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Public discourse at its nadir

On every issue, or rather non-issue, it is becoming normal to stage demonstrations, destroying public property, issue threats with impunity and deploy trollers on the social media to obfuscate issues. The might is right – on the street and Cyber Street.

Pray, when was the last time we heard of the Vyapam scam in Madhya Pradesh, as more people mysteriously die, or of suicides by farmers in Maharashtra? These are just random examples of issues being suppressed by the cacophony over non-issues.

Indeed, killings in the name of cow and their justification by the BJP hotheads have shown that the damage has spread countrywide, sending out wrong message across the world that portrays India as a backward nation where people can be targeted for what they eat, read, view or wear.

The country is facing one of its nadirs in public discourse. It is unlikely to change after the belated warning last Sunday – closed-door and private – that Bharatiya Janata Party chief Amit Shah gave to his controversial party colleagues.

Why Shah’s list excluded Union Culture Minister Mahesh Sharma is not explained. Sharma had termed the mob lynching of Mohammed Akhlaq on a mere suspicion of consuming beef as an ‘accident’ and has ridiculed writers who have returned their literary awards, in the most disparaging language.

Himself pulled up by the Election Commission for using intemperate language during the Bihar polls campaign, Shah did it at the behest of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Shah is being used as a fig leaf by Modi who has stopped far short of condemning the violence in the name of cow.

The other defenders of Modi’s studied silence are Union Ministers Arun Jaitley and Ravi Shankar Prasad who have said that the writers’ protest was ‘manufactured’. It is their defence that is ‘manufactured’ – a bad example of ‘Made in India.’

Some BJP leaders have questioned even the sanity of the protesting writers, whose number has swollen to 40. Some others have called for awards being done away with altogether. Their call is akin to asking to chop the head off if there is a headache.

Why blame the BJP alone? There is no word if Mulayam Singh Yadav, like Shah, berated his errant Minister Azam Khan, who expressed a lack of confidence in his own government by wanting to take Akhlaq Mohammed’s killing to the United Nations.

He conveniently forgot that Dadri, where Akhlaq was killed, is in Uttar Pradesh. But then, Mulayam is his party’s biggest motor mouth, having expressed strong and controversial views on English language – the urban ‘elite’ who use that language – on women who cut their hair short, and ridiculed protests over gang-rape incidents.

We may not have seen and heard the last of either Mulayam’s wisdom or his son Akhilesh’s non-governance of Uttar Pradesh. Except on occasions like Mulayam’s birthday celebrations, the State does not seem to exist in Uttar Pradesh.

The beef-ban controversy began in Maharashtra and none is wiser about the damage a major state has done to itself. Add to that the heady mix of patriotism being made synonymous with everything about Pakistan.

Mumbai, once called “urbs prima in Indis,” meaning “the first city of India,” still the country’s most vibrant and cosmopolitan city, has for nearly five decades been the happy hunting ground of Shiv Sena.

It has successfully played on the fears of the city’s Marathi-speaking population that sees ‘outsiders’ – south Indians, north Indians, Biharis and Muslims – as taking away their jobs and homes. Every political party in Maharashtra – Congress, NCP, and BJP for sure – has been complicit of Sena and its strong-arm tactics.

No trolling on social media in Mumbai – the retaliation is real, swift and physical. Cancellation of Ghulam Ali’s ghazal concert, the ink attack on the organiser of release of a book written by a former Pakistani Minister who advocates Indo-Pak rapprochement and attempts to cancel India-Pakistan cricket are just the most recent examples.

The alacrity with which the BJP and the Shiv Sena kissed and made up after a tumultuous week comes as no surprise to anybody aware of the two oldest allies and the way things work in Maharashtra.

There is no way the Sena with its supremacist beliefs and political agenda will reconcile to playing the junior partner in the Maharashtra government. It clawed its way to power, and will keep it, because it cannot do without it. This can be said about any political party, but it is truer of the Sena.

For, its chief Uddhav Thackeray, the soft-spoken man who is a contrast to his fire-breathing father, and that he has cousin Raj, who has emulated Balasaheb’s ballast better, always breathing down his neck, is another reason for Sena to stamp BJP’s toes as much and as often as it can.

Returning to the India-Pakistan theme, Akhlaq murder or cricket is but minor inputs in a relationship doomed from the day one. It is unlikely to be relished by either when told that Pakistan and the present-day India are becoming mirror images of each other.

Writing in Karachi’s Dawn newspaper (October 12, 2015), Irfan Husain says: “In many ways, this tragic episode (Akhlaq’s murder) carries echoes of the victimisation of Pakistan’s hapless minorities under its blasphemy laws.

“The difference is that in India, six men have been arrested and charged with Akhlaq’s murder. In Pakistan, few members of lynch mobs are arrested — and even fewer are actually charged or sentenced — for attacking and killing Hindus, Christians and Ahmadis accused of blasphemy.”

Clearly, it is up to a society to pass laws that reflect its cultural and religious values. But a secular state ensures that such edicts do not infringe on the rights of any particular group or minority. This is often a fine line, and balancing competing rights is a delicate business.

A theocracy may have some justification for pushing a majoritarian agenda, but not for persecuting minorities. In professing secularism, as India does, the responsibility of the State, and the society as a whole, to stay secular, is bigger and more challenging. Is India ready for the challenge?

Hans India