Modiby Ram Puniyani

Towards the end of 2015 many writers and eminent citizens returned their national honours protesting against the growing atmosphere of intolerance. The list was long and this acted as a process where some introspection took place in society. Still the ruling dispensation and its associates in the Hindu Right-wing politics, the RSS combine, began criticising those who returned their awards, accusing them of being politically motivated. They were also criticised for doing so to influence the forthcoming State Assembly elections in Bihar.

Most of the awardees stood their ground as the perceptions about tolerance, freedom of expression had crossed the threshold and had undergone a qualitative change. This gets confirmed in a 2015 Report by the US Commission for International Religious Freedom. This USCIRF is a bipartisan US Federal Govern-ment Commission. This is the first of its kind in the world and is aimed at defending the universal right to freedom of religion or belief all across the globe. The Report is scathing and points to the state of religious freedom in India. As per the Report, freedom in India is on a negative trajectory, religious tolerance has deteriorated and ‘religious freedom’ violations have increased during 2015.

The Report points out: “In 2015, religious tolerance deteriorated and religious freedom violations increased in India…minority commu-nities, especially Christians, Muslims and Sikhs, experienced numerous incidents of intimidation, harassment and violence, largely at the hands of Hindu nationalist groups.” The Report outlines the violations and informs that the USCRIF will continue to monitor the situation and may have to recommend to the State Department that India should be kept under ‘the country with particular concern’. It is a significant Report which goes on to say that the US Government should keep this in mind while shaping the bilateral contacts with India and the future of ‘strategic dialogues’ should be determined according to that.

The Report suggests that the Indian Govern-ment publicly rebut officials and religious leaders who make derogatory statements about religious communities. This is the crux of the matter. Those understanding Indian politics know by now more clearly than before that the leaders making derogatory comments are either directly part of the ruling party, like Sadhvi Niranjan Jyoti, Giriraj Singh (both Ministers at the Centre), or leading Members of Parliament like Yogi Adityanath or Sakshi Maharaj. Then there are others who belong to the affiliate organisations like the VHP, Bajrang Dal, which again are part of the broader Sangh Parivar, or, more precisely, the RSS combine.

When these statements derogatory to religious minorities are made, some from the ruling party will come forward to say that this is not the official position of the party and stop at that. There is neither a reprimand neither demotion of the person concerned. Many have made these derogatory comments even before coming to power, like Giriraj Singh, but despite that they have been given the positions of power. At these times Narendra Modi, who is presented as a powerful Prime Minister, keeps silent for weeks and later comes out with some lame uncon-vincing statement, which does not take away from the impunity of those indulging in such hate speech.

As such it seems to be a coordinated game. Someone makes the provocative statement, and some others from the RSS stable come to defend/justify him/her and some others say it is not official while the PM maintains a deliberate silence. Interestingly, some statements need not sound derogatory to begin with. Hindutva’s patriarch RSS Chief Mohan Bhagwat’s statement about shouting Bharat Mata ki Jai (Hail Mother India) is very revealing. First, he said that we should teach the younger generation to say this. Then he took a step back saying it should not be compulsory. In response to this Asaduddin Owaisi of the MIM gave an unwarranted statement that he will not say so even if a knife is put to his throat. To take the story further, Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis said it is a must for all those who want to stay in India. As a matter of fact this is a subtle intimidation of the religious minorities who don’t worship anybody but Allah; as per Bharat Mata ki Jai, it becomes like hailing Mother Goddess, which they say is not permitted by Islam.

The RSS fellow-traveller, Yoga guru and entrepreneur Ramdev, said that had the Consti-tution not been there, by now lakhs would have been beheaded. These are comments from the top rungs of the political establishment these days. The writers of the Report in their naivety may have given this suggestion, not knowing that currently the protection for such divi-siveness is coming from the top echelons.

This is not an enviable situation for demo-cracy in India. The quality of democracy is to be judged by the degree of safety and security of the religious minorities. True, even earlier also anti-minority violence was part of the Indian political landscape, but now with the BJP Government at the Centre the intolerance and divisiveness has undergone a sea-change. What the awardees were feeling has a lot of truth; the feeling of insecurity is accompanied by the gag on freedom of expression, which is going on together with the intolerance.

The Report has come out at a time Modi is packing his bags for a major trip to the US. But at best it will probably be another document for the libraries.

The author, a retired Professor at the IIT, Bombay, is currently associated with the Centre for the Study of Secularism and Society, Mumbai.