Communal opportunists, not conscientious protesters
India's opposition is conducting its politics through the intellectual-media complex.
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The abominable lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq in Dadri, Uttar Pradesh has set off a firestorm of commentary and analysis from India's intellectuals.
The criticism mounted by Centre for Policy Research president Dr Pratap Bhanu Mehta, where he laid the responsibility for the murder squarely at the door of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has been heavily debated and has particularly struck a chord.
Writing with uncharacteristic fury in the the pages of The Indian Express, Mehta asserted that the gruesome murder "exemplified the depths of the barbarity that lurks behind the veneer of our civilisation."
This column isn't about Akhlaq's gruesome killing, which deserves nothing but unequivocal censure. One hopes the Uttar Pradesh state government finds the perpetrators responsible for the heinous crime, and brings them to book. However, the response to the murder of Mohammad Akhlaq tells us far more about our media and intellectual establishment, than it does about our civilisation - this column is about that establishment.
It is most curious that this establishment has been making a unified, vociferous demand for the prime minister to specifically address Akhlaq's murder. Consider a few other horrific crimes motivated by religion have taken place across India over the last year. In Meerut, a 22-year old Hindu man was murdered in broad daylight by the brothers of a Muslim woman with whom he had been in a relationship - the brothers proceeded to murder their sister after hacking her lover to death. There have been several reported cases about the abduction and rape of young Hindu girls by Muslims from states including Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal. In Hajipur, Bihar, a Hindu man was murdered by a mob of a hundred people for marrying a Muslim woman. In Karnataka, a 29-year old Hindu flower seller, Prashant Poojary, who was also an activist against cow slaughter, was stabbed to death in a market, his six attackers escaping quickly on motorcycles.
Why should the prime minister of India speak out about one crime motivated by religion, but not the others? The position India's eminent intellectuals are taking is Narendra Modi is not prime minister of India, but prime minister of Hindus: he should be made answerable for the crimes of Hindus, but not for those committed by individuals of other faiths, even though those crimes may be just as heinous. The sickening perversity of the position that "Narendra Modi must condemn the Dadri murder" is that a crime committed against a "minority" community member matters more than a crime committed against a "majority" community member.
Our individual identities stripped and dissolved, each of us becomes merely a member of a group - there couldn't be anything more communal and poisonous than attaching different weights on human life, depending on which religion an individual follows. As society, are we going to treat the murder of a Poojary differently from the murder of a Mohammad?
If a murder is a murder and a crime is a crime, why must the prime minister speak only about atrocities where "minority" community members are victims? By relentlessly demanding that the prime minister condemn the Dadri murder, his critics are seeking to pigeonhole him as the spokesman of Hindus. This is a trap. The cacophony became so loud, that the prime minister, in an interview with a Bengali newspaper, described the Dadri incident as "unfortunate and unwarranted".
Moreover, if the murder of a Muslim by a Hindu mob reflects on the barbarity lurking behind the veneer of our civilisation, as Mehta would have us believe, does the murder of a Hindu by Muslims not reflect upon any barbarity in "our civilisation"? Who is the "our" - are Muslims excluded from India's civilisation? Are they not Indians? Or is Mehta writing about Hindu and Indic civilisations from which he has excised Indian Muslims?
Has the rise of Narendra Modi turned the "secular-liberal" Dr Pratap Bhanu Mehta into a freshly minted "Hindu nationalist", who doesn't consider Muslims to be a part of India's civilisation? Mehta has fallen prey to the soft bigotry of low expectations - he is implicitly assigning different behavioural standards to individuals based on the religious group they happen to belong to.
It doesn't end there. Much has been made of the murder of so-called "rationalists". It is another matter that activists like Narendra Dabholkar, whom every "secular" intellectual worth his or her salt has been lionising since his murder, agitated for a law that has turned members of the Aghori community, a small Hindu sect, into criminals. Think about that: Some individuals have been turned into criminals for who they are, and those who made it happen are being touted as paragons of rationalism and liberalism.
While buckets of tears are being shed for the murder of "rationalists" like Dabholkar, not a word of support has been offered for Sanal Edamaruku. Groups affiliated with the Catholic Church filed a complaint charging Edamaruku with blasphemy when he exposed how a crucifix was dripping water not because of miracle by Jesus Christ but because of the scientific phenomenon of capillary action, forcing Edamaruku to flee to Finland in 2012. Edamaruku has elected to stay abroad because he fears he may be jailed indefinitely if he comes to India, or may even be assassinated.
