Both the BJP and the Opposition responsible for today’s vitiated atmosphere; it can only get worse if left unchecked
Prime minister Narendra Modi’s election speech on Monday, in which he said that the protests at Jamia or Shaheen Bagh were not a coincidence but an experiment, “a political design which intends to destroy the harmony of the country”, makes it clear that the statements made by the party’s leaders, like Parvesh Sahib Singh Verma and Anurag Thakur, were not an aberration, but part of a well-planned campaign, starting with home minister Amit Shah talking of teaching the tukde tukde gang a lesson (through the ballot box) etc. Even the usually sober information and broadcasting minister Prakash Javadekar has joined the chorus, with an amazing “there is enough evidence that Arvind Kejriwal is a terrorist”.
The Delhi elections, on February 8, are a reason for the stepping up of the rhetoric, so there will be some damping down after next week. But, there is a larger problem that needs to be fixed, and it requires everyone—the BJP and the Opposition, the intellectuals, the journalists, etc—to take a step back and reevaluate their positions; if they don’t find a way to deescalate issues, India is going to get sucked in deeper into communal tension, and the lives of its youth, already hit by poor economic growth and lack of jobs, will become a further hell.
There can be little doubt that India faces an Islamist threat, there have been too many terror attacks over decades for anyone to doubt that. Since those protesting at Shaheen Bagh are Muslims, Modi found it easy to insinuate that they are a part of this Islamist threat; he then spoke of how the flags they used—along with reading from the preamble to the Constitution—were nothing but a camouflage to hide their real intentions. To many in the country, the argument is a convincing one.
In most countries, the police round up people who are suspected to be radicalised or who are radicalising, but in India, sadly, this has become a free-speech issue, not just for rival politicians but also for commentators. Ideally, free speech should be absolute, and there is little doubt that every government—from the BJP to the Congress to the Trinamool—has abused the sedition law, but there is a case for restraints under certain circumstances; otherwise, even radicalising the youth can be passed off as the right to free speech. That is why, when Modi raised the issue of how the Indian Mujahideen encounter at Batla House was termed a fake encounter by senior Congress leader Digvijay Singh—to be fair, no one in the UPA supported Singh even then—he touched a chord with the audience. A Harvard professor has just been arrested for hiding the fact that he was part of a Chinese research project; were the same thing to happen in India, most would rush to condemn the government when an arrest was made, automatically assuming that this was just victimisation.
Similarly, Modi has a point when he, and his ministers point out that the NPR was also something the UPA was pushing when it was in power since illegal immigrants are a security issue as well. And, it is equally true that, when in Opposition, senior leaders like Manmohan Singh also asked then home minister LK Advani to see how to protect the interests of persecuted minorities in states like Pakistan; that is precisely what the CAA seeks to do. And, while it is a fact that the religious composition of large parts of the North East have changed due to illegal migration, it is worth remembering how, in a Muslim-majority Kashmir, the Hindu Pandits were driven out.
But, if the BJP doesn’t come across as the reasonable party despite all this, it is because it doesn’t come with clean hands either. For one, when Modi said—and other BJP ministers have said the same thing at briefings in the past—that there had never been any talk of an NRC, he ignored the fact that his home minister has repeatedly said the NRC would follow the CAA; how the BJP will fix this yawning credibility gap is not clear. Again, while it is true that the NRC will cause enormous suffering to millions of the poor as they do not possess the necessary paperwork to prove their citizenship, there is little doubt the issue of illegal migrants—and the terrorist link to some of them—is real and needs to be addressed. If it has to gain traction, the Opposition needs to address this concern squarely.
The BJP’s categorisation of all the protestors at JNU/Jamia or Shaheen Bagh as pro-Pakistani, on the other hand, surely cannot be correct or desirable. It gets worse since, while the police went and bashed up students in Jamia, it stood by when students were being bashed up in JNU—and, several weeks later, no arrests have been made in the JNU case.
Indeed, such was the poor handling in JNU—including the demonising of its students—that it was easy to project something as simple as a hostel-fee-hike as a right-wing government trying to shut down a left liberal university. Of course, hostel and other fees in JNU are very low, but if these were not regularly hiked to make the increases palatable, this is the fault of the authorities. Two thirds of Indians, by way of example, get wheat and rice at a tenth the cost; are all of them Pakistanis because of this, and can the government raise the price 3-4 times in one go—the JNU hostel-fee hikes were 100-200-fold—without a massive protest? When Delhi University students protested, and prevented for decades, the attempts to hike the massively subsidised bus-pass price, did the government come out and condemn the students as Pakistanis? That things should have come to this pass, of course, is not surprising since the vice chancellor chosen by the government made his view of the students clear when he asked the government to allow him to install a tank in the campus to inculcate pride in India’s soldiers among the students.
If this heavy-handed behaviour isn’t bad enough, when something as trivial as a stand-up comic heckling the BJP’s favourite prime-time-TV warrior took place, the civil aviation minister tweeted to ask airlines to ban him from flying for six months, never mind due procedure. Worse, he even gave newspaper interviews to say that if the same thing happened in the US, the comedian would have been behind bars.
For a solution to be found, all sides need to be reasonable. The BJP can no longer play the heavy and use state power to muzzle dissent; it certainly cannot label them anti-national, and repeatedly so, especially at the level of the PM. But, the Opposition, too, has to find credible answers to India’s security concerns; as long as the Opposition continues to play to its vote banks, so will the BJP. Where this is taking the nation is frightening.