Protest against intolerance in India: A magnificent display of democracy or a “manufactured revolt”?,

On November 3rd, Mrs. Sonia Gandhi, President of the Indian National Congress, led a one-kilometer march from the Parliament House to the Presidential Residence. It was primarily to submit a memorandum to President Pranab Mukherjee, condemning the rising intolerance in India and expressing “deep regret” over Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s continued silence over these matters. What the march lacked in distance, it covered in its optics and the purpose of the march and the rhetoric that followed. The optics were quite spectacular with Mrs. Gandhi in the lead, Rahul Gandhi and former PM, Mr. Manmohan Singh by her side, followed by prominent political leaders like Ghulam Nabi Azad, Sushilkumar Shinde, A K Antony, and Mallikarjun Kharge. This was a 125-strong delegation that took the short walk protected by massive security coverage and inundated with reporters, journalists and photographers. It was a dramatic display of protest that was evident of a strong opposition and a strong democracy in India.

In addition to this recent memorandum, the intelligentsia in India has been overwhelming in expressing its outrage towards the oppression of religious minorities, the rise in censorship and restrictions on the “freedom of thought.” The most recent figure to return her award is author and activist, Ms. Arundhati Roy. Ms. Roy joined this political movement in order to share solidarity with the community of scholars, academics, writers, filmmakers who are standing up against the “ideological viciousness” that she says would “tear us apart and bury us very deep.” Individuals like writer Nayantara Sehgal, Malayalam poet, K. Satchidanandan, Theatre Artist, Maya Krishna Ray and recipient of Padma Bhushan, P.M. Bhargava have returned their respective awards and over a 100 scientists have publicly condemned the recent “sectarian and bigoted acts” in a letter to the President. The Karnataka Chief Minister, Siddaramaiah, recently condemned the intolerance over cow slaughter and that he will start to “eat beef now” and “nobody can stop” him from doing so as it is his right if he chooses to. Some intellectuals like Jayant Vishnu Narlikar have condemned these issues but deem returning their award unnecessary. Nevertheless, these are all methods the public community has taken to fight for secularism, pluralism and tolerance in the country.

However, some politicians are not convinced that this recent uprising is legitimate. Arun Jaitley, Union Finance Minister, criticized the uprising of writers and through Facebook asked whether it was “a manufactured revolt” and also claimed that the protest itself was a symbol of intolerance. He has gone on record to call the current state of the country peaceful and has denied the very existence of intolerance in the country. The absent rhetoric of Mr. Modi has translated into poor rhetoric of ministers within his party. And while Karnataka Chief Minister was quite vocal about his right to eat beef, local BJP leaders have threatened to even behead Mr. Siddaramaiah if he eats beef on the streets of Karnataka. This violent backlash is not empty in its rhetoric after the Dadri lynching and the beating up of a minister in the Kashmir assembly. Haryana’s Chief Minister, M. L. Khattar, was recently quoted saying “They (Muslims) can be Muslim even after they stop eating beef, can’t they?” While lecturing on secularism Mr. Khattar claimed that the cow is of highest faith in the country. While the opposition and the public criticized this hypocrisy, Modi’s response to the opposition by the Congress came across as more standoffish by resurrecting party politics from the past. Mr. Modi responded to the Congress as being unreliable in this debate on religious intolerance due to their passiveness during the Sikh massacre in the 1984 riots. This defense by Mr. Modi is weak. While he has been quite an enigmatic, outspoken and unequivocally abrasive leader in his rhetoric to the country, he has altogether remained silent on this debate.

The thin, yet quintessential layer of secularism and pluralism in India is being peeled away by the back and forth between the two major political parties. Protesting a protest seems absurd. It wouldn’t be political suicide for Mr. Narendra Modi to take a stance on the injustice towards minorities in the nation. The silence that has remained so intact is actually harming the image of Modi, the legitimacy of the BJP and also on the stability of the Indian social structure. Time Magazine reported that top Indian business leaders like N.R. Narayana Murthy, Kiran Mazumdar Shaw and Lord Meghnad Desai are concerned that the “growing hostility towards minorities will decrease its (India) attractiveness as a business destination.” This growing intolerance might actually work against the economic growth that Modi wants to Champion for India. A few steps might be be necessary to address the issue of rising intolerance. Firstly, it is imperative that Mr. Modi recognize the reality of the growing intolerance and the increasingly aggressive opposition to it. It would be crucial for him to apprise leaders like Arun Jaitley to not deny the existence of a problem. Secondly, Hindu extremist organizations like the RSS and VHP who are leading the “Ghar Wapsi” or “(Re)conversion” campaign are most often associated with hostility towards Muslims, Christians and other minorities. These are often linked with chipping away at the secular fabric of Indian culture. These organizations have close links to Modi’s BJP. BJP was started as the political wing of RSS in 1951. VHP was created in 1964, again with members of the RSS to cultivate for Hindus  a “sense of religious identity and political purpose.” BJP, therefore, is closely linked with both organizations. It is imperative that Mr. Modi consolidates control over their violent acts and condemns them publicly. Thirdly, Mr. Modi must use his active social media platform (Twitter with 15.9m followers, Facebook page with over 30m likes, and a daily Radio Show called “Mann Ki Baat.”) to address the opposition without raking up the past and party politics. The situation is beyond the question of whether the protest against intolerance is a display of democracy or, as Mr. Jaitley would likely put it a “manufactured revolt.” The protest has reached a significant point in its course and the public, especially the minorities, within and outside of India is looking for a statesman and not a politician in Narendra Modi.