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India seems to be in the middle of a counter-reformation

by Mukul Kesavan, 22 March 2016

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The Telegraph - 21 March 2016

Citizenship is a birthright; patriotism is an acquired attribute. None of us bawled "Bharat Mata ki jai" or "Jai Hind" in our cribs but we were, unconditionally, citizens of this country before we were continent and well before we learnt to think or act or walk or speak. This shouldn’t need saying but in the present political climate, underlining the bl***ing obvious becomes a duty. Citizenship, in the jargon of medical insurance companies, is a pre-existing condition. Our rights as citizens cannot, should not, be taken away from us unless we break our republic’s laws. It follows from this that citizenship and its attendant promise of life and liberty, cannot be subject to litmus tests of patriotism devised by political parties, celebrity nationalists, bureaucrats and gau rakshaks. But increasingly they are.

Just the past week produced four examples of the way in which this birthright is being challenged by people who would argue that being law-abiding is not enough; Indians have to demonstrate that they are good citizens. The implication in each case is that if we aren’t able or willing to perform designated patriotic exercises (or distance ourselves from unpatriotic ones) our standing as citizens, our rights, our liberties can legitimately be taken away from us. Let’s discuss these four challenges in ascending order of awfulness.

Anupam Kher, a distinguished actor who has recently acquired a reputation as the roving scourge of the politically correct, visited the Jawaharlal Nehru University’s campus earlier this week to challenge the legitimacy of the post-bail political narrative first set out by Kanhaiya Kumar in his celebrated speech. In the question and answer session that followed Kher’s speech, someone argued, in defence of JNU’s student community, that the slogans shouted on that fateful evening, celebrating the imminent disintegration of India and denouncing those who had a hand in executing Afzal Guru, had been raised by outsiders. Kher’s response was revealing. Did you, he asked, referring to JNU students in general, tear down the posters that celebrated Afzal Guru? No, you didn’t. They remained stuck to the walls of university buildings for days.

It was for Kher, a ’gotcha’ moment and it tells you everything that is important about the sarkari narrative on JNU. To be physically proximate to unpatriotic utterance calls your Indian bona fides into question. So the fact that JNU’s students let those posters stay on JNU’s walls was culpable in itself. For Kher, the university’s students had been found wanting in Indianness. Instead of scraping the posters off the buildings as any passionate patriot would have done, they had lived with them. This inertness, was a kind of complicity. Citizens have to prove themselves. Citizenship, in Kher’s view of the world, isn’t a birthright; it’s a kind of probation and you only truly belong when you learn to perform your patriotism.

But Kher, despite his proximity to the ruling dispensation, is a private citizen. His opinions don’t formally represent the view of the State. It’s a much more serious business when the National Council for Promotion of Urdu Language circulates a form to writers in Urdu, asking them to certify that their books - novels, short stories, plays, poems, memoirs etc - contain nothing that is critical of the policies of the government or the interest of the nation.

The NCPUL encourages literary production in Urdu by buying books in bulk, and according to the Indian Express, this new form is meant to put Urdu writers on notice "...that in case of a breach, the NCPUL can take legal action against the author and take back the monetary assistance".

The NCPUL is a government organization and it answers to the ministry of human resource development. The decision to get Urdu writers to sign on to this form was taken last year. It is, on the face of it, extraordinary that the government of India should ask writers to guarantee that their books contain nothing that is against "the policies of the government" or "the interest of the nation" or that is likely to cause "disharmony of any sort between different classes of the country". It is bad enough that a government should ask writers to self-attest that their novels and poems and essays are utterly conformist and docile, but it is particularly worrying when writers in a particular language, Urdu, who happen to be overwhelmingly Muslim, are singled out to sign this humiliating undertaking.

