AS droves of intellectuals began returning their state awards to protest the growing culture of intolerance across India, I exulted to Prof Romila Thapar: “You’ve lit a prairie fire.” She messaged back “No.” It was the outrage at what was happening that had triggered the outcry.
If she believed she had little to do with the surge of awakening she was wrong. It was in October last year that a very worried audience was glued to every word of a seminal address. To question or not to question, that is the question? Prof Thapar’s exhortation to India’s weak-kneed intellectuals was direct and urgent. Speak up or we all perish. After starting the fire, her modesty today doesn’t fit.
People were expressing their outrage because they were outraged! Does that make sense? If outrage alone could bring about desired change, then nobody would need Lenin or Gramsci or Rosa Luxemburg I muttered to myself. On the other hand, an alternate scenario lurking in India warns us that unguided popular anger could produce a Robespierre too, perhaps dressed as a Hardik Patel, who knows.
There is a real worry here despite the dominant left’s pursuit of last week’s mayoral elections in West Bengal. Remember this was the time when a popular prairie fire had begun. Just marvel at the communists’ bad sense of timing. A Bengali Marxist hero, former state finance minister Asim Dasgupta, was among the leading lights required to contest mayoral elections last week — he from the Salt Lake City where he lost. In Kerala, the party is lauding saint and social reformer Narayana Guru’s secular legacy to woo a low-caste community that holds the balance in the next assembly elections.
An alternate scenario lurking in India warns us that unguided popular anger could produce a Robespierre.
Across the road from the left’s pulpit, Pratap Bhanu Mehta, a neo-liberal academic was suddenly berating Modi. His force of logic and candid appeal against Hindutva’s innate fascism had the flavour of an old page from the left’s party organ.
In the meantime, the country’s central bank chief Raghuram Rajan also of the neoliberal brotherhood has emerged as an outspoken theorist of how society needs to grow and prosper. The other day he chided Prime Minister Modi to pull up his socks on the social front, a rebuke for the lynching of Mohammed Akhlaq by a Hindutva mob.
“The emphasis that prime minister … [has] … been putting on this being an economy which is trying to get it right and move forward on sustainable basis, I think that does not fit well with these kinds of incidents. And we need to figure out the way to reduce; and certainly, I think, there is a law and order issue there,” Rajan told India Today channel.
Mehta who was hitherto entranced by Modi’s reformist promise, now says the prime minister is willy-nilly responsible for the climate of unreason in the country. Pro-markets ideologues, including journalists from the political right — the veritable Orwellian sheep from Animal Farm — are also looking disenchanted by the master’s silence on violence against people’s food habits.
I think Rajan spotted the expanding prairie fire when he said that Modi had a law and order problem on his hands. In a way, India’s main problem is indeed one of law order. Since the law of the land is enshrined in the country’s agreeably democratic constitution, protecting the statutes in letter and spirit was all that was needed from the state to keep everyone happy. A literal implementation of Rajan’s law and order call could solve half of India’s immediate problems. In fact, it could also help improve relations with neighbouring countries. Who will bell the cat?
For if the law of the land were to be equally and truly applied for everyone, none who allowed communal pogroms under his watch could become prime minister. No ruling party president would dodge jail without a transparent trial in criminal cases of fake encounter killings. The butchers of hundreds of Sikhs, leading names lurking within the Congress party, would be serving at least a life sentence each. Dalits would not be lynched, abused or raped with impunity.
Neo-fascist men who assaulted Sudheendra Kulkarni, the host of Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri’s book tour in Mumbai, would know better. Akhlaq’s killers would be arrested without the need to send the meat in his fridge to test if it was beef. There would be no communal violence in Muzaffarnagar. There would be no gang rape of a woman ever again, in a bus or inside an Arab diplomat’s house. If a man was hanged for terror, the debate would be about the morality of the death penalty, not about the alleged miscarriage of justice.
While Rajan’s prescription awaits courageous political patrons, a similar cleaning up is already under way in Pakistan. The Supreme Court has upheld the death sentence on the Muslim killer of fellow Muslim, the assassinated former Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer. I know Pakistanis who are waiting anxiously for the law to close in on Hafiz Saeed and Zakiur Rahman Lakhvi, and other so-called anti-India assets. Taking Rajan’s route, the implementation of law and order can indeed rehydrate India’s wilting democracy. And yet Rajan’s is little more than an idealist’s dream. You usually don’t take the law and order route to fight fascism.
Prof Thapar’s exhortations are now out in a new book — The Indian intellectual. She feels though the essays may no longer be relevant, arguing that the prairie fire has now been lit. To put it differently, though, the fire could do with more kindling. It may also need to be watched and also guided, not least with lessons from history, lest the leaping flames devour their very own purpose.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.
Published in Dawn, October 13th, 2015