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India: Attacks on activists speak of pathological intolerance

by Praful Bidwai, 20 February 2015

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Daily News and Analysis - 19 February 2015

It’s not easy being a public-spirited activist in India these days. If you’re a right-to-information campaigner, you run the risk of being physically eliminated, as has happened to more than 20 activists in recent years. If you’re a conscientious whistleblower, you could be victimised—like AIIMS vigilance officer Sanjiv Chaturvedi—or murdered, like Shanmugam Manjunath.

It’s not easy being a public-spirited activist in India these days. If you’re a right-to-information campaigner, you run the risk of being physically eliminated, as has happened to more than 20 activists in recent years. If you’re a conscientious whistleblower, you could be victimised—like AIIMS vigilance officer Sanjiv Chaturvedi—or murdered, like Shanmugam Manjunath.

If you’re fighting to defend human life and the environment against hazardous nuclear power, it’s near-certain that you’ll have hundreds of cases of sedition and “waging war against the State” filed against you, as happened to activists like SP Udayakumar at Koodankulam. If you’re fighting dirty coal-mining and coal-based electricity, the greatest threat to the climate, there’s a good chance, as in the case of Priya Pillai, that you’ll be maligned as anti-national and taken off a flight to London, the headquarters of the mining company, where you’re going to brief elected MPs.

If you’ve been working to bring the perpetrators and abettors of the 2000 Gujarat carnage to justice, like Teesta Setalvad and Javed Anand, the State will spare no effort to frame you on fabricated charges of defalcation of funds, and deny you anticipatory bail.

An even crueller fate awaits rationalists and anti-superstition activists — themselves public intellectuals of stature — such as Narendra Dabholkar, gunned down in 2013 in Pune, and Govind Pansare, shot at on Monday in Kolhapur, who’s now fighting for his life. Dabholkar was a lifelong Socialist and Pansare a Communist — ideologies that are anathema to Right-wing reactionaries, in particular Hindutva supporters.

To be fair, we don’t yet know who fired at Pansare and his wife, and why. Was it because he spoke out against blind faith for long years? Was it for his recent trenchant attack on Sangh Parivar-style religious bigotry and the new cult of Nathuram Godse that’s being shamefully promoted by the Hindu Mahasabha? Was the motive to punish him because he recently organised a discussion on a book which suggests that Right-wing forces killed anti-terrorism squad policeman Hemant Karkare for being on their trail?

Was he targeted because he long ago wrote a critical appraisal of Shivaji, which opposes Hindutva’s jingoistic-communal interpretation of him? Or was the attack related to his work as an important trade unionist, and more recently, his campaign against private road tolls? (He believed all roads should belong to the public.)

No matter which of them is true, all these motives are thoroughly despicable and speak of a deep social pathology. They also show how far Maharashtra has travelled away from the glorious tradition of the social reform movement and the Shahu Maharaj-Phule-Ambedkar legacy of fighting superstition, casteism, male-supremacism, parochialism, hierarchy and national-chauvinism.

Rationalism was part of that tradition, just as Sakshi Maharaj and Niranjan Jyoti, and Mohan Bhagwat and Amit Shah (who both justify ghar-wapsi and demand a ban on conversions) are integral to today’s Hindutva, with all its aggression against the religious minorities, scientific rationality, indeed modernity itself. There’s simply no doubt that in the present Hindutva-vitiated climate, intolerance has acquired a particularly toxic form, itself unbecoming of a half-way civilised society.

I interviewed Pansare last year for a book, and could not but admire his sharp intellect, political-moral passion and idealism. When he turned 75, his comrades and friends felicitated him with a fund. Instead of using the money for his old-age security, Pansare used it to publish a series of booklets on globalisation, the agrarian question, poorly-known Left activists’ biographies, and workers’ and peasants’ struggle for emancipation. The contrast between Pansare and his attackers’ crass motives couldn’t have been starker.

The author is a writer, columnist and social science researcher based in Delhi

P.S.

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