The NCPUL director’s justification is breathtaking in its candour. "Since we do not have the manpower to scrutinise every single line of each book, this form helps us place the onus on the authors." The onus for what? Are Urdu writers, in the opinion of the NCPUL and the HRD ministry, in the habit of cobbling anti-national and communally inflammatory material into their work? Curiously, the equivalent policy of the National Council for Promotion of Sindhi Language contains no such stipulation. The lesson to take away from this seems to be that some citizens are allowed to take their patriotism for granted while the patriotism of others (in this case, writers in Urdu) needs formal self-attestation.

This bullying enthusiasm for applying loyalty tests to law abiding citizens reached a new low when the Maharashtra assembly unanimously voted to suspend Waris Pathan, on the charge of disrespecting the country. Pathan’s ’crime’ was refusing to say "Bharat Mata ki jai" when a Bharatiya Janata Party member of parliament insisted that he recite this slogan. The Nationalist Congress Party and the Congress joined the BJP in asking for Pathan’s suspension and the Speaker caved in to their demand despite the fact that Pathan had done nothing to warrant suspension in terms of the assembly’s own rules. Pathan’s willingness to say "Jai Hind" as an alternative invocation of the nation was disregarded.

Pathan was following the lead of his party leader, Asaduddin Owaisi, who had announced a few days earlier that nothing would make him say "Bharat Mata ki jai" It is one thing to criticize Owaisi’s declaration as a form of political grandstanding (as Javed Akhtar did in Parliament); it is quite another to suspend a democratically elected member of the legislative assembly for refusing to jump through political hoops at the behest of hostile fellow legislators. In a country in which MLAs have been known to hold up proceedings, throw furniture about and even assault each other, to punish an MLA for not saying something, for refusing to mouth a slogan that he felt was contrary to his religious principles, is truly Kafkaesque. The rights of citizenship, the rules of representative government are being cynically bent to accommodate a bullying jingoism.

My last example is a hideous tragedy. A man and a 12-year-old boy taking oxen to a cattle market were lynched in a village in Jharkhand and hung from a tree. They happen to be Muslim. The five men arrested in connection with these murders happen to be Hindus. One of the five happens to be connected to a cow-protection society. The superintendent of police in charge of the case thinks that, prima facie, this is a case of cattle looting gone wrong, but he is also investigating other possibilities including ideological motives related to gau raksha. On social media some right-wing commentators favour ’personal enmity’ as the likelier explanation.

They could be right but all of us should be deeply worried about the manner of this lynching. If this was a violent robbery that just happened to end in murder, why were the victims, one of them just a boy, left hanging on a tree? A hanging isn’t just a murder, it is a kind of execution. When two Muslims in the cattle trade are lynched in this demonstrative way, it is reasonable to wonder if a message is intended.

Jharkhand is a state ruled by the BJP. Unlike the lynching in Dadri, this one happened on its watch. This doesn’t mean that Mohammad Majloom and Inayatullah Khan are exhibits A and B in some indictment of the BJP’s Jharkhand government. We don’t have to argue complicity to point out that Narendra Modi’s regime, which Arun Shourie mocked as the UPA plus a cow, has consistently dog-whistled about cow protection. Local party workers, MLAs, MPs, ministers, chief ministers said vile and temporising things after the Dadri lynching. The BJP has consistently equivocated in the aftermath of gau-rakshak violence; it should surprise no one if it turns out that Mohammad Majloom and Inayatullah Khan were lynched because their killers felt a sense of ideological impunity.

Majloom and Khan quite likely died because in contemporary India, Muslims herding cows or eating meat aren’t always given the benefit of the doubt. As with Waris Pathan and Urdu writers and JNU’s students, the burden of proof is sometimes reversed. We seem to be in the middle of a counter-reformation where new inquisitors refuse to take our citizenship, our innocence if you will, for granted. We - some more than others - are asked to prove our innocence and perform our Indianness to their satisfaction. We should refuse. There is no satisfying an Inquisition and as free citizens of a great republic we have nothing to prove.



The above article from The Telegraph is reproduced here for educational and non commercial use