Smriti Irani's witch-hunt of Urdu writers is a crying shame

HRD's mandatory declaration to not pen anything against the government, and/or 'national interest', is simply unacceptable.

 |  5-minute read |   29-04-2016
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Are Urdu writers anti-nationals? Do they write against the policies of government? Or, is what they write against national interest?

The Narendra Modi government would like you to believe so. A diktat of the Union ministry of human resource development (MHRD) to National Council for Promotion of Urdu Language (NCPUL) is nothing short of being outrageous.

Set up to promote, develop and propagate Urdu language, NCPUL is an autonomous body under MHRD. It extends financial assistance to writers under the "Bulk Purchase of Books Scheme" to acquire their books for distribution among libraries.

An Urdu writer seeking financial assistance from the government has to submit an undertaking in writing, stating that the contents of her or his work "do not have any material which is against the national interest or which may create any sort of hatred amongst the different sections of society". In fact, this is the language of the form which was modified on April 22.

Modified Declaration Form

"I, ……………………………… son/daughter/wife of ……………………………………, whose book/ periodical/ magazine /manuscript /project entitled ………………………………………………. has been accepted by the National Council for Promotion of Urdu Language for financial assistance, declare that :-(i) The contents of the book /periodical /magazine /manuscript / project do not have any material which is against the national interest or which may create any sort of hatred amongst the different sections of society."

The previous one was worse. It asked a writer to declare that s/he was not writing anything which went against the government's policies. It also was more blunt in its reference to communal disharmony. It said:

"I, _______________ son/daughter of __________ do hereby declare that my book/journal/booklet _______________ , which has been accepted by the National Council for Promotion of Urdu Language's scheme for financial assistance for bulk purchase, does not contain anything which goes against the policies of the Indian government, or anything that is against national interest, or anything which promotes disharmony between the various communities."

In a written reply to a question in the Rajya Sabha on April 28, HRD minister Smriti Irani said NCPUL gives grants for bulk purchase of books and as part of this process, an undertaking had to be given by the interested authors.

"Keeping in view certain complaints, NCPUL had amended the undertaking or declaration on September 1, 2015, which has now been simplified on April 22, 2016 by the NCPUL removing any scope for misinterpretation or misunderstandings," Irani said.

She was replying to a question from Rajya Sabha MP Harivansh, who wished to know whether NCPUL had asked Urdu writers to show their allegiance to the country and the reasons behind such a move.

smrititwo29416mb_042916080130.jpg Union HRD minister Smriti Irani at a function of NCPUL.

The MHRD is at fault on at least two counts:

1. Why single out Urdu writers?

In her reply to a question in the Rajya Sabha on April 28, Irani defended the declaration form and said the practice of an undertaking was also used in other similarly placed  language institutions under the HRD ministry.

However, what Irani said does not seem to be true. Because the declaration forms for the Bulk Purchase Scheme of either National Council for Promotion of Sindhi Language (NCPSL) or Rashtriya Sanskrit Sansthan do not mention any such undertaking.

Hence, the moot question is:

Why have Urdu writers been singled out to submit such an obnoxious undertaking?

The Indian Express has quoted NCPUL director Irteza Karim as saying that a book on Abul Kalam Azad consisted incorrect information and this forced them to seek an undertaking. As a precautionary measure, NCPUL modified the form to ensure that the contents in government-aided books should only create harmony and goodwill among various sections of the society.

The government erred in adding a clause just for the Urdu writers asking them to give an undertaking. This is bound to create suspicion in the minds of this section of writers. Painting all writers with one brush because of just one person's fault is also no way to check an anomaly.

Aggrieved with the government's decision, a section of Urdu writers protested, forcing the government to climb down and make amendments in the earlier order.

But the even the modified declaration form is objectionable. Generalising a whole segment of people gives the impression that the government does not trust it. As it is, the divide between Hindus and Muslims is the deepest since the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992. Controversies regarding communal issues - like Dadri lynching, beef ban, intolerance, "Bharat Mata ki jai" slogan, nationalism vs anti-nationalism - are dogging the Indian polity and society, particularly after a polarising figure like Narendra Modi becoming the prime minister. Demanding an undertaking to not write against the government or the  national interest deepens the mistrust of a section of the population. The government can well do without creating unnecessary controversy.

2. What is 'national interest'?

What defines national interest? It is not yet clear. The JNU row gave rise to a staggering debate over what's nationalist and what's anti-national. Still, no particular definition of nationalism has been arrived at, or has found consensus. Is speaking against caste system, beef ban, imposition of Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) anti-national? Is refusing to chant "Bharat Mata ki jai" also anti-national? These issue will be debated until and unless the courts decide. Releasing an order in the absence of any clarity on the issue is sure to lead to more confusion and suspicion among the practitioners of Urdu literature.

Congress leaders accuse Modi of possessing a dictatorial streak. And a controversy like that over NCPUL only reinforces that view. It also provides a handle to the rivals to beat the government with.


Kumar Shakti Shekhar Kumar Shakti Shekhar @shaktishekhar

Delhi-based journalist with more than 20 years of experience in reporting for print, TV & digital media.

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