The “gathering interrogation” of the government by civil society represents a widely-shared critique of the regime which speaks to a larger current of discomfort against the politics of the right and the rampant cultures of violence perpetrated by it.

Even as this is being written, the campaign started by 40 writers returning the Sahitya Akademi awards to the government to protest against the growing climate of intolerance, is still unfolding. More and more artists, painters, filmmakers, scientists, historians and academics have joined their ranks in the past month to register their protest against intolerance. The October protests are in response to a series of incidents that have occurred in the country, violating the constitutional rights of people. While it is difficult to pin down one incident, the Dadri lynching was perhaps a turning point for many.

The Dadri lynching and the murder of prominent rationalist scholar M.M. Kalburgi and before that of rationalists Narendra Dabholkar and Govind Pansare raise disturbing questions about the new cultures of intolerance and the failure of governments at the Centre and states to stem the rising tide of hatred and prejudice. Anyone who questions any aspect of religious taboos or religious ideologies in the intellectual or artistic sphere, or in terms of ideas, food habits and lifestyle has been threatened with violence.

Zoya Hasan

Official response to the events surrounding the politics of hate has been weak to non-existent, and this is a part of the problem. The government has displayed ambivalence; not one minister, leave alone the Prime Minister, has spoken unambiguously against it. The Prime Minister’s belated reaction to the Dadri incidentwas that it was “really sad”; however, he asked what the Centre could do when law and order is the responsibility of the State government.

Extremists emboldened

But the killing of Kalburgi and Akhlaq were no ordinary crimes. The issue is not about the responsibility of this or that government but the highly vitiated atmosphere prevailing in the country which has emboldened extremists. In this context, we must not forget that the Sangh Parivar’s ideology and its activists were directly involved in the crimes and they have succeeded in creating an ambiance of fear and disharmony. Even MLAs, MPs and Ministers have openly propped up the accused without fear of action against them.

However, the attempt here is not to provide a register of events of rising intolerance and the ideological assault on reason, nor an account of the protests so far. The focus is on a more interesting issue — the response to the protests. The responses range from the Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, who also holds the Information and Broadcasting portfolio, dismissing them as “a manufactured rebellion” by the supporters of the Congress and Leftists “who have opposed Modi long before he became Prime Minister” to the RSS hitting out at the “long-standing intolerance of intellectuals towards the Sangh and Hinduism”.

Constitutional guarantees

The intellectuals have been accused of double standards and giving support to an “orchestrated campaign” to target the National Democratic Alliance government. Hence, the critics demand evidence of the past history of protestors and where they were “when the country was rocked and looted with huge corruption scandals by the UPA”, or the Emergency, the 1984 riots, and Ayodhya controversy and so on. Mr. Jaitley also called the protests “politics by other means” even though it is straightforwardly political. When intellectuals, artists, and writers protest against the government and its inaction in situations of communal conflict, they are making a political statement. But in doing so they are not acting as proxies for parties — they are speaking for constitutional rights that guarantee the freedom to live, express and think differently. These freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution are the very antithesis of the core beliefs of majoritarianism, religious intolerance, social exclusions and their disregard for freedom of expression.

The second response is that these things have happened before, why did these people not protest then? It is certainly true that this is not the first time that pluralism, free speech and dissent are under attack. These freedoms have been frequently under attack during Congress regimes but there was no dearth of protests then. As an observer of political mobilisation and oppositional movements, it is surprising to read or hear politicians and media anchors proclaim that the present protest amounts to “selective outrage” because there were no protests in the past. For those who have short memories or scant knowledge of contemporary Indian history, it’s important to remind them of the rich history of protests, agitations and demonstrations, starting with opposition to the Emergency to the massive anti-rape protests which shook the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government in December 2012.

Equally, in the past three decades or so there have been major oppositional movements, both at the individual and collective level, against the communal give and take of the Congress government on the Ayodhya/Shah Bano controversies, the blatant vote bank politics of the party — manifest in its decision to overturn the Supreme Court judgment in the Shah Bano case, the ban on Salman Rushdie’s book, Satanic Verses, to mention some of the more significant ones. Time and again, many of the intellectuals associated with the protests at this moment have raised their voices against intolerance and injustice irrespective of the party in power. For instance, several of the 300 artists who have signed the pledge in support of writers returning their state awards, have, in the past, backed campaigns by Sahmat, an organisation of artists and intellectuals, that has continuously spoken against human rights violations, mobilising and defending freedom of expression and democratic rights.

Even if some of these individuals did not protest in the past, it does not mean that they do not have the right to protest now. This argument suggests that protesters ought to choose a time and issue that suits the government. The protests have nothing to do with the Congress or for that matter any party. The BJP leaders, by repeatedly saying that Congress has instigated these protests, are giving the party unnecessary credit and attributing to it a hitherto unknown capacity for social mobilisation.

Furthermore, it’s an old ploy to pick on individuals and belittle them to discredit the protest and thus evade the critique of the government. It is diverting attention from the substance of the protest to the political motivations of the protestors. At one level, it is an individual protest, but at another level, the protestors form a collective civil society response to the general atmosphere of intolerance. In the event, the government cannot simply dismiss it as a rebellion of the disgruntled elites. As The Hindu editorial of October 30 notes: “Civil society has started a conversation that Central Ministers and BJP spokespersons cannot dodge by questioning the individual record of protestors…The questions civil society members are articulating and threading together challenge the discourse and activities of persons and organisations intimately invested in the BJP’s political project.”

Movement in the making

The October protests might well take the shape of a movement — a possibility that was reflected in the public response to “Pratirodh” (resistance), an event organised and attended by intellectuals, historians, authors and artists in New Delhi on November 1, 2015 to denounce the “attack on reason, democracy and composite culture”. Present at this event were different sections of civil society who are standing up and speaking out for the need to safeguard liberal space and the future of Indian pluralism.

In sum, major protests are underway and they are getting louder by the week. The government has a responsibility to acknowledge the public dissatisfaction these signify; their long-term success or failure may not be the immediate issue.

The “gathering interrogation” of the government by civil society represents a widely-shared critique of the government which speaks to a larger current of discomfort against the cultural politics of the right and rampant cultures of violence perpetrated by it. There is growing recognition that the attack on free speech and dissent are part of a concerted movement to impose a communal agenda on India. The issues at stake are not just free speech but pluralism, citizenship and rights. All of these are foundational ideas and principles of the Indian Republic that has greatly valued its traditions of debate and tolerance. This is a moment for asking questions and talking back to power, aggregating the growing intellectual opposition into a moral force that can provoke an unequivocal critique of discordant ideologies and politics.

(Zoya Hasan is National Fellow, Indian Council of Social Science Research, affiliated to the Council for Social Development, New Delhi, and formerly Professor, Jawaharlal Nehru University.)