India elected an eloquent, some would say voluble, candidate as prime minister. Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks frequently, tweets extensively and writes sparingly. No one is surprised when he seizes the occasion and speaks. It is only when he ignores the occasion and withdraws into silence that questions are raised. Here are a few samples of his silence:
VYAPAM: That is the acronym for the Professional Examination Board in Madhya Pradesh where a BJP government has been in office since 2003. Examinations were fixed for many years. The scandal was exposed in 2013 by a whistleblower. After many legal battles, the case was transferred to the CBI. Meanwhile, 40 persons connected with the case (witnesses, investigating officers, accused) have met with unnatural deaths. Whistleblowers and activists have received multiple threats. In any other case, the scandal would have unseated the chief minister, but Mr Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s government survives. The Prime Minister is the silent fox. It is his silence that keeps Mr Chouhan in office.
Lalit Modi: He is the former boss of the IPL and is wanted in India for questioning. He fled to the United Kingdom where a friendly government bent the rules to give him refuge (even while hundreds of Indians who do not hold a valid passport are routinely deported). The chief minister of Rajasthan endorsed Mr Lalit Modi’s plea for being allowed to stay in the UK and requested that her letter may not be disclosed to the Indian authorities. The external affairs minister supported his case for a UK travel document after her ministry cancelled his passport. Mr Lalit Modi thumbs his nose at the Indian investigative agencies and holidays around the world, travelling on a UK passport. The Prime Minister is the silent saviour of his minister and the chief minister.
Wages of intolerance
Kalburgi, Dabholkar and Pansare: One was an atheist. Another campaigned against superstition. The third portrayed the warrior-king, Shivaji, as a secular ruler. They were murdered, and the investigating agencies suspect there are common features in the three cases. Eminent writers voiced their protest by returning the awards given to them by the Sahitya Akademi. The Prime Minister was unconcerned and maintained a stoic silence. The literary world felt humiliated.
Rohith Vemula: “My birth is my fatal accident” wrote the Dalit PhD scholar, Rohith Vemula, before he took his own life. Campuses erupted in protest. It turned into a familiar battle between the ‘entitled’ and the ‘disentitled’. The central government tried to prove that Rohith was not a Dalit. No one, so far, has been held responsible or accountable for his death. The Prime Minister remained a silent spectator. The disentitled are gripped by fear.
Akhlaq: Akhlaq was lynched by a mob who believed that he had stored beef in his home. A bizarre inquiry was launched, not into the lynching, but into the nature of the animal meat! Political leaders spoke in favour of the mob, communal tensions were aroused, and the Prime Minister’s studied silence invited comment. When he appeared to have decided to break his silence, it was only to deliver a homily on how Hindus and Muslims should fight poverty and not each other. On Akhlaq’s killing, he has maintained a studied silence.
Jawaharlal Nehru University: Suddenly, it was discovered that JNU was filled with anti-nationals. Barring members of the ABVP, every JNU student was presumed to be an anti-national unless he proved his nationalism by raising the slogan ‘Bharat Mata ki jai’. Police slapped sedition charges on students, lawyers roughed up journalists on the court’s premises, the university rusticated student leaders, and the Prime Minister erected a wall of silence between himself and the tumult outside.
The Pathankot attack: Barely days after the Prime Minister made an impromptu visit to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s home in Lahore, six terrorists attacked the Air Force Station at Pathankot. It was revealed that the government had received intelligence about the threat but mishandled it. The government’s clumsy attempt to forge a ‘deal’ on reciprocal investigation came a cropper. Pakistan sent its team to Pathankot, brazenly denied it got any evidence from the Indian agencies, and delivered a lethal snub by rejecting their request for a reciprocal visit to Pakistan. The Prime Minister’s response was grave silence.
Atrocities on Dalits: The false promise of ‘Sabka Saath Sabka Vikas’ is unravelling. Atrocities on Dalits are a fact of Indian life. The Una incident exposed the right-wing Hindutva brigade’s hypocrisy, exploitation and arrogance. The Prime Minister has observed a silence that is deafening even amidst the uproar.
Duty to speak
In the 2014 elections, the Indian voter was swayed by the eloquence of Mr Narendra Modi. Not many have cultivated the art of public speaking as Mr Modi has. Is he now cultivating the art of public silence? I readily concede that a prime minister is not required to speak on every occasion or on every subject but, when there is a duty to speak, silence is unacceptable. Silence can be a strategy, silence can be a tactic, but silence can never be an answer to the ills of our polity and the fault lines of our society. When an eloquent and willing-to-speak prime minister deliberately chooses not to speak, decent citizens will be concerned, students will demand answers, Muslims will feel alienated and Dalits will feel threatened. All of those do not augur well.