Atal Bihari Vajpayee's name is scarcely mentioned nowadays. Narendra Modi is the flavour of the season. But after the persistent rise of communal incidents and a climate of intolerance which has driven writers, cultural activists, artistes to give up their awards in protest, memories of Vajpayee have come up again. Of course, it would be unfair to judge PM Modi by Vajpayee's standards, especially relatively early in his term. But he can be judged by the Constitution, the judiciary and international human rights and humanitarian law which India is party to.
When Modi was CM of Gujarat, widespread rioting broke out in Gujarat in 2002 after the Godhra incident. About 1,500 Muslims were butchered. PM Vajpayee made it a point to remind Modi of "Rajdharma". But human rights defenders like Mukul Sinha and Teesta Setalvad were marked. Sinha died prematurely but Setalvad soldiered on. She was hounded on various charges all the way to the Supreme Court. She still faces charges. But troublingly, communal sentiments also began to rise. This was coupled with Hindutva. As Sadhvi Niranjan Jyoti, a Union minister of state, put it, India was divided into "Ramzadas" and "Haramzadas". There was a countrywide outcry, but unprecedentedly she was not removed from office.
On September 29, in Bisada, near Dadri, a 50-year-old man Mohammad Akhlaq was lynched for cow slaughter. His son Danish suffered serious head injuries, and is now in the Army Hospital, New Delhi. There was no cow, no slaughter, but two forensic reports that verified that nothing illegal was done. The Thakurs (Ranas) including the local BJP in charge, played a major role. Union minister for culture and tourism, Mahesh Sharma who came to Bisada brushed aside any conspiracy, called it an accident, but also suggested that "Perhaps there was a trail of blood" from Akhlaq's house, inferring therefore that there had been cow slaughter. He also downplayed Danish's injuries, and claimed "that not a finger was raised against the girl" who was Akhlaq's daughter. Women's activist Kavita Krishan who came to Bisada, stated that the young woman had been pushed around.
A BJP MLA Sangeet Singh Som, indicted in the Vishnu Sahay Commission of Inquiry report on the Muzaffarnagar riots, warned that if the "innocent" were arrested, this would not be tolerated. Both leaders had violated Section 144, thus being guilty under Section 188, a minor infringement. Incidentally, Som is a partner in a buffalo meat-exporting firm. After this the surviving family members of Mohammad Akhlaq decided not to return to their village. All this while there was not a word from the PM. Only after the president spoke out against this tragedy, was Modi finally willing to make a statement against intolerance, without naming Bisada or Dadri. After that there have been a flurry of statements largely from the secularists. But attacks increased in the name of cow slaughter even in Udhampur in which a young Kashmiri died.
Official rhetoric continued to be provocative. Haryana CM ML Khattar warned that Muslims who ate beef would not be able to stay in India. He disregarded the fact that Goa ruled by the BJP permitted beef eating. He also warned women from going outdoors. Finance minister Arun Jaitley, dubbed the writers protest "manufactured" and a sign of "political intolerance". The president spoke again for the need for tolerance and communal amity. Yet a couple of days ago near Ballabgarh, Haryana, a Dalit family had fallen afoul of some Rajputs and was living under police protection. They were attacked, their hut burnt along with the two children. The police did not intervene. Yet the CM claimed that caste was not an issue, though it clearly was.
The communal temperature and the spread of intolerance is rising. The serious intervention expected from the Union government and the BJP has not happened. It is the president who has intervened most clearly to defend the country's secular ethos. But there is no alternative to executive intervention. It may be wise, if not incumbent, for the PM to intervene personally in the trouble spots. If necessary, he should reschedule his foreign engagements. It is also clear that the problems have not occurred because of fringe groups. The BJP and its ally the Shiv Sena are involved. Corrective action has to come from the top.