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Attacking Writers, Banning Books : Growing fascist intolerance

by Praful Bidwai, 10 November 2010

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The attack by Bharatiya Janata Party Mahila Morcha activists on the residence of writer Arundhati Roy in Delhi, accompanied by abusive slogans and breaking of flower-pots, marks a new low in the destructive activities of the forces of bigotry and intolerance in India. It is a hair-raising reminder of the great distance this society has travelled from the concept of a liberal democracy which genuinely respects the freedom of expression and the right to dissent—a concept that’s at the heart of the Constitution.

The Morcha’s offence to democratic values is aggravated by the obnoxious rationalisation of the attack as a protest against Roy’s remarks about azaadi in Kashmir, timed to coincide with the birth anniversary of former Home Minister Vallabhbhai Patel. Patel is the very man who banned the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the BJP’s parent, after Gandhi’s assassination, and warned Hindutva supporters that their attempts to suborn the agencies of the Indian state wouldn’t be condoned.

The events leading to the attack follow a definite pattern. First, Roy’s remarks at a public meeting in Delhi on Kashmir are distorted to mean that she favours India’s break-up. What she said was that the status of Jammu and Kashmir in India is not settled despite the accession to India by the Maharaja in October 1947. This is a fact—and something that thousands of Kashmiris, including Chief Minister Omar Abdullah, have repeatedly reiterated.

Indeed, the Shimla agreement of 1972, and efforts by various Indian governments, including Mr Atal Behari Vajpayee’s, to reach a settlement on Kashmir with Pakistan, are testimony to the existence of an issue or dispute. Roy also spoke of the brutality of the military occupation in Kashmir. This too is incontrovertible—with the presence of over 400,000 security and police forces in the Valley, and some 20,000 deaths over two decades.

Second, the BJP drums up hatred by demanding that the Centre sue Roy—equated with hardline separatist Syed Ali Shah Geelani—for sedition under Section 124(A) of the IPC. By saying it’s examining the issue, the Centre partly legitimises the repugnant idea that Roy’s remarks, which were a sober reflection on Kashmir, were meant to create “disaffection” and “hatred” against the state. This erases the critical distinction between remarks which are unconventional, controversial and extremely contentious, even disagreeable, but acceptable in a democracy, and those which constitute a direct, explicit and unambiguous incitement to violence. Roy’s comments don’t fall into the second category. Rather, as she says, they were “fundamentally a call for justice”.

Three, mercifully, the Centre drops the misguided idea of prosecuting Roy, but sections of the media go hysterical, calling Roy an “impostor”, “traitor”, and worse. Some television channels such as “Times Now”, “News 24”, and even “NDTV” decide to become accessory to the criminal attack on Roy’s house by sending outdoor broadcasting vans there ahead of the BJP Mahila mob. It’s perfectly fine to collude in trampling on the fundamental right to free expression and on the rule of law in pursuit of higher Television Rating Points!

This too is a repetition of what some TV channels did in June when Roy’s house was first attacked. The groundwork for the hysteria against Roy was laid even earlier, when a “Times Now” TV anchor known for his rantings against anything humanist screamed after the November 2008 Mumbai attacks: “Arundhati Roy, where are you? We want to tell you we hate you ….” This is akin to the targeting of dissidents and critics by Nazis and fascists through calumny and hate-speech.

Regrettably, Roy has not escaped the hostility of self-professed liberals with a hollow commitment to intellectual integrity, like Ramachandra Guha, who declared that Roy is neither a writer nor an intellectual—when she is incontestably a world-renowned author whose razor-sharp writings have exposed much that’s wrong with the Indian state and society. That’s the role that public intellectuals play by overturning comfortable stereotypes. The Supreme Court too had punished Roy for contempt of court for her remark on the judiciary’s complacency in believing that the Constitution and the human rights of displaced people are respected by those who build large dams, citing the Narmada example.

