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The Tyranny of Utopia

Intolerance and the Modi Revolution

Into that heaven of freedom, let my country awake – Tagore

Only tyrants are suspicious; only secret evil doers are fearful – Johann Herder

Perhaps we knew deep down that worse things were yet to come but we told ourselves they couldn’t happen. Not here. Not now.

Dark clouds appeared on the horizon even before Narendra Modi ascended to India’s most powerful office in a frenzy of euphoric expectation. Publishing giant Penguin India announced it would banish all copies of Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus: An Alternative History. Movies were censored, minorities were disparaged and all those who see India as “Hindustan, ” a place where other creeds are stomached but not esteemed, felt wind in their sails.

In those early days, Narendra Modi’s remarkable makeover from Devil of Gujarat to Saviour of India was still incomplete. His supposed crimes of commission and omission in his home state during sectarian riots still weighed heavily on the hearts of Indian progressives. But as it became clear that he was poised to decapitate the incumbent Congress Party like a god of mythical proportions, something changed. Modi’s success represented the will of the people of the second largest nation on earth, after all. His promise of development resonated among millions who saw no future in an India tied up in socialist bureaucracy and mired in medieval levels of poverty.

Then came the burning of churches, the banning of beef, the “welcoming” of Catholics and Muslims into the Hindu fold, and the suppression of an extraordinarily important documentary on rape. A new political environment emerged in which one politician felt free to call for the defilement of the corpses of Muslim women, and another asked his countrymen to boycott movies featuring men whose surname is Khan – Salman, Shah Rukh and Aamir –  because they’re in relationships with Hindu women.

Suddenly, the question of Modi’s responsibility during the Gujarat riots is relevant again. Suddenly, Indians are asking the most fundamental questions of who they are and who they want to be as a nation. Yes, we want development. Yes, it’s time for India to assume its rightful place on the world stage. Yes, the prime minister looked like a rock star at Madison Square Garden in New York City.

But at this early stage of the Modi Revolution, one must consider the costs. Can this much hoped-for development really occur in an atmosphere of growing intolerance? If the Muslims of Maharashtra are deprived of a main food staple, if the Christians of Goa are told their religion is unworthy, if hearts are hardened and minorities disenfranchised and violence intensified, how will India take its place in the sun?

Behind the spectral lure of development is another aspiration, frothing and shrill, which now seems entirely possible: a Hindu Rashtra. Make no mistake, Gandhi too believed in a Ram Rajya (the rule of Rama). But Nehru, ever the dapper, Cambridge-educated secularist, and always a little ill at ease with traditional India, managed to keep xenophobia at bay. Gandhi’s vision of Ram Rajya may indeed have been a liberal one; we will never know. But the Sangh Parivar’s version is nothing short of terrifying.

To achieve this utopian state, this Akhand Bharat of the imagination, takes determination, concerted effort and stealth (let’s remember that real life is pluralistic, chaotic and unpredictable). It requires the purging of all that is foreign, with “foreign” defined as every non-Hindu influence in the country’s history, starting with the Muslim invasions and moving on to the Portuguese, the French, the British and every other interloper who crossed these shores and shaped the country’s destiny. It requires the abdication of a long tradition of liberal tolerance among foward-thinking Hindus, personified by people like Romesh Chunder Dutt, Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Ravindra Kelekar and other luminaries. It means a return to the purity of language (Sanskrit), of diet (vegetarianism) and sexual morality (moral policing of women and homosexuals); the regulation of the arts, theatre, film and literature, turning our backs on a centuries-old dialectic tradition. It means the only “true” Indians will be Hindu. According to the ideologues from whom the nationalists draw inspiration, Veer Savarkar and M. S. Golwalkar, Muslims look to Mecca and Christians to the Vatican (News Flash: Non-Hindu Indians are just as proud of our country as everyone else!). It means fixating on an ideal of an ancient past and, when there isn’t enough authentic material in which to take pride in, simply concocting it by conflating science, archaeology and history with spurious interpretations of mythology.

Modi’s breathtaking rise emboldened extremists. A curious Ghar Wapsi, or “homecoming” programme, emerged, led by the VHP (Vishwa Hindu Parishad, or World Hindu Congress), encouraging “reconversions” to Hinduism. A spate of unexplained attacks on Christian churches followed, and Christmas Day became Good Governance Day, making it necessary for government employees to show up for work on the holiest day of the Christian calendar. The film censor board had a change of guard sympathetic to the BJP, with the new chairman, Pahlaj Nihalani, sending a fresh list of 28 objectionable cuss words to producers. Even the innocuousness of Valentine’s Day was compromised, with volunteers from the Akhil Bharat Hindu Mahasabha patrolling public spaces to marry off all those caught kissing (are we in India, or Saudi Arabia?).This is the “pure India” of the right, where civil liberties are irrelevant.

Respect-Of-Cow- copy

Two recent bans have sparked vocal protests: the ban on beef in Maharashtra and the nation-wide ban on the BBC documentary India’s Daughter. Cow slaughter is already illegal in most states across India, but the recent blanket ban on the slaughter of any bovine, the sale of beef and its possession now means offenders can face fines up to Rs 10,000 and a five-year jail sentence. The law criminalises consumption and harkens back to the grim days of alcohol prohibition. The ban on beef is particularly invasive because it disenfranchises minorities and seeks to impose a religious code of conduct in public life.

