Indian students and activists shout slogans during a protest outside the office of the Indian Minister of Human Resource Development, Smriti Irani, against an attack on Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) students in New Delhi on February 16, 2016. A row over the arrest of an Indian student on a controversial sedition charge escalated Friday 15, with students refusing to attend classes and violent scenes at the Delhi court where he was due to appear. Kanhaiya Kumar was arrested on February 12 for alleged seditious behaviour at a rally to mark the third anniversary of a Kashmiri separatist’s execution, sparking major protests at Delhi’s prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) and other universities. He was brought before a judge on February 15, but violent scuffles broke out in the courtroom where fellow students and journalists had gathered to witness his appearance. AFP PHOTO / SAJJAD HUSSAIN / AFP.
Snapshot
  • The Opposition has decided that the country and the economy do not matter. If governance improves, if the economy improves, Modi will succeed. That is not to be allowed to happen at any cost.

As PR disasters go, this will count as the mother of all of them. In India’s financial capital of Mumbai, the Make in India Week was wowing investors with the country’s manufacturing, innovation and investment potential. But a Beat Up in India show playing out in the heart of Delhi completely eclipsed an event which was raising India’s profile on the world stage.

On two days—15 and 17 February—a handful of lawyers ran amok in the Patiala House courts in Delhi, attacking journalists, scuffling with other lawyers, locking the gates of the court complex and even attacking Kanhaiya Kumar, the Jawaharlal Nehru Students Union (JNUSU) president arrested on sedition charges, when he was brought for his bail hearing. The police stood and watched. On the first day, they may have been taken by surprise, but on the second, they should have been prepared. Photographs of the lawyers leading the attack were splashed across the newspapers on 16 February. And yet there was no attempt to stop them.

In one fell swoop, the narrative changed. It was no longer about whether or not anti-India slogans were raised in JNU on February 9 (the anniversary of the 2001 Parliament mastermind Afzal Guru’s hanging), whether Kumar also raised those slogans. Now it was about freedom of speech, the parameters of nationalism, and once again, about tolerance and intolerance. BJP haters and baiters got yet another chance to gloat—see, see, we warned you about the fascist tendencies of the saffron brigade.

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Make in India Week, and Rs 15.2 lakh crore worth of investment commitments? It just didn’t occupy any mindspace, let alone newspaper columns or news television screens.

There were other developments too that got eclipsed. One, a landmark India-UAE oil storage deal that will mean India getting almost 4 million barrels almost free after some years. Two, cars manufactured in Chennai are being shipped to Kandla port by sea, a first ever initiative that will scythe transportation costs.

This is not the first time that a controversy has been deliberately ratcheted up or provoked to show the BJP and the Modi government in poor light, specifically as a bunch of intolerant bigots who have no clue about governance or political management. This is not the first time that this has been done around the time the government was either earning plaudits for the country or making major announcements relating to the economy or social welfare.

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Remember Dadri? The lynching of a Muslim man for allegedly storing beef in his refrigerator at home in late September completely overshadowed the visit of German Chancellor Angela Merkel in mid-October. That visit had significant achievements, but who was to know?

The controversy could have been killed by some deft political management. The blame could clearly have been deflected to the UP state government, the PM could have been quick to condemn the incident, and the BJP could have distanced itself from the attackers. Instead, Culture Minister Mahesh Sharma and BJP MLA Sangeet Som made provocative statements, presenting the Secular Leftist Outrage Brigade (SLOB) and the Mushy Liberals an opportunity to whip up the bogey of Rising Intolerance.

Each time the SLOB, which is increasingly working as the handmaiden of the Congress and the Left, has whipped up outrage over some incident (real or imagined), the loony fringe of the sangh parivar (this includes ministers) has, without fail, reacted in a needlessly confrontational manner, making statements that are incendiary or asinine (often both) and occasionally—as at Patiala House where a Delhi MLA beat up a CPI—even indulging in violence. Each time, Modi haters and baiters sit back satisfied—they had set a trap and the loony fringe had walked into it.

