The reported attack last Monday on a procession protesting against the manner in which the research scholar, Rohith Vemula, felt driven to commit suicide was another reminder of the intolerant times we live in.
Earlier, a newspaper picture of Narendra Modi wearing a Bhutia cap in Gangtok reminded people how determinedly he once refused to don a Muslim cap. His remark in Gangtok – “Don’t let me become delicate like a flower. I have lived among the thorns, I will continue to live among the thorns” – was a reminder that whether he is delicate flower or thorn depends entirely on him. No one else can make that decision, as he must know well enough.
A prime minister’s personal predilections are his own choice. He is not accountable for them to anyone else. But a prime minister’s career is in the public domain. Not only is he accountable for all his official actions to the entire nation – not just the party that elected him – but those actions must be in harmony with the culture and ideals of the nation he governs. One prime minister might see it as a religious duty to pray five times a day. He is entitled to do so, but not to treat personal observance as a model for others. Another prime minister may not touch non-vegetarian food. Again, he has no right to foist vegetarianism on others.
A refined Jawaharlal Nehru understood this distinction. Bruce Reidel, who spent 30 years with the US Central Intelligence Agency, writes a propos of Nehru’s 1956 visit to America, “the leader of the world’s largest Hindu country liked filet mignon and enjoyed an occasional Scotch as long as it was all in private (emphasis added).” Since filet mignon is a beef steak, some might say Nehru’s insistence on privacy was political caution. But that is what made him a statesman and not just a sectarian chief. If he didn’t want to alienate the mass of Indians, neither did he want to offend their susceptibilities. He wasn’t vain enough to imagine his preferences were the ideal to be forced on everyone. Nor was he populist enough to pander to the multitude by affecting their customs. Nehru had many shortcomings but humanism and a sense of justice inspired his thinking. He would not have remained silent on September 28, 2015 when a mob of Hindus in a Uttar Pradesh village attacked and killed 52-year-old Mohammad Akhlaq Saifi and seriously injured his son, 22-year-old Daanish, because they were suspected of eating beef.
As the three students who were recently ejected from the convocation ceremony at Lucknow’s B.R. Ambedkar University for chanting anti-Modi slogans while protesting the circumstances of Vemula’s death, put it, “PM Modi tweets every minor and random thing – be it a mayor election or wishing somebody on their birthday. But he has not said anything on issues of grave injustice, like the murders of Akhlaq, Dabholkar and Kalburgi.” Narendra Dabholkar, the 68-year-old Maharashtrian rationalist and author, was shot dead on August 20, 2013 in Pune. Malleshappa Madivalappa Kalburgi was another scholar and academic who studied Vachana sahitya and had served as vice-chancellor of Kannada University in Hampi. Two unidentified men riddled him with bullets at his residence in Karnataka’s Dharwad district on August 30 last year.
The complaint is that by not uttering a word on any of these atrocities, Modi demonstrates he falls short of the high standard needed for the prime minister of such a diverse and complex nation. It was only after Ram Karan Nirmal, Amrendra Kumar Arya and Surendra Nigam, who were due to receive their degrees, were thrown out of the convocation hall for yelling “Narendra Modi murdabad” and “Narendra Modi go back” and comparing him to the mythological Dronacharya, that the prime minister at last broke his silence. His words then were poignant enough. “When there is news that a youth of my country, Rohith, was compelled to commit suicide, what his family must have gone through!” Modi asked rhetorically. “Mother India has lost a son. There will be reasons, there will be politics but the fact remains that a mother has lost her son. I feel the pain very well.”
The protesters were not satisfied. They demanded to know why Modi had been silent for five days after Vemula’s death. “What delayed him for so many days?” they asked. “Just because we protested he was forced to shed crocodile tears. He was forced to speak up merely for fear of losing Dalit votes in the 2017 elections.”
Ironically, the three protesters were treated as harshly as Vemula. While reports indicate all three — one of them a gold medalist in human rights —were evicted from the university hostel, two were charged under Section 151 of the Indian Penal Code for disturbing the public peace. Like Vemula, they have been punished for voicing dissent but this need not be argued in terms of the life and teachings of the late Dr Ambedkar about whom the Sangh Parivar is more than a little ambivalent. Modi may find it expedient to throw the occasional complimentary remark at a man who is revered by millions of Dalits and is, therefore, a vote-catcher. But articles by Bharatiya Janata Party stalwarts clearly showed that in their eyes, he was anti-national – the abuse that was hurled at Vemula whose Ambedkar Students’ Association seems to have been viewed with grave suspicion. Moreover, he helped organise a protest when the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad disrupted the screening of a documentary on the Muzaffarnagar communal violence.
It must be admitted here that given the Indian reality, it was impolitic of Vemula to organise a protest against the execution of Yakub Memon, the Mumbai-born Chartered Accountant whom the Special Terrorist and Disruptive Activities Court convicted in July 2007 for his involvement in the 1993 Bombay bombings and who was hanged six months ago. One explanation could be that Vemula did not think the special court was impartial. He may also have feared Yakub was punished because his brother, the notorious Tiger Memon, was the prime suspect. It is more likely that as a Dalit and avowed Ambedkar follower, he was against capital punishment, believing with Ambedkar that “the proper thing for this country to do is to abolish the death sentence altogether”.
Such liberalism would be beyond the understanding of the small men – whether it be university functionaries, political office-bearers or BJP bosses – who handled the case. Their minds cannot transcend the commonplace and the conventional. But a more sweeping outlook and courageous assertion of the liberal principles on which the Indian republic is founded are expected from the prime minister. Instead, we have a deafening silence on crucial issues and negative actions like pushing away a Muslim cap that cannot but encourage the most primitive elements in Hindu society.
Also Read By Sunanda K Datta-Ray