India was once known for its magnanimity and tolerance, but they seem to have disappeared, given the vandalism perpetrated on dissent.
Indian President Pranab Mukherjee’s second call in two weeks urging his countrymen to be unbigoted and accepting of differences in opinion and thought underlines the gravity of the situation. Stressing that humanism and pluralism must not be abandoned under any circumstance, he said Indian civilization had survived for 5000 years because of its enormous power of tolerance. “It has always accepted dissent and differences. A large number of languages, 1,600 dialects and seven religions co-exist in India. We have a Constitution that accommodates all these differences,” he added on the eve of the five-day Hindu festival of Durga Puja — when the President spends his time in his ancestral village home in the eastern Indian state of West Bengal.
On Oct. 7, the President speaking at a book release function in New Delhi averred: “We should not allow the core values of our civilization to wither away. Over the years, our civilisation has celebrated diversity, plurality and promoted and advocated tolerance. These values have kept us together over the centuries. Many ancient civilisations have collapsed but the Indian civilisation has survived because of its core civilisational values and adherence to them. If we keep them in mind, nothing can prevent our nation from forging ahead. Indian democracy is a marvel and we must celebrate, preserve and promote its strengths.”
But sadly, radical political organisations and individuals with jaundiced views have been holding India to ransom.
Last Saturday, a group of people in a Bengaluru (earlier Bangalore, in the southern Indian state of Karnataka) restaurant harassed and humiliated a young Australian couple, because the man had a tattoo of the Hindu goddess, Yellamma, on his shin.The group even threatened to skin the man’s leg.
When Matthew Gordon, 21 and his girlfriend, Emily Kassianou, 20 from Melbourne were dining at the restaurant, the group accosted him, saying that he was disrespecting Hinduism by sporting the tattoo on his shin. The men were terribly agitated.
The policeman who arrived on the scene did not help, but instead gave the couple a dressing down and moral sermon. He took the couple to the police station and asked them to write a letter of apology. Gordon and Emily did that, and left Bengaluru the next day vowing never to return to India. They were to have stayed on till the end of February!
In recent days, there have been many such depressing incidents. Two Pakistani cricket commentators — Wasim Akram and Shoaib Akhtar — will have to leave Mumbai now, because the Shiv Sena, a coalition partner of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the Western Indian state of Maharashtra (whose capital is Mumbai), seems to have declared every Pakistani persona non-grata. Incredible as it may sound, the very same Akram was the cricket coach for the Kolkata Knight Riders when they were playing in Mumbai six months ago.
An Indian journalist, Sudheendra Kulkarni, was doused with black ink in Mumbai by Shiv Sena cadres, because he refused to cow down to their threats. They told him not to be part of the launch of a book written by a former Pakistani foreign minister, Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri. His book is called Neither a Hawk nor a Dove. A blackened Kulkarni however conducted the launch under heavy police protection.
On Oct. 19, Shiv Sena volunteers stormed the office of the Board of Cricket Control in India (BCCI) in Mumbai, gheraoed (encircled) its chief, Shashank Manohar, and told him not to go ahead with his meeting with his Pakistani counterpart, Shahryar Khan. The meeting, which has since then been put off, was meant to revive cricketing ties between the two neighboring nations.
The Shiv Sena, a party that fiercely believes in Hinduism, says that there should not be any cultural, literary or sporting exchanges between India and Pakistan till Islamabad puts an end to cross-border terrorism.
And, on the other hand, the beef war continues, with one more person being lynched in northern India, because he, a mere driver, was reportedly transporting cows!
In New Delhi, the other day, an independent member of the Jammu and Kashmir (a northern Indian state) Assembly, Engineer Rashid, was inked, because of his earlier “offence” of having hosted a beef party back home.
All these are extremely worrying and indicate a climate of radicalism that actually resents — and is even hostile to — dissenting views. While India’s BJP prime minister, Narendra Modi, has been implying and indicating that he wants to be a functioning executive — keen on development and progress — there are forces, perhaps even within the party, that want to impede him.
On Sunday, the BJP president and a Modi confidant, Amit Shah, served a gag order on four of the party leaders, guilty of incendiary remarks on the lynching of a Muslim man, Mohammad Akhlaq, a couple of weeks ago on the outskirts of New Delhi. He had supposedly stored beef in his home refrigerator.
In recent weeks, there has been a rising demand for a total ban on beef and cow slaughter. The animal is considered sacred by Hindus. There was also someone who wanted the cow to be declared India’s national animal, instead of the tiger.
The question now is, where will all this end?
Gautaman Bhaskaran is an author, commentator and movie critic, who has worked with The Statesman in Kolkata and The Hindu in Chennai for 35 years. He now writes for the Hindustan Times, the Gulf Times and The Seoul Times.