Who is responsible for the Sangh Parivar killing public debate in India?

This is my latest livemint column

How have the Sangh and its constituents been treating the state of public debate in this country? Does the BJP even want to rein them in? Tellingly, it was weeks before the Delhi elections that I wrote the first version of this column but I have never had to worry that the issues I was raising would be outdated by the time this got published. The Sangh and its cronies have made sure of that. Thanks!

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It has become fashionable for members and supporters of the Sangh Parivar (of which the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is a constituent) to repeatedly assert that the 2014 Lok Sabha elections marked the death of intellectuals. This assertion is often made with considerable disdain for intellectuals in general, as though there are no intellectuals on that side of the political divide. Some discerning critics have found a solution by identifying the villains as Nehruvian, leftist, cultural and social liberals. What is being dubbed and rubbished as intellectualism has essentially been extended to all public debate, whether on culture, religion, history or economy. Simply said, it appears that the Sangh Parivar’s hubris, aided by a series of electoral victories, has steadily been trying to kill serious public debate. There are a few different ways in which this phenomenon has manifested itself in recent months. The first and most prominent example that comes to mind is the incessant heckling of non-Hindus, as well as of Hindus themselves on matters concerning their religious beliefs and practices. While non-Hindus are being ‘counselled’ to convert, re-convert, or just to ‘behave’, Hindus are also being frequently told how to live their lives. Hindus are also being reminded that their ‘cowardliness’ was responsible for their 1200-year long subjugation. Even as a non-believing Hindu, I respect the inclusive and non-proselytising nature of Hinduism. Are we to stand by and allow a bunch of extremists to hijack the religion and poison the minds of Hindus into believing that they are not strong enough, not virile/fertile enough, and not united enough? Unfortunately, we can no longer ignore these self-appointed guardians and spokespersons as lunatic fringe elements, because the hydra-headed BJP continues to indulge the Sangh Parivar (in spite of what Prime Minister Narendra Modi may insist in his flowery speeches occasionally). The second example is easily found in the deteriorating quality of public discourse, playing out both through loud public speeches, as well as surreptitiously. An example of the former is Modi’s frontal attack equating his political rivals with naxals, and sanctioning derogatory print advertisements. On the other hand, instruments of the state are being deployed to constantly test the limits of political and legal adventurism, as demonstrated by the constitution row and the Greenpeace fiasco. Irrespective of what our positions on these issues may be, it is indisputable that the government should follow the due legal process. Instead, the government deploys its high profile lawyer spokespersons to defend this intentional subversion of the law. The recent spate of bans and the hilarious justifications from various government spokespersons only expose the hollow rhetoric of minimum government in our day-to-day lives. Caught amidst these distractions, is the much-needed public debate on policy and implementation that could do with a serious dose of intellectualism. Here too, the supporters of the government (and the Sangh Parivar) have reacted with venom to any critique—whether on key legislation or policy decisions on implementation of social sector schemes. Serious policy debates have been few and far between. Whether the land acquisition legislation, or the pro-poor merits of the 2015 union budget, the standard line even from the Prime Minister borders on rhetoric and not logic. This is usually backed up by raucous supporters who do not tire of claiming that since the Congress party had run the country to the ground in the last many decades (including in the decades before independence), now is the time for correction. This is the time to start anew—to kick-start the economy, rewrite history and reclaim their ownership of the country—and during this process, they will brook no critique. Those on every side of the debate would do well to remember what Isaac Asimov once said: “Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge’.” It is strange that the supporters of a political alliance that came to power with a resounding mandate have been constantly distracting the government from its basic mandate. By creating an unsavoury atmosphere on multiple fronts—political, religious and cultural—they will only end up accelerating the steep fall into cacophony, with rival political parties and the media as willing participants. The onus is on the government to stop this slide.

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