A lot has been written and spoken about the recent incidents in Kathua and Unnao. The president and the prime minister have expressed their distress and assured the country that the guilty shall not be spared and that the victims will get justice. In this context, a group of 49 retired civil servants from different disciplines sent an open letter to the prime minister, holding him specifically responsible for “this terrifying state of affairs” marked by a “climate of hate, fear and viciousness” and deploring “the decline in the secular, democratic, liberal values enshrined in our Constitution”.
The anguish of the civil servants is understandable. What happened in Kathua was barbaric. The Unnao incident showed utter callousness of the local administration and their shameful subservience to a local politician. Many people are concerned over the decline in our liberal values, and it is also true that there is a growing climate of intolerance. The ruling party cannot escape responsibility for this state of affairs, but the point to ponder over is whether they alone are responsible or are other parties and groups also adding fuel to the fire.
The civil servants include several whom I know personally, and for whom I have the greatest respect. I am overawed by their collective wisdom. And yet, I cannot help expressing my disagreement on certain observations made in the letter, where the distinguished officers appear to have been swept off their feet and allowed their sentiments to get the better of their reason.
I would limit myself to three observations in the letter. It is said that “in the post-Independence India, this is our darkest hour”. During the last more than 70 years of our Independence, it is true that there have been setbacks which could be called “dark hours”. Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination was one such moment. Our humiliating defeat in the 1962 war with China was a major setback. The massacre in Nellie, where more than 2,000 people were butchered in 1983 was also a dark hour. The 1984 riots in Delhi, when Sikhs were massacred, remains to this day the darkest blot on our criminal justice system. The terrorist attack on Parliament in 2001 was another dark hour. For the retired civil servants to have described two incidents of rape as the darkest hour since Independence appears too much of an overstatement. It betrays, without meaning to be impolite, a myopic appreciation of history.
The letter also says that “this is a moment of existential crisis”. Here again, the civil servants are more rhetorical than factual. India has faced existential crises in the last seven decades. The greatest existential crisis was when the country witnessed one of the most lethal and devastating manifestations of terrorism anywhere in the world in Punjab in the 1980s. Sikh militants ran a parallel government in the state. They were fully supported by arms, ammunition and equipment from Pakistan. There was a grim prospect of Khalistan becoming a reality. The security forces, however, fought a valiant battle and comprehensively defeated the terrorists. Another existential crisis was in the Northeast, where Mizoram, Nagaland and Manipur, at different periods of time, threatened to break away. Mizoram is today one of the most peaceful states of the Northeast. Nagaland has a framework agreement and, in Manipur, the insurgent groups have been contained. The third major existential crisis today is continuing to unfold in J&K, where Islamist forces are gradually digging in and, through systematic propaganda, weaning away the loyalty of large sections of population in the Valley. A rape incident being raised to the level of existential crisis is an exaggeration: The country’s existence could not be so fragile as to be threatened by a few incidents of rape.
The letter also says that “by giving sustenance to the brutality of one human being against another in the name of Hindus, we have failed as human beings”. Agreed, that there have been incidents of brutality by the Hindus. Agreed also that the extreme right-wing has, in a number of instances, gone berserk. However, how could the civil servants be blind to the atrocities committed by Muslims? A dilapidated mosque was demolished in Ayodhya in 1992, and there was an earthquake in the country and even beyond. There has, however, been no voices of protest over the damages to Hindu temples in J&K — the state government said in a written reply in the Assembly that 208 temples have been damaged over the years. Secularism in the country has, unfortunately, degenerated into a very selective sense of outrage. Also, to suggest that two acts of criminality are representative of the broader Hindu psyche in either a cultural or political sense is both inaccurate and unacceptable.
I do not owe allegiance to any party. However, we have to be fair and just to all sections of society, but in doing so we should be careful not to play into the hands of forces out to tarnish the image of India. I wish the distinguished civil servants had used the prevailing sense of anguish and shame over the two incidents to ask for systemic changes in the criminal justice system, whose weaknesses are at the root of the aforesaid incidents. Their rhetorical outburst hurts the idea of India as a tolerant, pluralist society governed by robust institutions that derive their authority from the rule of law.