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That has happened in the case of the JNU imbroglio as well. Memorial meetings for Afzal Guru had been held on his first and second death anniversaries, in 2014 and 2015. In 2015, the Modi government was in office and using that advantage, the BJP’s student wing, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), tried to get the event cancelled, but could not. It managed to do so this year. Things are a bit fuzzy from this point on, but the students wanting to observe Guru’s death anniversary then decided to take out a march within the campus. During this march, slogans like Bharat ke soleh tukde honge, Insha Allah, Insha Allah (India will be broken up into 16 pieces, Insha Allah, Insha Allah), and Bharat ki barbadi tak, Kashmir ki azaadi tak, jang karenge, jang karenge (Till India is ruined, till Kashmir is free, we will fight on), were reportedly chanted.

This had not happened in 2014 and 2015, though there were demands for azaadi in the specific context of Kashmir.

Why were these provocative anti-India slogans raised this time around, in public? Was it because the organizers knew the ABVP members were standing across the road and wanted to provoke them? The ABVP duly obliged and set off a train of events (including allegations about morphed videos) that converted a palpable revulsion for the sloganeers into sympathy and left the party and the government with egg on their faces. If ever there was an opportunity lost, this was it.

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In reacting intemperately each time to deliberate provocations, the Hindutva loonies have succeeded in allowing the anti-BJP groups to portray a picture of an India which has suddenly turned communal/ illiberal/intolerant from May 2014. Invariably, controversies have been manufactured or isolated incidents given a communal/intolerant colour just ahead of a crucial Parliament session, giving an excuse for Parliament to be disrupted.

Completely lost in the noise is the fact that such illiberal/intolerant incidents happened even before May 2014. Books were banned before May 2014, Salman Rushdie was not allowed to attend the Jaipur literary festival before May 2014, writers were killed before May 2014.

Take the case of the controversy surrounding the ban on sale of meat in Mumbai around the time of the Jain festival of Paruyshan Parva. The controversy started with Mumbai, after—but naturally—a BJP government came to power, and soon examples of other BJP-ruled states were cited. What was carefully airbrushed out was the fact that this ban—in all the states mentioned—has been in force for decades and had been initiated by Congress governments.

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Look at the other narrative about growing oppression of/violence against Dalits. It started with the tragic burning of two Dalit children in the Faridabad district of Haryana late last year. This was immediately blamed on the BJP government in the state, which had come to power just a year earlier. Lost in the noise—and the controversy over an idiotic statement by Minister Of Northeastern Affairs V. K. Singh—was the fact that every year hundreds of cases of anti-Dalit violence have been registered in Haryana, all during the tenure of non-BJP governments (October 2014 was the first time the BJP came to power on its own in the state). Three major incidents of atrocities happened in 2002, 2005 and 2012.

In 2012, after a horrific case of a Dalit girl being raped and her father committing suicide, then Congress MP and head of the National Commission of Scheduled Castes said on a television show that the number of crimes against Dalits was the highest in Haryana, which was then ruled by his own party’s government. What is also glossed over is the possibility that personal enmity was behind the burning of the children’s house in Faridabad and later news reports about an initial investigation showing that the fire started inside the house.

Consider the Rohith Vemula suicide issue. It was blamed on harassment by the university authorities at the prompting of Union Ministers Bandaru Dattatreya and Smriti Irani. This is a fact. Both wanted to oblige the ABVP (with whom Vemula and his friends had clashed), but the SLOB painted the hounding as caste-related and furnished it as one more evidence of the BJP’s anti-Dalit mindset. But newspaper reports have pointed out that there have been earlier suicides by Dalit students at Hyderabad Central University. Inquiries into each of them showed a sense of alienation these students felt.

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And yet, the Faridabad deaths and the Vemula suicide are linked to argue that atrocities against Dalits have increased after the Modi government came to power.

