The Silent War on Secularism in India

These are troubling times for India.

The Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) led government within a year of its landslide victory in general (federal) elections has instituted a policy of interference in every aspect of India’s civil society. Such rampant and widespread tampering with secular and liberal institutions is the first step towards an authoritarian and dictatorial state, perhaps, even worse. Recent protests from writers and academics alike not to mention the rise in sectarian violence are early indicators of larger and ominous changes.

These changes began, as they usually do, disguised as routine administrative measures. A year ago, the appointment of FTII’s (Film and Television Institute of India) chairman caused considerable controversy. A well-respected institution with the likes of Om Puri, Nasseruddin Shah, and Shabana Azmi as alumni, the central (federal) government’s choice to appoint Gajendra Chauhan as its chairperson was not free of political intent. Chauhan, a BJP national convener for culture, has a body of work that includes B-grade and semi-pornographic films like “Jungle ka Beta” (The Son of the Jungle), “Vasna” (Desire), and the very fitting “Jungle Love”. Momentarily disregarding the impact of such films on a puritanical and orthodox Hindu culture, it begs to be asked if these gems of 70s Bollywood are sufficient to garner Mr. Chauhan a place as chairman of a renowned academic institution?

Shortly thereafter, economist Amartaya Sen wrote an open letter to the Government of India clearly stating the interference of PM Modi’s BJP in reassigning the chancellorship of Nalanda University, Bihar. That an academic institution was now at the beck and call of politicians, namely PM Modi and his saffron-wielding minions, has sadly set precedent in curtailing academic freedom, aftereffects of which will be seen far into the future. The constitutionally guarded right of an academic institution to function independently from fear of censure is now under threat.

Without heeding to protest or pressure, the government continues unabashed on its appointment spree. In due course, the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) at Delhi and Bombay, and the National Book Trust quickly succumbed to the clutches of Modi sarkar. The alarming nature of these appointments can be summed up in the views of Lokesh Chandra, the newly selected head of the Indian Council of Cultural Relations (ICCR), who claims Modi is an avatar of God. Similarly, Y.S. Rao, the new head of the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR) praises the caste system (for an excellent critique on his appointment as President of the ICHR see the op-ed by seasoned Indian historian Romila Thapar).

Today, India’s academic institutions are under assault from conservative forces. It only begs to asked how far, then, are the judiciary, executive, military, and media from similar censure? In an Orwellian twist, a law tabled and passed by the Indian parliament pertaining to the appointment of judges was recently struck down by the Supreme Court. Is this not government interference in a collegial system of selecting and appointing judges? Does it not limit the independence of the judiciary?

Through these appointment PM Modi, his Hindu-nationalist BJP party, and its ideological mentors, the very sinister Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), intend more than a saffronizing of India. The BJP-RSS-VHP nexus is starting from the ground up, changing the entire discourse on India. The primary agenda of these bodies is to prove the validity of historical (and in many cases mythological) texts like the Mahabarata and Ramayana. Of course, once proven there would be no room for dissenters in a Hindu India. Needless to state that in this “new” and “reformed” vision there are no minorities. Christians, Muslims, gays, and women will be burnt in trains (India’s equivalent of the infamous gas chamber) if they are lucky enough not to be murdered by rampaging mobs.

Whatever happened to “Unity in Diversity”, PM Modi?

If that future seems rather dark and unlikely, think again. Only recently, an elderly Muslim man was beaten to death in Dadri on the suspicion of eating beef. The aftereffects of this incident led to further beatings of perpetrators suspected of transporting cows to slaughterhouses, of course, these “suspects” were all Muslim. Notwithstanding the number of Hindus who consciously choose to eat beef, I wonder, since when is eating a national choice? Is the diet of its citizens of such concern to the BJP sarkar? Talk about Big Brother!

Such is the widespread power of the ruling government and its lawless, irrational, and criminal policymakers that murders of leading writers and thinkers have gone unreported and unprosecuted. M.M. Kalburgi, a prominent researcher of ancient Kannada literature, was shot in his home on a Sunday morning. His crime was to question the validity of idol worship. To protest this rampant silencing of sane and rational voices, many of India’s most prominent writers have publicly returned India’s highest literary honour. Yet, the government seems unphased by this mutiny amongst its academics, artists, and writers.

I remember once thinking that India differs from Pakistan because of its lively debate, secular ethos, and multiple/diverse institutions each with the authority to function freely within its ambit, a stark difference from the Islamic Republic where the only institution that ostensibly functions is the military. India, today, is on the same path as its arch-nemesis. The very institutions that helped India flourish are today being quietly stifled and suffocated, replaced instead by a rhetoric of fundamentalist, religion-based, right-wing nationalism where minorities—of any kind might I add—are not welcome or wanted.

To use a popular culture reference, as Selena Kyle says to Bruce Wayne, “There’s a storm coming, Mr. Wayne.” Indeed, the storm is brewing and it gains momentum with each passing day. The thing about storms, though, is that they engulf anything in their path leaving behind nothing but a trail of destruction. Modi and his government are one such storm, and sadly for the Indian polity they are the worst kind of storm. BJP’s vision of an ascendant India, an Akhand Bharat, is not only a danger to liberal voices in India but all across the subcontinent and even further.

Rab Rakha,



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