RISE IN INTOLERANCE – India’s Ink Blot Test
The deepening disquiet across the urban intelligentsia at the recent surge of intolerance and prejudice underlined by last month’s Dadri beef lynching and now the ink attack on Sudheendra Kulkarni by Shiv Sena hoodlums is unprecedented. It is no longer a matter of a few bleeding heart liberals lamenting about human rights. Large sections of the middle class fear an impending assault on established social norms that could ultimately jeopardise their own way of life.More and more people have started joining the dots between a series of disparate events over the past year: from ghar wapsi to attacks on churches, the murder of rationalist iconoclasts to an obsession with dietary habits. The composite picture that emerges at once threatens both the progress of India towards a modern nation as well as the rule of law.

Had these outrages been merely the handiwork of a few individuals and organisations of the lunatic fringe, it could have been dismissed as an aberration. However, what has compounded matters is the blatant manner in which ministers and leaders of government and the ruling BJP , along with allies like the Sena, have espoused a sectarian agenda.

On the beef-eating controversy , various political luminaries of the establishment have betrayed an embarrassingly obscurantist approach. While Union culture minister Mahesh Sharma declared how his “inner soul starts quivering on [the subject of] beef “, the agriculture minister Radha Mohan Singh described cow slaughter as a “mortal sin“.

Incensed at a provocative taunt by RJD chief Lalu Prasad Yadav that Hindus too ate beef, senior Bihar BJP leader and chief ministerial aspirant Sushil Modi even declared the ongoing state assembly polls as “a contest between beefeaters and those who wanted to stop cow slaughter“.

Another central minister from Bihar, Giriraj Singh made dire predictions of Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad “forcing all Biharis to eat beef “ if they won the elections. He criticised the RJD leader for not drawing a distinction between eating beef and mutton with the intriguing explanation it was “the same difference in the relationship one has with one’s wife and sister“.

The urban intelligentsia that had also voted in large numbers for Narendra Modi to take the country forward expected him to condemn the lynching and crack the whip on party extremists with a medieval outlook. But it took 10 long days for the Prime Minister to break his silence on the controversy and that, too, in a convoluted manner. Urging people at an election rally in Bihar to ignore irresponsible politicians, he asked them to follow the guidance of President Pranab Mukherjee, who in the wake of the Dadri atrocity had warned against the destruction of India’s core civilisational values including diversity , tolerance and pluralism.

There was still no outright condemnation or grief expressed for the murder of Mohammad Akhlaq, the Muslim blacksmith from Dadri, and for the critical injuries meted out to his son Danish, on suspicion of storing beef in their kitchen. Nor were there any words of prime ministerial sympathy and encouragement for Mohammad’s other son, Sartaj, a corporal in the Indian Air Force, and the rest of the family .

To make matters worse, at an earlier rally on the same day , Modi appeared to emulate the irresponsible politicians he later asked people to ignore by raising Lalu Prasad’s `Hindus too eat beef ‘ statement and admonishing him for doing so despite belonging to the cow-protecting `Yaduvanshis’. During a four-day tour across parts of south and north Bihar, I found an overwhelming majority of people disinterested in the beef controversy , despite palpable efforts by BJP leaders to make it into an electoral issue.

The Sangh Parivar‘s failure to turn the beef controversy into a Hindusversus-Muslim issue could be linked to the recent controversy about meat prohibition during certain days in Mumbai and the promotion of vegetarianism, which has apparently antagonised not just the urban elite but aspirational middle classes celebrating a new consumerist life as well.

The perils of official apathy or even sanction to divisive propaganda and mob behaviour can’t be underplayed even at the cost of sounding paranoid.There is a belated recognition of the dangers and the recent spate of writers returning their Sahitya Akademi Awards in protest against the palpable atmosphere of intolerance is telling.