Over the past few weeks, an unprecedented parade of distinguished and decorated Indians – writers, film-makers, a scientist – have returned the awards given to them by the Indian state.

The gestures constitute each individual’s protest against the present Indian government‘s perceived indulgence of a coercive new climate of religious intolerance and Hindu-nationalist hysteria in India – one that jeopardises not just the creative freedoms of art and the scepticism and empirical rigour of science, but also twists out of shape the liberal and secular ideals of Indian democracy and potentially undermines the political rights and religious freedoms of every Indian citizen.

The scale of the returns has given these individual acts the force of a movement, prompting other prominent Indians, such as the film star Shah Rukh Khan this week, to speak up against “extreme intolerance” in India, and even earning Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government a reproach from the credit ratings agency Moody’s.

Unsurprisingly, those occupying the highest echelons of the government, such as Arun Jaitley, the finance minister, have termed the resistance “a manufactured revolt” sponsored by the ideological opponents of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. It’s a fascinating face-off between two very different kinds of rhetorical power and two divergent visions of Indianness – and one that seemed inevitable from the time Modi came to power in May 2014.

Rationalisation of prejudice

To be sure – as the ruling party has itself taken great pains to point out – it is perverse to pretend that religious prejudice in India is centred around any single organisation or party. If anything, the shooting at point-blank range of a rationalist intellectual in southern India, the lynching by a mob of a Muslim blacksmith in northern India suspected of eating beef, and the public blackening of the face of an intellectual hosting an event for a Pakistani writer in  Mumbai, are evidence of how much still needs to be done to build a civilised public sphere in India.


But equally, this also means that the party in power cannot itself be a contributor to what one might call the rationalisation of prejudice. And while Modi’s government may not have had a direct hand in any of these incidents, its ministers and spokesmen have certainly provided plenty of ingenious post-facto justification of intolerance.

While Modi’s government may not have had a direct hand in any of these incidents, its ministers and spokesmen have certainly provided plenty of ingenious post-facto justification of intolerance.


revealing case in point is the Mahesh Sharma, the minister of culture, who when pressed for his opinion on the lynching called the brutal murder an “accident”, and argued that the cow was so sacred to Hindus that the rumour of a cow being slaughtered had provoked a mob into an act of barbarism. 

In one stroke, Sharma revealed a worldview in which not only are the lives of cows as valuable as human lives, but that minorities have the impossible task of behaving in such a way that they are not even suspected of offending the religious sentiments of Hindus. 

Indeed, it was instructive to see just how many politicians from the ruling party saw the controversy as being about the potential slaughter of a cow rather than about real manslaughter. Another politician – the chief minister of a state – declared in an interview that Muslims could continue to live in India as long as they gave up eating beef.

Legitimising violence

Does this make for a saner country, or a more savage one? History gives us dozens of examples of how arguments that demonise a particular community eventually end up legitimising violence against them by deciding, perversely, that it was the attackers who were “provoked”. 

The intellectuals who have returned their awards in recent months are trying to bring to the attention of their fellow Indians the dangers of a nationalism that wants to put some groups of Indians on perpetual trial according to standards of their own making. Their arguments must be taken extremely seriously.

But equally, the hordes of representatives of the current regime who appear in the media each day – pointing out some equivalent act or justification of prejudice by another government in the past, or asking why writers don’t protest when Hindus are treated like second-class citizens in other countries, or claiming that all Indians should accept that the Hinduism and Indianness are inseparable, or this week accusing Shah Rukh Khan of having “his soul in Pakistan” – also deserve to be listened to extremely carefully. 

They deserve to be taken seriously because they are in effect admitting that the state’s declared commitment to the rule of law is actually a conditional, and not an absolute, commitment, to be first passed through the filter of Hindu-nationalist reasoning. 

And they are saying that they have no faith, either, in the idea of India as a distinctive political project to be judged by its own ambitious ideals, not that of the narrower or uglier nationalisms of other countries. 

If more than 50 distinguished Indians have in the past two months returned the awards given to them, it may be because it appears to them that although India does have a government, the liberal state that gave them those awards has a greatly diminished authority in Modi’s India.