Early January, Tamil writer Perumal Murugan put up on his Facebook wall the first notice of a growing trend in India society. Pummelled to submission by caste groups who took exception to his treatment of social relations in his novel, Mathorubagan (One-part Woman), Murugan announced the death of his authorial self.
“Author Perumal Murugan is dead. He is no God. Hence, he will not resurrect. Hereafter, only P Murugan, a teacher, will live,” the post read. He announced the withdrawal of all his novels, short stories and poems and asked readers to burn their copies of his books. He appealed to caste, religious, political and other groups to end their protests. The writer, he reminded them, was dead. Leave him alone, he pleaded.
A mute state administration had allowed voices of intolerance to successfully silence one of the most powerful writers in Tamil. Murugan’s retreat into silence was a powerful indictment of the civil and political society that failed to stand up for the rights of a writer. In his protest lay a warning: The barbarians are due here.
Over the next months, we saw them. Under many names, different banners. Emboldened by the advent of a friendly government at the Centre, they launched an ideological offensive against diversity in faith, tradition, texts, food and what not. With the political power won in 2014, culture became the battleground to shape Modi’s India. The Hindutva parivar, in its many avatars, had subjects in plenty to police: Food, Pakistan, Rationalism, Films. Assassins, who didn’t have the courage to reveal their identity, shot a radical scholar of Bhakti traditions and a communist leader, both old men who refused to be cowed down by small-minded critics. Perhaps, Murugan had anticipated what awaited Professor M.M. Kalburgi and Comrade Govind Pansare. But did not rationalist leader Narendra Dabholkar’s murder in 2013 tell us what was brewing? Did not the success of a lumpen crowd in getting Delhi University to withdraw A.K. Ramanujan’s insightful essay on the diversity in the Ramayana tradition warn us about the creeping intolerance to a democracy of ideas? Ironic it may seem, the BJP patriarch L K Advani, who had experienced the Emergency, in an interview to this newspaper, said he did not rule out a return of authoritarianism.
It was, however, the murder of Professor Kalburgi on August 30 that changed the tide. After Kalburgi, a Sahitya Akademi winner and a former university vice-chancellor, was shot outside his home in Dharwad, Karnataka, writers, students and activists across the state held protests. It was suspected that the murder was the handiwork of Hindutva activists. Early September, acclaimed Hindi writer Uday Prakash’s announced that he was returning the Sahitya Akademi award he received in 2010, as a mark of protest against the murder of Kalburgi.
“This cowardly act of terror shook me. This is not the time to remain silent to protect oneself. Silence will only embolden such forces,” Prakash had said. It triggered a flood of action, with writers from across India, mostly those writing in regional languages, returning awards and fellowships. The simmering anger against non-state actors policing culture and the state’s silence was now in full view. There appeared no concerted effort or coordination behind the public expression of disapproval at the state of affairs though senior BJP leader Arun Jaitley described it a “manufactured rebellion”.
Later in the month, a mob attacked a Muslim family in Dadri near the Capital following rumours that it had stored beef for consumption. The head of the family, Mohammad Akhlaq, 52, was killed and his 22-year-old son, Daanish seriously injured . It was the culmination of a political campaign that Hindutva groups had ratcheted up across the country for months, leading to ban on cattle slaughter in BJP-ruled states like Maharashtra and consumption of ban.
Beef activism almost led to a Centre-state confrontation when a team of Delhi police went to inspect the Kerala House canteen in Delhi whether it served beef dishes. The politics of cow dates back to the 19th century and had clear communal undertones right from then. It was no different went it returned to the national stage after 2014.
By the time the crucial Bihar elections took place, “intolerance” displaced development as the signature agenda of the Modi government. The perception contributed to the crushing defeat of the BJP in Bihar. Intolerance had become an umbrella term to describe Modi government’s policies on a host of issues. The government’s handling of the FTII students’ demand for a new director, the highhandedness of the Film Certification Board chief and the antics of Shiv Sena, a BJP ally, in refusing to let ghazal maestro Ghulam Ali sing in Mumbai and the blackening of former Vajpayee-aide Sudheendra Kulkarni for organising the book release of a former Pakistani official were seen as evidence of the rising tide of “intolerance”. Even popular actors Shah Rukh Khan and Aamir Khan were not spared when they spoke about the sense of insecurity in sections of the society. Trolls and social media activists hounded those who held views that did not conform with that of the government. The prime minister’s late — and very mild – interventions in the debate didn’t help salvage the government’s image.
The fear and suspicion that the government, the BJP, RSS and numerous other Hindutva groups are set to impose a majoritarian agenda on the country, and restrict space for the minorities remain. A recent poem of Veerankutty, a Malayalam poet, captures this sentiment, which is not restricted to any particular region or language.
Pledge by Veerankutty
Since the honourable government
Could feel offended
Not a word will be spoken
Not even dreamt
And that if
Events beyond one’s own knowledge and control like a
A polite submission, hereby, is made
That it was not intended at the government.
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