This interpretation of contempt of court, against which truth is no defence, and which elevates the higher judiciary to divinity, has only served to victimise a writer who has the courage to speak the truth about elitist but destructive projects. One doesn’t have to agree with Arundhati Roy 100 percent to say this. I don’t fully agree, for instance, with her analysis of the Naxal movement in Chhattisgarh. But I fully and unconditionally defend her right to express herself with the honesty and perceptiveness she has.

The attack on Roy comes just when the Hindu Right has launched a two-pronged offensive on freedom and Indian democracy. The first is a campaign against books, plays and films which the sangh parivar does not like for a variety of arbitrary and irrational reasons and which it wants banned for offending the sentiments of “the majority community”. But it doesn’t even represent that community.

This has culminated in the Shiv Sena’s successful attempt to get Rohinton Mistry’s fine novel removed from the reading list of Bombay University’s English literature course. There’s a long lineage to such assaults on artistic freedom and scholarly writings—witness the parivar’s many raids: on Sahmat’s Ayodhya exhibition in Delhi, on the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute in Pune (on the James Laine issue), and on MF Hussain’s gumpha (cave) in Gujarat.

The parivar has driven Hussain, India’s best-known modern painter, into exile. Over the years, this society has “absorbed” and “normalised” such offences, without pausing to ask how they degrade our democracy and what we should do about them. Once intolerance by those who claim to speak for “the majority”, for “the real India” (as if there’s only one of them!), for “Indian culture and values”, for “Bharatiya Nari”, for whoever, comes to be accepted as tolerable, we destroy the soul of tolerance and become despotic towards those with whom we might disagree, but who cause no harm to others.

We become numb towards the content of freedom and its value to social life and the health of the public sphere. A society which cannot countenance multiple ways of looking at reality or diversity of cultures and beliefs, and which cannot debate differences without feeling paranoid and insecure isn’t healthy. Tolerance and respect for difference and diversity are essential attributes of democracy. We are being driven by the Right towards a devalued half-democracy and a majoritarian—not free, egalitarian and enlightened—political system.

The Hindu Right’s second campaign aims to shield the most violent elements in its ranks implicated in a well-organised and -ramified network which has recently conducted numerous terrorist bombings of Muslim dargahs and mosques. The latest disclosure in this regard comes from the charge-sheet filed in the Ajmer dargah blasts of October 2007, which killed three persons. The Rajasthan Anti-Terrorism Squad names five accused. Four of them are closely associated with the RSS.

Suspicion centres in particular on Indresh Kumar for organising a secret meeting in October 2005 which discussed the strategy for conducting the blast. Kumar is an RSS full-timer and a member of its national executive council, based in Varanasi, and considered to be among the top 15 pracharaks. He was in regular contact with former pracharak Sunil Joshi, who is believed to have made and triggered the Ajmer bomb along with Harshad Solanki.

Solanki has just been arrested by the Rajasthan police. He’s a prime accused in Gujarat’s Best Bakery case—an ominous connection. Besides Indresh Kumar, there are other RSS members connected with a shadowy organisation called Jai Vande Mataram, which in turn has links with Abhinav Bharat, which was behind the Malegaon blasts of September 2006 and Hyderabad’s Mecca Masjid bombing of May 2007. Among the key people are Lt Col Shrikant Purohit, Pragya Singh, Ramji Kulsangra, and “Swami” Aseemanand.

As evidence mounts against Indresh Kumar, the RSS has decided to launch nationwide protests against what it calls “a political conspiracy” by the Centre to link it to terrorist activities. The sangh has decided to use political pressure and bullying so that no such link is established. If this is established, the RSS’s “nationalist” and “patriotic” credentials would collapse, with consequences similar to those in 1948-49, when it was accused of involvement in Gandhi’s assassination.

These are despicable tactics on the part of an organisation devoted to violence, which believes it’s legitimate to kill members of the religious minorities to fulfil its narrow political goals, and which also hides behind labels like “cultural nationalism” to deny it has a political agenda. The Hindu Right’s terrorism is no less pernicious than Islamic-jehadi extremism. It’s more insidious because it’s often treated with kid-gloves by the state and successfully infiltrates the police. Punishing the Hindutva terror network is a litmus test for our democracy. It must not fail it.—end—