Intellectuals are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. When they keep silent they are accused of being pusillanimous cowards. When they do speak up they are dismissed as pontificating from ivory towers safely ensconced in Oxbridge or Ivy League comfort. So the likes of Salman Rushdie, Homi Bhabha, Anish Kapoor, Deepa Mehta deserve credit for spelling out unequivocally in print their fears about a Narendra Modi-led India whether or not it makes any difference to anyone’s vote. They especially deserve credit since they appear to be going against the tide in India.
It’s not like the Congress has been staunch in its championing of Rushdie’s freedom of expression. Now he risks burning his bridges with a Modi-led India as well when he lends his name to a joint note in The Guardian which reminds Indian voters that in 2002 under Modi “the Muslim minority were overwhelmingly the victims of pillage, murder and terror, resulting in the deaths of more than 2,000 men, women and children.”
This is fairly typical of liberal statements warning about the imminent coming of Modi. “Modi’s infamous role in the massacre of Muslims in his state in 2002 is being brushed aside and he is promoted as morally ‘fit enough’ to lead the nation,” worries a more homegrown statement from over 100 eminent citizens including U.R. Ananthamurthy, S. Irfan Habib, Mihir Pandya and others.
Gujarat 2002 must be part of the discourse on Modi but for liberals in India, bracing themselves for a Modi sarkar, the Muslim has become the convenient fig leaf behind which to hide their own fears.
Perhaps liberals think it is honorable to be seen as speaking up for Muslims and self-serving to speak up for themselves. But a Modi government is likely to be far more of a threat to liberals than it would ever be to Muslims for the simple reason that Modi never wants to have another situation like 2002 on his hands. He might have had no change of heart, he might never apologize for having failed in his duty as a chief minister during the riots, but he knows that if another 2002 erupts under his watch, his future will go up in smoke. That is the one thing he will be scrutinized on by the world. His entire campaign has been built around the fact that there have been no communal riots in Gujarat post-2002.
And Muslims know this as well, even though political leader after leader from Mayawati to Mamata are trying to rake up 2002 to scare Muslims into their kitty. At a rally in the Meo Muslim village of Mewat, Zamil Ahmed was clear that Muslims like him could not forgive Godhra. But he said it does not mean that would send them scurrying to the Congress out of Modi-terror.
“Log Modi se nahin darten, log Modi se nafrat karten hai (People are not scared of Modi, they just hate him),” he said.
A friend with an NGO in Delhi said Muslim workers at a shelter out in the villages said they were considering voting for BJP because they felt Modi had the most to lose if communal violence erupted under him and therefore the most stake in keeping a lid on it.
It’s perverse logic but as much a comment on the BJP as it is on the pathetic record of the supposedly minority-friendly parties like Congress and Samajwadi Party.
Liberals, especially dissenting liberals, however, are another matter. If Modi chose to do so, he could easily decide to make an example of them and there would hardly be anyone to speak up for them. Liberals might dominate op-ed pages but they have little real constituency because in a democracy it’s all about who can deliver the votes.
Modi, not uniquely among powerful Indian politicians, has little appetite for dissent. As Caravan reported, when in 2002, Darshan Desai, an Indian Express reporter first tracked down Jashodaben in her village, not only did she refuse to talk to him, as soon as he got home, he got a call from Modi himself. “He said ‘Namaskar,’ and then he asked: ‘So what is the agenda?’ I said, ‘I don’t quite get you.’ And he said, ‘You have written against me. Your newspaper even started Modi Meter,’ referring to a column my paper ran during the riots. I just kept quiet, and he said, ‘I’m aware of what you’ve been up to today. What you’ve done today goes much beyond. That’s why I want to know what your agenda is.’”
The chilling effect already extends beyond Gujarat. At a Campaign NOMOre event in New Delhi, Amir Aziz talked about how his play in Delhi University was canceled without any reason being given. He can only surmise it has something to do with the fact that it talks about Gujarat, Muzaffarnagar and is critical of Modi. He calls his play “Caution: A Play in Progress.”
These are small stories but indicative that the nervousness with which many view the rise of the autocratic Modi is not entirely misplaced. The fear about a future in which he is blessed with a popular mandate precisely because of his ruthlessness rather than despite it is genuine cause for concern for those who value democratic ideals and freedom of expression.
It is true that Modi is a true outsider who does not give a damn for acceptance in the intellectual fold unlike a Mamata who wooed Kolkata’s intelligentsia and artistic community during her rise to power. Modi has snubbed the English language television media in his campaign to be Prime Minister appearing instead on the more aam aadmi program Aap ki Adalat. He might, in fact, quite relish showing that there is a new Caesar in town.
There are excellent and pressing reasons to have a genuine debate about the idea of India that Modi represents. U.R. Ananthamurthy, who faced a barrage of vitriol for saying he didn’t want to live in an India under Modi, has to his credit, faced up to the larger issue beyond the Muslim one when he said “I have a feeling that we may slowly lose our democratic rights or civil rights, when there is a bully. But much more than that when there is a bully we become cowards.”
But to honestly have that debate and make that argument, liberals have to own up to their own fears as well instead of just projecting them onto Muslims in the guise of speaking on their behalf. We can only face our fears if we look them in the eye.
Sandip Roy is the Culture Editor for Firstpost.com. He is on leave as editor with New America Media. His weekly dispatches from India can be heard on KALW.org. This article was first published on Firstpost.com.