By way of relief from the cacophony that passes for debate on prime time television, India’s ace anchor, Barkha Dutt, did a memorable interview the other night with historian Romila Thapar. It was memorable because the context against which this thoughtful conversation took place was so shoddy, and bleak.
A man had been lynched at Dadri near Delhi on suspicion of eating beef; three rational thinkers, Kalburgi, Pansare and Dabholkar, had been murdered in cold blood by individuals affiliated with extremist Hindu groups; Sudheendra Kulkarni’s face had been blackened by Shiv Sainiks for hosting former Pakistan foreign minister’s book launch; Ghazal singer Ghulam Ali was forced to cancel his performance in Mumbai The list is endless.
These are no longer “fringe” groups, Thapar remarked, they are here, in the room.
Pratap Bhanu Mehta, an intellectual way to the right of Thapar, chastised Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the harshest possible terms, for the state of affairs. Mehta wrote: “The blame for this has to fall entirely on Modi. Those who spread this poison enjoy his patronage. This government has set a tone that is threatening, mean spirited and inimical to freedom.”
The occasion for the Thapar interview was the publication of a book edited by her on the role of the Public Intellectual in India. The timing of the book is prescient. The publication has coincided with writers across the country returning awards given to them by the state. What started as a driblet with Nayantara Sehgal and Ashok Vajpayee taking the lead has now become a torrent.
Meanwhile, a government in search of Foreign Direct Investments is particularly worried at the bad press in countries from where investments are most expected.
Even the New York Times spotted Modi’s below the belt jibe at Lalu Prasad. Lalu was possessed by the “devil”, Modi said, because the Bihar leader had suggested that Yadavs ate beef. “In contrast, Modi boasted, I come from the land of Gujarat where people worship cows.”
What is involved here is the sort of low cunning not expected from the country’s prime minister. Many Yadavs, like a host of others, probably do eat “beef”. But this “beef” is buffalo meat which is permissible by law. Unfortunately, in popular parlance even buffalo meat is “beef”.
Indian newspapers have written hard hitting editorials, but let me reproduce this passage from the New York Times because Indian readers may not have read it.
“Since he was elected in May 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been adept at appeasing his Hindu hard-line base while, at the same time, promising economic growth and development to a wider national and international audience. But that balancing act is in danger of teetering, imperiling not only the economic development Modi has promised but also India’s open, inclusive democracy.”
The brutal murder of Akhlaq at Dadri is another link in the chain of communal riots and pogroms that have been visited upon Indian Muslims since the partition of 1947. This must not be mixed up with the serial murder of rational thinkers or Sudheendra Kulkarni’s face being blackened with ink. These are not communal issues. These are attacks on freedom of speech. The new constitution of Fiji has an elegant formulation: the “freedom of imagination and creativity”. There may be something for us in this phrase.
Romila Thapar’s book should be brought centre stage in the debate that, media willing, is gathering momentum. Of course there will be sharp divergences on the role of the public intellectual between Thapar, Mehta, Kulkarni, followers of Kalburgi, Pansare and Dabholkar. But there is a vast expanse on which they agree: the need for rational debate.
As Wilde said: “We are all in the gutters; only some of us are looking at the stars.” The poet, writer, thinker, in brief the intellectual, represents a society’s distillate of wisdom and common sense. If this category has entered the fray, it devolves on all of us of whichever creed or persuasion, not to regurgitate into the proceedings the mean mindedness our politicians have burdened us with.
No interest group likes to liquidate itself out of business. It will be impossible to ask the half baked Mullah and the Sadhvi to lock up their shops. Even more difficult to restrain are the non-clerical busy bodies claiming national attention on Prime Time screaming matches.
Banner headline on page one of the Indian Express screams:
“Muslims can live in this country but they will have to give up eating beef, says Haryana Chief Minister.”
This conditional permission granted to Indian Muslims by a chief minister who has been in the RSS for 40 years and almost never in Haryana may have been obviated if he knew the state.
In Kheri Kalan village not only does Mohammad Haseen Khan run a Gaushala (cow protection centre) but a range of dairy businesses and a nursery school. The initial finance for the Gaushala came from a Human Care Charitable Trust established by N.P. Thareja, a retired banker.
The success of this experiment appears to be infecting neighbouring villages. Abid Hussain has opened a Gaushala at Havanagar.
This robust commonsense at the grass root level requires as much media attention as the public intellectual does.
(A senior commentator on political and diplomatic affairs, Saeed Naqvi can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed are personal.)