If you wanted an example of how vile, nauseating and morally odious our public discourse has become, you need look no further than Tarun Vijay’s ‘Death in Dadri’ in these pages (October 2). Mohammad Akhlaq’s death is a tragedy. It exemplified the depths of the barbarity that lurks behind the veneer of our civilisation. Vijay’s words, and those of many in the party he represents, have given that barbarism full rein in the highest circles of power.
It is astonishing that this piece was meant to distance Hinduism from violence. It instead represents the way in which violence is inscribed into the self-appointed votaries of Hinduism. Vijay has accomplished the astonishing feat of even making apology look almost homicidal. The sentiments he represents are now becoming the moral common sense of our public culture.
Second, there is the canard: You people who eat beef, or oppose the ban, you are responsible for the death of Akhlaq. You are the provocation, you are the extremists. This confusion will leave anyone petrified. Vijay clearly does not understand the idea of rights. He also equates differences as tantamount to provocation to murder: If I don’t eat beef because of my religion and you do, or if I hold the cow sacred and you don’t, I have the right to treat you as a provocation. He clearly does not understand the limits of offence in a liberal society: You cannot take offence at what others do pursuant to the exercise of their rights. You have the right to persuade them to do otherwise, but you do not have the right to coerce them. Third, there is the drawing of false equivalences. What is the crime of secularists?
They did not protest when Tika Lal Taploo was killed by jihadists. This is false as a description. On even the vaguest understanding of secularism, any murder is wrong. But even if, for argument’s sake, we grant Vijay more rope to strangle Indian civilisation with and admit certain political inconsistencies in the positions of some groups, does that make them liable for murder? Evidently it does. “The secular brand of communalism is more lethal sometimes than the bullets of violent people,” Vijay intones. And then there is the final canard: Liberal Muslims never stand up for Hindus.
The list of falsehoods could go on: Seculars don’t care for Dalits, as if most of society does. “Fanatic regions in our neighbourhood… have become barren lands, devoid of the flowering of any kind of creativity.” Perhaps Vijay should read more novels, watch more television and listen to more music from our fanatic neighbourhood. It might reassure him about their creativity. It will certainly calm his soul more than the asinine and creative pronouncements on history and science that his ilk from the RSS trots out. But a country that is now murdering or threatening rationalists, where power and violence is hollowing out all sense of value, is hardly in a position to lecture about “fanatic neighbourhoods”.
One could go on. But the likes of Vijay have made the atmosphere so suffocating that you know this is a fool’s errand. The issue is no longer facts or morality. There is a strange alchemy that turns even good things into the opposite: Vegetarianism is an excuse for violence, tradition is an excuse to assault freedom, ideas are an excuse to curb debate, disagreement is an excuse for provocation, and facts are an excuse for mendacity. It is as if the nation is acting out the violent convulsions of a deranged being, with no calm light of reason, or compassion, or values to restrain it.
The question of whether these are fringe elements is practically irrelevant. These elements are highly consequential. Such morally odious speech comes from the highest levels of government. The minister of culture, for example, whose praise for A P J Abdul Kalam was accompanied by a congenital suspicion — “despite being a Muslim” — and who described Akhlaq’s death as an “accident”, prefigures the moral blindness that Vijay represents. Saying that these views do not represent the majority is cold metaphysical comfort to those being killed and threatened.
No one had expected this morally odious part of the BJP — and it is part of the BJP — to vanish easily. But there was the hope that opportunism would tame fanaticism, that the need to take India into the 21st century would have enough momentum to overcome many of these nasty folks. Vijay himself seems to acknowledge this. He seems to think Akhlaq’s killing can derail Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s agenda, as if only an instrumental reason should make us worry about this death. But the truth is that a lot of nasty people within the BJP and the Sangh Parivar are feeling empowered to the point of shamelessness. No one in the party is willing to signal an intolerance of the intolerant.
The blame for this has to fall entirely on Modi. Those who spread this poison enjoy his patronage. This government has set a tone that is threatening, mean-spirited and inimical to freedom. Modi should have no doubt that he bears responsibility for the poison that is being spread by the likes of Culture Minister Mahesh Sharma and Vijay — whether through powerlessness or design is irrelevant. But we can be grateful to Vijay for reminding us that the threat to India’s soul emanates from the centre of power, almost nowhere else. It is for that centre, and Modi in particular, to persuade us otherwise.
Pratap Bhanu Mehta is President, Centre Policy Research, New Delhi, one of India’s top think tanks. Before he started engaging with contemporary affairs, he taught political theory at Harvard, and briefly at JNU. He has written extensively on intellectual history, political theory, law, India’s social transformation and world affairs. He is the recipient of the Infosys Prize, the Adisheshiah Prize and the Amartya Sen Prize. He has been singularly blessed with wonderful colleagues and is grateful that all the institutions he has been associated with, value their independence fiercely. He misses having students, since nothing better expresses the idea of a good life than a good seminar. He believes the purpose of writing is to provoke thinking not to provide instruction. Although politics and the contemporary world excites him, the high point of the day for him remains "retiring with the ancients," to use Machiavelli's phrase. There is nothing like retiring with old books, that have more of the world in them than we often recognize.
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