodies, and in institutions that fund universities and determine syllabi, that are more ominous for the future. In some instances, such as one at the FTII (Film & Television Institute of India) in Pune, Maharashtra, there has been a vigorous protest by students, objecting to a minor actor with ideological allegiance to the Hindutva brigade, being appointed director. Simultaneously, the government is increasingly intolerant of dissent by NGOs and genuine people’s movements, most often opposing land acquisition for private projects or government schemes. Modi’s vision for India would require acquiring lands easily, and this has proven to be a huge problem with the potential to cast the regime as “anti-people” and “pro-corporate.” The vigilante groups running amok also damage the PM’s image outside India, something he is very sensitive to.

The fundamental problem that Modi and his ideological fraternity confront is the lack of any vigorous or rational intellectual tradition propping up their social or cultural vision for India. There is an intellectual tradition that supports their economic policies, but offers no apology for hate crime. Indeed, increasingly commentators supportive of Modi have begun to say that this climate of intolerance is eventually bad for business and also puts off potential foreign investors.

Meanwhile, matching the wave of intolerance has been the wave of protest, a sign some would say of the health of the Indian republic. About 40 Indian writers, poets, playwrights, working in English and in the country’s many vernacular languages, have returned their prizes to the Sahitya Akademi or the National Academy of Letters in protest against violent Hindu nationalism. The writers protest is seen by some as the greatest embarrassment for the government since it came to power; BJP spokespersons have tried to describe it as a ‘political stunt’ by people who are left-wing “secularists” and united in their dislike for the current PM.

That’s not quite washed, as significant voices from India’s intellectual and cultural traditions have spoken out endorsing the writers’ actions. This is what an Indian icon, the lyricist, poet and filmmaker Gulzar had to say: “I never thought that a situation like this would arise, where a person’s religion is asked before his name. It was never like this… What politics can a writer do? A writer just speaks from his heart, mind and soul. They are the conscience-keepers of society. They are the keepers of the soul of society.”

The row with the writers began in September after Kalburgi’s killing. Kalburgi had once served as a senior official in the Sahitya Akademi and it was suggested that the Akademi did not issue a statement condemning his murder because it got funds from the central government, now under the BJP. One after the other, the writers started returning their awards.  Finally, on October 23, the Akademi came out with a statement condemning the killing of Kalburgi and urged the writers to take back their awards. But by then a lot of damage had been done and it is hard to see how the government can occupy the moral high ground again without cracking down on its own cadre, something it is unlikely to do.

The Past is Another Country

Perhaps nothing could capture better the signs of the times than the open letter written to the President and Prime Minister of India by Admiral L. Ramdas, the former chief of the Indian naval staff and a recipient of the Magsaysay Award for Peace and the Maharashtra Gaurav Puraskar.     


Pranab Mukherji,

President of India


Narendra Modi

Prime Minister of India,

October 22, 2015 


Honorable President and Honorable Prime Minister,


It is with a heavy heart that I write this open letter to you at a time when our beloved country and people are facing severe challenges and threats to our shared heritage.

I have served in the armed forces of India — joining soon after independence as a 15-year-old, to end up as Chief of the Indian Navy [1990 to 1993]. I have witnessed many transitions in India — from the horrors of partition in 1947 to the very different world of digital connectivity that we see today.

I also write to you as one who was brought up in the Hindu faith. However, the Hinduism I knew and experienced was gentle, inclusive, and filled with extraordinary diversity. My religion taught me values of love and respect for all beings. My brand of Hinduism was not filled with the kind of violence and intolerance represented by the current brand of “Hindutva” that seems to be fanning the flames of division and fear across the country.

Today, as a veteran in my eighties, I am forced to hang my head in shame as I witness a series of incidents and assaults on our fellow citizens, especially minorities and dalits. Our armed forces, which I have had the honour to serve for nearly 45 years, have been an exemplar of India’s secular ethos. Be it in ships and submarines, or in planes and battle formations, we do not discriminate on the basis of caste or religion — we train, we fight, we live, we eat and we die together.

So why are we bearing witness to increasing attacks on minorities across the country, ever since the present government came to power in May 2014? It appears that certain communities are being singled out for special attention. Today a Muslim has to prove his or her loyalty, and they are being repeatedly put in a situation where their places of worship are under attack, as indeed their eating habits, and other basic freedoms. The instances of completely unilateral mob behaviour leading to many deaths as well as direct insinuations being made by senior leaders, are too numerous and well known to be repeated. And the atrocities on Dalits continue with impunity.

There seems to be a systematic and well-orchestrated attempt to impose a majoritarian single point agenda of creating a Hindu Rashtra in India — led by the RSS and their network of groups, which is disturbing to say the least. This in turn has resulted in a dangerous pattern of mob behaviour including intimidating and lynching people merely on the basis of rumours — in total disregard for the established rule of law. In many cases those responsible for implementing the law, have themselves displayed blatant partisan tendencies and behaviour.

Most shocking of all is the fact there has been no unambiguous condemnation of such actions and behaviour by those at the helm of affairs in the country.

Sadly, time and time again, the response of the government seems to indicate an almost studied, but certainly not benign, indifference. The co-ordinated response of those in government seems to be to downplay the serious and vicious nature of these allegations and attacks — by terming them ‘sad’ and ‘unfortunate’ — whereas there should be outrage and a demonstrated will to ensure that this society will not tolerate such behaviour. That there are MPs, cabinet ministers and elected chief ministers who are in the forefront of these comments and actions, leads one to believe that the ruling party and its satellite organisations are working to a plan and with utter contempt for the rule of law and all norms of decency.

I do not need to point out to the top leadership today, that this is playing with fire in a nation where minorities — especially Muslims and Christians, as also dalits and adivasis, are already feeling discriminated and marginalised. Instead of treating this amazing diversity as our strength, today we are being seen by the international community as increasingly insular, parochial, intolerant, racist and even fascist. The violence visited upon vulnerable sections reinforces the image of India as an imperfect democracy where all forms of dissent are discouraged and human rights trampled upon with impunity.

The Prime Minister and his ministers in the government are sworn in by the President of India, and they take an oath pledging to uphold the Indian Constitution. Their failure to do so, as evidenced in the foregoing, is a serious matter and does not augur well either for national security or national integrity. The central and state governments must act swiftly, unequivocally condemn all such incidents, and ensure that justice is done and the guilty are punished. Such action alone will have a salutary deterrent effect on all those, be they fringe or mainstream, who are speaking and acting in many voices that are totally against and inimical to our traditional ethos and the syncretic culture of our country and its people.

India represents a unique blend of peoples and cultures which have evolved over 5,000 years in a constantly changing and dynamic process. This diversity and unique nature of our society and people can probably never be replicated anywhere on this earth — and for this reason alone, the concept of a single religious identity or mono culture represents an insult to this ancient civilisation and heritage.

Honourable Mr President, Honourable Mr Prime Minister, you have both sworn to honour the right of every single citizen to freedom of speech, worship, association as brilliantly articulated in the Indian Constitution. As a former serviceman and a veteran, like you, I too have promised to uphold the same constitution. It is our bounden duty that the elected government of this nation must honour the rights of every citizen of this land as amply spelled out in the preamble of the constitution and further elaborated in the directive principles of state policy.

As Supreme Commander and the Chief Executive — this is what you must ensure and implement by all the powers vested in you by the people of India.

If we do not stem the rot now — it might be too late. Indeed we the people of India look to you to take all steps necessary to restore faith in our democracy and in the promise of bringing dignity, fraternity and equality to each of our citizens.


Admiral.L.Ramdas (retd.)


This article was originally published in Newsline’s November 2015 issue.