The intolerant mindset is not restricted to any single political party. Hence, it is likely to continue, irrespective of who comes to power.
Tolerance in India’s public life has reached a new low. The process which can be said to have begun in its present form with the installation of the Trinamool Congress government led by Mamata Banerjee in 2011 in West Bengal, gathered momentum under the NDA government which came to power in 2014 and has reached a nadir of sorts with the current Lok Sabha elections. What is perhaps most serious is that the intolerant mindset is not restricted to any single political party. Hence, it is likely to continue, irrespective of who comes to power.
The first major sign of this intolerant mindset surfaced with the 2012 arrest of a professor at Jadavpur University, Kolkata for, of all things, posting a cartoon poking fun at the West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee. The cartoon, neither offensive nor libelous, depicted a vanishing act conducted by a magician in the manner of a character in a Satyajit Ray children’s movie. Perhaps even more than the intolerance, the official action represented a singular lack of humour. What was not funny was the taxpayer money spent in paying compensation to the professor on court orders.
Today, it is the same West Bengal government which has been reprimanded by the Supreme Court for arresting a woman BJP activist for posting a picture of actress Priyanka Chopra with the actress’s face being morphed into that of Mamata Banerjee’s. Again, the meme circulated on the social media was not offensive or libelous, though it could well be faulted for not being all that funny.
Earlier this year, the West Bengal government found itself in another controversy when it was taken to court for obstructing the screening of a new movie Bhobishyater Bhoot which was a sequel to another popular film by the same director. The latest film is based on a group of ghosts gathered together in a deserted refugee colony contemplating an existential crisis – how to remain relevant by engaging in issues that matter today and how to also find a home, what with old haunted buildings giving way to property developers’ projects.
The assembled ghosts – on the lines of a politician, extortionist and cabaret artiste -- think of going on social media and boning up on contemporary themes. In the process, the film turns out to be a deeply satirical one on current realities. It is the dark humour and the mocking of a politician in the film which the state’s official machinery found unacceptable. The Supreme Court not only ordered the same official machinery to ensure that the film’s screening was not obstructed but also awarded damages. There again the government of Banerjee showed itself to be singularly lacking in a sense of humor.
While these West Bengal developments got people into trouble, they did not threaten lives. But others haven’t been so lucky. Gauri Lankesh, a Karnataka based-journalist, editor and activist who was critical of right-wing Hindu extremism, and campaigned for women’s rights and opposed caste-based discrimination, was shot down in front of her Bengaluru home in 2017.
One of the most pointed articulations of current trends in India and what made up the basic ethos of the country came from former President Pranab Mukherjee in an address in 2018 to the RSS, the organization at the core of Hindutva. He argued that any attempt to define India through “religion, hatred, dogmas and intolerance” will dilute the nation’s existence. India’s soul resided in pluralism and tolerance, he said.
He added that “every day we see increased violence around us. At the heart of this violence is darkness, fear and mistrust. We must free our public discourse from all forms of violence, physical as well as verbal.”
Interestingly, Mukherjee’s decision to visit the RSS headquarters and speak at a public event there was criticized by many, including people from his own Congress party and his own daughter because it was seen to give the RSS some kind of legitimacy. The RSS chief, on the other hand, described this controversy as “meaningless”, adding that Mukherjee will remain what he is and the Sangh will remain the Sangh after the event.
Kannan Sundaram, a publisher, told a literary gathering in 2018, that “in today’s context, majority fundamentalism is the biggest threat to a writer and an artist’s free expression.” But he simultaneously cautioned that “Hindu intolerance cannot be met by anti-Hindutva intolerance. The real counter is to meet it with tolerance, discussion, debate, peaceful demonstrations and campaigns.”
Subir Roy is a senior journalist. Views expressed are personal.
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