In the 60 years between 1927 and 1986, only seven cases of blasphemy were registered in the territory of India and Pakistan. In the 30 years since, over 1,000 cases have been registered in Pakistan alone. Why? We will look at that later, but first let’s look at something slightly different.
How should the Indian prime minister react to the spate of artists returning their awards?
He has spoken, of course, on the event that led to the artists’ reaction — the killing of a man in Uttar Pradesh over the issue of beef — and said that it was sad and unfortunate. But he has, so far, ignored the rebellion of the artists, and it could be said that this silence is not unreasonable. He does not have to react to everything that is happening and I accept that.
The other thing is that many feel that the artists are being hypocritical, that they did not do this in the past when there was violence under Congress. A third point is that they did not receive their awards from the government but from the literary academy, which is, or is supposed to be, independent of the government’s ideology. Returning it, in that case, is a gesture of defiance, not against the state but against the academy and that was not the intent of the artists.
My view on this is that the gesture of returning awards is theatrical. It is deliberately intended to be. An Indian writer does not have many tools available to protest. Literature and painting are both powerful means of communication, but their impact is not immediate. And writing in protest also assumes that there is a culture and society where people read and get most of their information through the written word. The Russian writers of the 19th century told their nation what they thought through their novels. India is not such a place, and television and video have ensured that it will never be such a place.
If it were, we would have the writers retiring to their studies and producing works of protest and deep meaning. Instead, they are queuing up to tell the government that they are so displeased with its action or inaction that they are rejecting any honour given to them by society. This aspect is the key here.
The writer is protesting against what the government is doing in society. It is the change in society that they write and paint about is what has disturbed the artists.
Even if we are to accept that some of them are doing this because of their dislike of the Bharatiya Janata Party and its ideology, it cannot be denied that many of them, and many of us, feel a deep unease about the atmosphere that prevails in India.
And so it becomes difficult then to see the artists’ actions as just a stunt or motivated by some political cause. Understood in this way, the pressure on Modi to react to the writers’ silent demand — that he step in to calm the Hindutva supporters — now becomes something serious.
The good thing for Modi is that many in the media, like India’s most powerful television anchor Arnab Goswami, think returning of the awards is a publicity stunt and the story is not as one-sided as it would be in Europe or more civilised parts of the world.
For now, there is some damage done to India in the outside world because of Modi’s silence. I was interviewed by the BBC in London on this issue a couple of days ago because they thought something had changed in India since the BJP came to power. I did not think it had in any great sense, and it is hardly new in this part of the world for people to be lynched over something or the other. But the perception is that things are getting worse and it is this perception that Modi needs to address and see whether it needs his intervention.
One thing to be understood about Modi’s style is that he has always been reticent to offer comment on such instances where Hinduvta is seen as responsible for violence. In Gujarat, over the decade that he led it, he ignored questions about this.
Like all stories in India, this one will also pass and Modi might be rightly assuming that he can sit it out.
To return to that fact we looked at in the beginning. What changed in Pakistan in 1986 is that blasphemy was made punishable by death. This produced a fundamental change in society and suddenly the number of cases shot up.
India, under the BJP, is playing with fire on the law on cow slaughter. Whether or not he addresses the issue of the artists, sooner or later, Modi will be forced to look at the broad cultural thrust of Hindutva and assess whether it is helping his development agenda and the image of India.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 18th, 2015.
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