In the past, I have never felt the need for the Prime Minister to speak up and speak out against the fringe. Now I do.
On Wednesday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s eponymous official handle was tweeting inspirational tweets about the children whose courageous deeds have been acknowledged with the annual National Bravery Awards. On Republic Day, these children, barring those who tragically perished while trying to save others, will participate in the grand parade celebrating the republican ideals of democratic India.
It would be safe to presume the tweets were being put out from either the Prime Minister’s Office in South Block, or his residence at Lok Kalyan Marg, earlier known as Race Course Road.
Around the same time, not too far from Lutyens’s Delhi, in tony Gurugram of BJP-ruled Haryana, goons claiming to represent ‘Rajput Pride’ were burning down a bus on Sohna Road. The people travelling in that bus escaped a horrific death by the proverbial skin of their teeth.
High on pride and low on human values, the murderous mob, which was ostensibly protesting the scheduled release of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s film Padmaavat, next attacked a school bus ferrying children home. The children cowered and cried in fear as the bus was pelted with stones. A short cellphone video, possibly shot by a teacher in the bus, records the trauma and horror of the children. It has forced the police, which first denied the attack, to shamefacedly retract the denial. The driver was smart enough to hit the accelerator and escape the mob outraged by, among other inconsequential and irrelevant things, a 14th century queen shown dancing the Ghoomar.
The imagined grievances of the easily offended, in this case the so-called Karni Sena which claims to represent India’s Rajput and Kshatriya community, do not merit either recount or elaboration. Nor should manufactured victimhood, cited in defence of violence by rioting mobs, distract us from the larger issue: in this case, the Indian state abjectly failing in its primary duty of protecting lives and property, and ensuring the safety and security of its citizens from thugs and lumpen political activists.
This story is no longer about making films, authoring books, writing articles or saying things that run the risk of running into controversies. This story is not about Bhansali’s film, whether it accurately portrays Rajputana history, the hotly debated role of the CBFC, or the Supreme Court’s verdict striking down orders issued by governments of BJP-ruled states prohibiting the screening of a film that began as Padmavati and ended up as Padmaavat.
This story is about violent identity politics, the failure of well-meaning politicians to stand up to thuggery, the non-response of state governments to a serious and debilitating threat to law and order, the paralysis of those who can use moral power as a restraining force but won’t lest they discover the fringe is now the centre and will spurn their voice of reason, and above all the deafening silence of a Prime Minister who never forgets to mention, not once or twice but several times in his public statements, that his only concern, his only interest, is to look after the wellbeing of 125 crore Indians.
Wednesday’s events are not isolated incidents; they are part of a sequenced response. Goons stormed a school in Madhya Pradesh and stopped children from performing the Ghoomar dance. Karni Sena leaders issued dire threats from public platforms to Bhansali, and the actors who feature in his film. The threats ranged from noses being chopped off to heads being sliced off, and bounties being announced for targeted killings. In Gujarat, malls were ransacked, vehicles set ablaze and an ambulance attacked. Rajasthan has witnessed widespread arson. Chittor Fort has been shut to visitors by those who do not have the authority to do so. The list is long.
“Do not fan the fire in our hearts. The fire of jauhar will burn everything. The nation will burn”, says Lokendra Singh Kalvi. The Mewar royal family softly fans the flames. The BJP maintains a stony silence. The Chief Ministers of Rajasthan, Haryana and Gujarat do not call out the Karni Sena’s thuggery. The Uttar Pradesh administration shuts down schools. Spokespersons and propagandists point an accusing finger at the Congress—it’s a conspiracy with a political motive.
If so, why doesn’t the BJP, with the resources of a party in power in these states, expose the conspirators? Why were the Karni Sena instigators not arrested, and their foot soldiers put behind bars? Does a conspiracy against the BJP mean the party should abandon accountability? Or is the paralysis that afflicts both the party and its state governments explained by the fact that it is fearful of alienating a community and thus foregoing its votes? Which raises the question: does the Karni Sena represent all Rajputs?
While striking down the BJP-ruled state governments’ order prohibiting the screening of Padmaavat, the Supreme Court had emphatically said that “a spectre of fear cannot be allowed to prevail under the Constitution”. The Chief Justice had added: “When the right to freedom of speech and expression, which is inseparable from making a film or enacting street theatre, is guillotined, my constitutional concern gets aroused. Artistic and creative expressions have to be protected”.
We can deal with the Chief Justice’s concern later and separately, as it should be, in view of the looming shadow over free speech in India. Right now what should bother us is that a ‘spectre of fear’ is being allowed to ‘prevail under the Constitution’. The 10 ASEAN leaders who are in Delhi to attend the Republic Day parade are witness to that fear. The world leaders, investors and economists that the Prime Minister charmed with his speech at Davos would be wondering whether a lawless India is truly open for business, and safe for investments.
In the past, I have never felt the need for the Prime Minister to speak up and speak out against the fringe. Now I do because, as I have mentioned, the fringe has now moved to the centre. As a citizen and as someone who believes PM Narendra Modi is India’s best bet if we are to succeed as a nation, I feel this was his moment to speak to his 125 crore Indians.
The Prime Minister should have spoken on Wednesday, if only to reassure the children in the school bus and millions of other children, and their parents, that they are safe and he shall not allow any harm to come their way. Sadly he chose silence. In that silence lies the unfortunate message that the ‘spectre of fear … under the Constitution’ does not bother a leader who repeatedly asserts that India has only one book and that is “Bharat ka Samvidhan” — the Constitution of India.
Kanchan Gupta is a political commentator and Commissioning Editor, ABP News. You can follow him on twitter @KanchanGupta.
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