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War of the Words

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By Dr Satish C Aikant

There is a war going on. A War of the Words. The contending sides are two ‘open letters’ calling attention of the Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, and indeed of all of us. This in itself should not cause much concern. After all, an argumentative Indian is any day better than a lynch mob. Lynching is the keyword here which has gained currency in recent years, coinciding with the consolidation of the current political regime, whether one likes it or not. The unfortunate incidents of lynching have justly provoked the ire of common citizens of this country articulated in an open letter by 49 eminent personalities from different fields and a wide spectrum of social activities. ‘We, as peace loving and proud Indians, are deeply concerned about a number of tragic events that have been happening in recent times in our beloved country,’ says the open letter to the Prime Minister. Citing data from the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) it reports that no less than 840 instances of atrocities against Dalits were committed in the year 2016, along with a definite decline in the percentage of convictions.
It decries that ‘Jai Shri Ram’, which was an innocuous and routine form of greeting people, has been reduced to a ‘provocative war cry’ to shout the opponents down leading to grave law and order problems. What we are witnessing is appropriation of Ram by unthinking mobs who know nothing about his benevolent form as Maryada Purushottam, revered for his exemplary conduct. There are alarming reports from several parts of the country of lynchings taking place in the name of Ram. ‘These are not the Middle Ages! The name of Ram is sacred to many in the majority community of India. As the highest executive of this country you must put a stop to the name of Ram being defiled in this manner,’ the letter implored the Prime Minister.
Two days later there was a prompt rebuttal to this letter. Sixty-two ‘celebrities’, apparently of a different complexion, felt provoked to counter what they called ‘selective outrage and false narratives’ by the group motivated by their prejudiced opinions. Their letter alleged that those who wrote about mob killings were ‘self-styled guardians and conscience keepers’ with definite political bias. This letter was endorsed and signed by actor Kangana Ranaut, filmmaker Ashok Pandit, CBFC chief Prasoon Joshi, classical dancer Sonal Mansingh, MP Swapan Dasgupta, folk artist Malini Awasthi and others. They said that the letter by 49 ‘achievers’ was written with the intention of ‘denigrating the democratic ethos and norms of our collective functioning as a nation and people’. Besides, they also pointed out the hypocrisy of the 49 by questioning their silence on other hate crimes including political murders and violence in West Bengal under Mamata Banerjee’s rule. The celebrities asserted that they were confident that India shall continue to develop and progress without paying heed to the ones who always want to destabilise the country.
Therein lies the rub. Crying wolf is a familiar strategy to defend oneself against a perceived threat to the ‘nation’ which gets conflated with a supreme leader and with the interests of a certain group or groups of people, usually from the dominant community. This muscular nationalism is driven by the emergence of a repressive and authoritarian State manifested in the changing attitudes of its votaries and the mainstream media. A deluded and jingoistic form of patriotism is gripping the popular imagination which is fed on the illusion of the vision of India that promises to be the global superpower, the ‘Vishwa Guru.’ How does it square with the mass deprivation, destitution and homelessness for a large population lacking any viable public health system and with no programmes to fight malnutrition and eradicate poverty and illiteracy? The marginalised groups become easy targets of hate crimes and are constantly threatened by iterant invocation of a threatening ‘other’. The violence unleashed is condemnable but what is more shocking is that it should be perpetrated in the name of religion. Visit any scene of mob violence and you find the perpetrators emboldened and surrounded by others who are busy recording the gory and humiliating spectacle on their mobiles rather than helping out the victims.
Ideally, the group of 62 should have joined the group of 49 and presented a fuller picture of how the social fabric is being torn asunder while suggesting punitive measures to prevent violence. Instead, it has turned into an ‘Us versus Them’ debate, polarising the social groups even more. I do not think one could doubt the credentials of those comprising the group of 49 among them Aparna Sen, Shyam Benegal, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Ashis Nandy, Ramachandra Guha, and Amartya Sen, who though not a signatory has never made the secret of his anti-establishment views (remember the Harvard/ hard work jibe thrown at him?). Hailing from different fields what they all have in common is that they have all been working to uphold democratic principles and secular ethic and are, indeed, humanists to the core. On the other side, there are those who have been habitually singing paeans to the regime in power. They find it more convenient to run the subtext that brands the dissenters as anti-national and urban Naxals with the iterant taunt that they should be sent to Pakistan. One fails to understand why of all other countries Pakistan should be the favoured destination for the so-called anti-nationals. Given a choice, God forbid if ever I am to be dispatched out of this country for expressing contrarian views, I would prefer to be exiled not to Pakistan but to Bhutan for the simple reason that it counts more on the Gross National Happiness as an alternative indicator to the Gross Domestic Product!
Dissent is not a bad word but the very condition of individual and social existence. Unthinking masses made up of people who agree to everything all the time do not really constitute a mature society. A sustainable, harmonious and mature society comes about through agreements as well disagreements and by dealing with dissent ethically with deference to other viewpoints.
A free flow of information is crucial to democratic freedom. The unseemly haste with which amendments to the RTI Act were pushed thorough in parliament, in the face of stiff opposition from several parties and protests by civil society, betrays the authoritarian attitude of the present coalition government. The amendments bearing on the tenure, salaries and other terms and conditions of the information officers will seriously compromise the autonomy of information commissioners, hit at the core of the spirit of the RTI Act and render it ineffective in ferreting out information particularly when the buck has to stop at the doors of high government officials or political masters. It will now become easier to hide behind the cloak of secrecy to avoid providing critical information which might lead to inconvenient disclosures.
It is curious how the government sets its priorities. The RTI amendments could have waited more discussions in the public domain. There are more pressing issues such as the women’s reservation bill and electoral reforms which the parliament should have addressed. The Supreme Court has directed the government to make a law against lynching. That the government has not acted on it so far only shows a lack of will to deal firmly with the offenders. TMC leader Mahua Moitra in her maiden speech in Lok Sabha spelled out seven signs of fascism which are applicable to the current situation in India. There is much substance in what she said. There is lurking danger in tampering with media management and assault on the freedom of expression which constitutes one of the essential foundations of a democratic society. It relates not only to information or ideas that are favourably received or regarded as inoffensive, but also to those that offend, shock or disturb the State or any section of the population. One hopes that that the open letter by 49 concerned citizens, who have the courage to speak truth to power, will elicit appropriate response and action.

(The writer is former Professor and Head of the Department of English, HNB Garhwal University)