Tarek Fatah, Canadian author of Pakistani origin, who loves an anti-Muslim rant — clearly, there’s nothing like self-loathing to excite the basest instincts of your audience — wanted to speak last at his session at the Ideas India conclave, organised by the BJP-RSS thinktank, the India Foundation, in Goa over the weekend. But the organisers realised he couldn’t have the last word — certainly not after Jamiat-Ulema-i-Hind leader, the mild-mannered Mahmood Madani, had had his say. So they insisted Fatah go first. Unsurprisingly, he brought the house down. BJP general secretary and India Foundation director Ram Madhav could be seen discreetly motioning to the moderator to quickly end the session.
Soon, it was Madani’s turn to speak — and the crowd began to taunt him over his refusal to roundly condemn triple talaq. Madani’s attempts to warm the crowd (“Indian Muslims are Indian by choice, not by chance,” he said, pointing out that his ancestors were against Partition) were received with pointed silence or muted catcalls.
Only the day before, BJP president Amit Shah had again reminded the audience of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s determination to protect the rights of Muslim women. To its credit, the BJP has picked up the modernising strain in the Muslim community and decided to run with it — happily, the marathon coincides with upcoming elections in Uttar Pradesh. As for the Congress, the blindside on this matter remains fully in place since Rajiv Gandhi bailed on the 61-year-old Shah Bano in 1986.
But the hardest clapping during Amit Shah’s address was reserved for his comment that it was alright to criticise politicians (“I cannot count the times Narendra bhai has been criticised and it’s fine”), but any criticism of the nation would not be acceptable. Sweekaar nahin hoga. So when I asked what Shah meant by his conception of nationhood, and whether it had changed from the time of Ashoka, Buddha, Akbar, Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru upto today — including a ban on NDTV, for example, which has since been put on hold — a distinct murmur ran through the crowd.
The NDTV question pushed Rajya Sabha MP and session moderator Swapan Dasgupta to say, with some alacrity, that in the wake of the media coverage of the 2008 Mumbai attacks, national security would not be compromised. So when the NDTV reporter pointed to the ammunition dumps and the manner in which the terrorists had scaled the wall at the Pathankot base, Dasgupta said, it was but natural the network had to pay for the reporter’s extraordinary enthusiasm.
Except that Dasgupta’s alacrity contradicted two senior RSS and BJP leaders’ views who, speaking on condition of anonymity, told me they disagreed with the ban. Curtailing the guaranteed right of freedom of speech and expression was certainly not the way to deal with a critical media, both leaders said.
Several others at the conference, from RSS leader Dattatreya Hosabale to India Foundation director Shaurya Doval (son of National Security Advisor Ajit Doval), were clearly keen to send out the message that the RSS and BJP in power were much more inclusive organisations. Hosabale practically disavowed Tarek Fatah’s anti-Muslim rants, pointing out that the essence of democracy is dialogue. “On the battlefield of Kurukshetra, the disagreement between Krishna and Arjun is called the ‘Krishna-Arjun samvad’. If there is dialogue, dissent should be acceptable,” Hosabale said. Doval remarked, “It doesn’t matter if we disagree. But at least let us respect each other’s views. After all, we are all Indians.”
Certainly, the Conclave was an opportunity for the converted to assert their ideologically right-wing point of view. Doval pointed out that when he and Ram Madhav inaugurated its first edition three years ago, the audience was simply grateful, “they had got a chance to speak out after years of being suffocated under the Congress regime.”
Certainly, economist and best-selling author Sanjiv Sanyal, whose number Amit Shah is said to have on speed dial, believed Tarek Fatah had been successful in calling out the hypocrisies of upper middle-class India. And even though Ashok Malik of the Observer Research Foundation said he’d like the party to abandon its victimhood and get down to the task of ruling India and Rathin Roy, director of the finance ministry thinktank, National Institute for Public Finance and Policy, warned the audience not to fall into the trap of the unidimensional “Macaulay-putras”, the clapping for Arnab Goswami (“I believe the left liberal is an oxymoron”) rivaled that for the BJP party president.
This is the kind of conference it was. Jawaharlal Nehru University Vice-Chancellor Jagadesh Kumar cast much heat and light on the despairing state of Indian education, but didn’t make a single comment on the disappearance of JNU student Najeeb. And in response to a remark by Shekhar Gupta, editor of the online portal The Print, who pointed out that six undertrials had been killed in cold blood after they escaped from Bhopal prison, BJP member Nupur Sharma asked him why he hadn’t also spoken about the policeman those undertrials had
It certainly escaped her that in a democratic nation, the state simply cannot employ the same gruesome tactics as murderers.