Incidents that happened before Modi became Prime Minister are linked arbitrarily with those which happened after he did, merely to fabricate a non-existent pattern. Rationalist Narendra Dhabolkar was murdered in 2013 in Pune, when the United Progressive Alliance was in power at the Centre and the Congress-Nationalist Congress Party alliance was in power in Maharashtra. And yet, his murder is bracketed with that of Govind Pansare and M.M. Kalburgi in 2015 to create a narrative of writers being under threat under this government. Kalburgi was living in Karnataka, a state ruled by the Congress since May 2013.

Even incidents that have nothing to do with the government are being raked up now, as in the case of the row over women’s entry into temples, specifically Shani Shingnapur in Maharashtra and Sabarimalai in Kerala, which have barred women’s entry for centuries.

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Look at how the controversy started in Shani Shingnapur, again with a deliberate provocation. In November last year, a woman breached security to offer prayers on a platform where the idol is kept and where women are barred. She then disappeared into the crowd. The temple authorities performed purification rituals and, as if on cue, the SLOB jumped into the fray, venting ire at gender discrimination. An all-women’s march by a little-known NGO was organized to forcibly break the tradition, but was prevented from doing so. This was clearly an attempt to provoke just to again portray India as being ruled by an intolerant party taking the country back to the medieval era.

Why did the banning of women from these temples not enrage women’s activists in all these decades? And why was the fact that there are several temples in Maharashtra with women priests completely glossed over? When in the course of a television debate, advocate J. Sai Deepak suggested that the panel talk about discrimination in religious rituals by all religions, the other participants refused to do so; they only wanted to talk about Shani Shingnapur and Sabarimalai.

This is one case where the right wing played it, well, right. The only reason Sabarimalai got dragged into the controversy was sarcastic questions being asked about whether the SLOB was silent over women’s entry being barred here only because Kerala is a “secular” bastion. The question of Mumbai’s Haji Ali mosque barring women’s entry was also raked up. Perhaps that is why Shani Shingnapur did not become a flashpoint and was allowed to die out. Perhaps it was not carried further also because the NCP in Maharashtra (a part of the “secular” alliance) was not in favour of doing so in the case of Shani Shingnapur and the Congress in Kerala did not want to antagonize the Hindu vote ahead of the assembly election in the state in the case of Sabarimalai.

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Clearly, issues inconvenient for non-BJP parties are not to be raised; only those that can put the BJP in the dock are to be played up.

So, did the government mismanage the JNU issue? Even if the videos showing anti-India slogans and implicating Kumar are genuine, the government does seem to have over-reacted (with home minister Rajnath Singh making statements based on an unverified twitter handle) and created a situation where even its sympathizers and well-wishers, as well as others hugely uncomfortable with the sloganeering that took place, are distressed and unhappy.

So is this government more illiberal and intolerant than previous governments?

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Would an illiberal government currently accused of not tolerating secessionist views on Kashmir allow a film like Haider, replete with subversive statements, to get five National Film Awards? The awards are decided by an independent panel, but would a dictatorial government bent on forcing a particular point of view on the whole country not have manoeuvred to scuttle this? Or armtwisted the Censor Board to make more cuts in the movie? Both the certification and the awards happened after May 2014.

Has this illiberal and intolerant government banned any books or films in the 18-odd months it has been in office? Let’s not think Wendy Doniger. Her book was pulped not because of the government but because one individual filed a case in court and the publishers preferred not to fight a lengthy legal battle.

But the stop-the-Modi-government-in-its-tracks brigade will not be deterred by facts. Parliament will be disrupted, legislation will be blocked, fresh troubles will be created. The country and the economy do not matter. If governance improves, if the economy improves, then Modi will succeed. That is not to be allowed to happen at any cost.

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Sangh parivar outfits will be deliberately provoked. And their hotheads will get provoked and end up creating more trouble. Modi has to fight two enemies within—his political opponents and his ideological fellow travellers, each feeding off the other. In the process, the country, economy, governance and Modi’s own reputation are suffering.

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