The banning of the documentary India’s Daughter is of particular note, because it suppresses a valuable piece of journalism that holds a mirror to a problem in dire need of public attention. NDTV was coerced into cancelling its scheduled airing on 8 March. NDTV lodged a silent protest by leaving the scheduled time slot blank and running just a flickering candle instead. Eerily, these were tactics adopted by newspapers to protest against Indira Gandhi’s 1975 Emergency. When in February 1977, rapturous crowds gathered at the Ram Lila Maidan, it was BJP veteran, Atal Vajpayee who carried the day with his poem: “There are tales to tell and tales to hear; but first let us breathe deeply of the free air for we know not how long our freedom will last.” There is perhaps, a chilling irony here to party politics. Today’s champion of freedom can become tomorrow’s tyrant.

At first, censorship and bans may seem like small affronts. Trivial cracks in the wall of democracy can be taken in stride. But what happens when they are harbingers of greater evil? When the people become too weak even to protest?

It was mid February, 2014, in what was an otherwise uninspiring news week, when Penguin India announced it would pulp all copies of Doniger’s book, which had sat for some time on the neglected shelves of Indian bookstores. Now suddenly many of us were frantically swapping PDFs of the book and scouring through its pages to see what was so objectionable. As the dust settled, one image remained: the solitary figure of Dinanath Batra, an RSS stalwart, slaying the fearful Penguin in a masterful stroke. No riots had taken place. No government had sought a ban. No court had ordered the books off the shelves.

Yet Penguin crumbled.

With intolerance on the rise throughout the country, the question is: Will today’s voices of moderation crumble, too?


“I am appalled at the short sightedness and ignorance of the incumbent government of India with their recent censorship activities. Whilst people are bound by their discretion to write with decency, criticism of any person or group of persons (governments) must be allowed. I was dismayed to see one of Mario Miranda’s works partially covered at Reis Magos Fort recently, which I’m sure was not censored before. It was maybe a little risqué but certainly not offensive. Art is a difficult subject for sure and will always offend someone. If one is offended by such jokes or cartoons or art, one should move on and leave it to others to enjoy, not penalising the majority for one’s own prudishness or bigotry.” – Anne Ketteringham, photographer, ornithologist, writer

“I think the single greatest threat that can arise from this culture of bans is when artists, filmmakers, writers begin to censor themselves during the creative process itself. There is the danger of losing out on so much artistic merit when that happens. However, it is possibly a proven fact that while fundamentalist regimes or conservative environments stifle the execution and distribution of ideas that run counter to its ideology, art triumphs over all this noise. Ideas cannot be stifled. Art is a dangerous thing. That is why it is so potent, and the source of so much angst for the powers that be. A great idea, a powerful one, a revolutionary one that has found its time cannot be repressed, no matter how many lives are at stake.”  Rosalyn D’Mello, art critique, writer

“Censorship not only violates freedom of expression but it also curbs the creative impulse in society forcing its members to suppress their dissent for fear of disapproval. No society can grow under irresponsible censorship.”  Father Victor Ferrao, Dean of Philosophy, Rachol Seminary

“The country is going through turmoil. The irresponsible statements coming from some newly elected MPs and the RSS heads are highly disturbing. Attributing motives to the selfless services rendered by Mother Teresa, the pressurizing of the censor board, call for Ghar Vapsi, attacks on religious places are some of the acts that threaten the secularism that our Constitution guarantees. There is an attempt to scuttle the rational voice. Dr. Narendra Dabholkar, writer and protagonist of secularism who fought the battle against blind faith was shot down by two gunmen in Pune last year. The same feat was repeated last month by the killers when Govind Pansare, another activist, was killed in Kolhapur. What surprises me is that the electorate, especially the Prime Minister and his cabinet, keep mum thereby giving candid sanction to these frivolities. If we do not voice our concern, the questionable state of affairs will go unchecked.”  Damador Mauzo, award winning Konkani writer

“A ban does not solve a problem. It is a barrier for negotiations and dialogue. What did prohibition do to any place? It increased illegal activities to a point that eventually the bans had to be lifted. The present bans in India display a juvenile mind; dangerous at a time when India would like to project itself as a progressive, emerging country. Bans will affect investment, progress and ultimately bring down the Government that began the bans.”  Wendell Rodricks, fashion designer, writer, environmental activist

“The right to freedom of expression is not absolute nor is it to be exercised recklessly. If my opinion is going to hurt the feelings of another, I should not knowingly express it. In other words, my right should be tempered with responsibility. Regarding the Wendy Doniger controversy, my view is that a non-Hindu person should not attempt to write about Hindus and their way of life in a pejorative manner. People today are sensitive about their religion, that is often tied to nationalism, to give rise to fundamentalism that makes sense only to the fundamentalists. Writers need to exercise due care and judgment when writing about controversial issues.”  Ben Antao, journalist, author


Selma Carvalho is a columnist and author of ‘A Railway Runs Through: Goans of British East Africa, 1865-1980’. Between 2011-2014, she headed the Oral Histories of British-Goans project. Steven Gutkin, a former bureau chief and international correspondent for the Associated Press, New York Times, Newsweek and other media outlets, has reported from some two dozen countries in the Middle East, Asia, Africa and the Americas. He runs Goa Streets along with his wife Marisha Dutt.