As Anand Ranganathan has written for Newslaundry, while India's "secular" intellectuals are quick to ascribe all blame for the murder of activists like Dabholkar to Hindu extremists, what they choose to ignore in the absence of evidence and a credible, comprehensive police investigation is that Dabholkar may have been murdered by Christian fundamentalists because of his stout opposition to Mother Teresa's canonisation by the Catholic Church - "when clues don't emerge, biases do", wrote Ranganathan.
The most disgusting, vile, nauseating, morally odious and revealing episode of all has been the revolt of the writers led by Jawaharlal Nehru's niece, the 88-year old Nayantara Sahgal. "What's the use of smart cities if stupid people live in them," Sahgal proclaimed on national television, in a moment of absolute honesty to her credit. The eminent writer felt that there was no point living in a smart city if you entertained baseless beliefs about why Lord Ganesha has an elephant's head.
Some background is in order here. India's intellectuals have enjoyed astonishing patronage from the Indian state, which has been controlled for over 50 years since 1947 by the Congress party and the Nehru-Gandhi family. In 1954, Russian painter Svetoslav Roerich and his wife, film actress and grandniece of Rabindranath Tagore, Devika Rani, received 100 acres of land from the Karnataka (then Mysore) state government, whose chief minister was Congress party's Kengal Hanumanthaiah.
Consider the spectacle of an infant republic and a dirt poor democracy doling out public land to a Russian painter and his film star wife - having just taken away lands and properties owned by feudal landlords in the name of social justice.
There is another interesting aside to the Roerich story. In his book Nehru: The Making of India, Nehru biographer MJ Akbar recounted how Nehru had been romantically connected with Devika Rani in the 1930s. In a personal letter dated January 2 1937, Nehru wrote that his mother had confronted him with "suppressed rage", based on popular rumour, about his links to Devika Rani.
Opening an exhibition of over a hundred paintings by Roerich in New Delhi in January 1960, Nehru described it as a "feast of beauty" and said he felt "a strange sensation - one of beauty, one of harmony and one of some depth". In Sahgal's modestly titled book Jawaharlal Nehru: Civilizing A Savage World - with all the objectivity at her command, Nayantara Sahgal seems to believe that her uncle was a civilising force for the big, bad, savage world we all inhabit - Sahgal writes that Devika Rani was an ardent admirer of Nehru and "sent him a photograph of herself in a silver frame. After independence, she and her husband Svetoslav Roerich were visitors to Nehru's official residence Teen Murti House whenever they came to Delhi from Bangalore". Even today, Roerich's paintings of Nehru and Indira Gandhi can be found in the Central Hall of Parliament.
If Sahgal, who holds such contempt for ordinary Indians because their personal beliefs and faith are "stupid" in her opinion, had any appreciation for the incredible privilege she has enjoyed, she would have paused to ask why India's masses are the way they are.
Could it be because her uncle, as India's first prime minister, failed to prioritise primary school education? Could it be because her uncle, as prime minister for 17 years, neglected food security and agricultural productivity, even trying in 1959 to collectivise agriculture like Soviet Russia's Stalin and China's Mao had? Even today, not getting adequate nutrition impedes the physical growth and mental development of millions of Indian children. Could it be that this is caused by decades of bad governance, mostly inflicted on India by Sahgal's own family?
In the echo chambers populated by our writers and intellectuals, even asking such questions is blasphemy. Indeed, mundane topics of governance do not interest our eminences, and questions such as why the law and order machinery controlled by India's state governments is so impotent, why justice delivery is so slow and courts so dysfunctional,and why ordinary citizens have just no fear of the law are barely raised for public debate. If the question is never raised, no solution can be deliberated and no change achieved. New Delhi's intellectual establishment is a reactionary set that is unable and unwilling to offer any new ideas to solve age-old governance problems. It is both more permanent and less accountable than India's much maligned bureaucracy.
It is no surprise that this establishment is increasingly ignored by India's "stupid" citizens and discredited in the eyes of the public, for they deserve no better. It is not political parties alone that are spreading poison to weaken Indian democracy - poison is being spread by this elitist establishment, which is unable to reconcile with its own irrelevance and is chafing at the loss of its privileged position under a new political dispensation. Through its charged pronouncements, the ancient regime may vitiate public discourse in the shorter run, but over time this behaviour will precipitate its own implosion.