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Silence and mayhem go together in India

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By Anand K Sahay

There is perhaps nothing more striking about Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s present tenure — which ends in a few months — than its silence on matters where the clear choice of right and wrong, moral versus immoral, ethics or the want of it, and adherence to the Constitution or its negation, has presented itself.

 

Since a clear endorsement of what society considers bad, wrong, undesirable or lacking in constitutional propriety or probity cannot be a public good, and may cost at election time, remaining quiet is designed as a clever tactic. Its purpose is to offer comfort to wrongdoers (sometimes evildoers) and suspected criminals, thus causing injury to the notion of what’s right, valid and appropriate conduct for an elected government.

That, in turn, amounts to a violation of the compact between the government and the country’s citizens, and causes visible injury to the oath every minister of the government takes at the time of being sworn in.

In the process the state and the government lose their authority. The emperor begins to be seen as being denuded. There may be murmurs of rebellion but the people do not rise in revolt because too much force is ranged on the other side. They would rather bide their time.

Two recent instances come to mind — though several more can be cited — of the regime’s sly silence. Consider first the case of M.J. Akbar in relation to the vigorous #MeToo campaign and the stunning allegations of sexual predation made against him by more than 20 women.

The minister of state for external affairs was eventually forced to resign under the weight of his omissions and commissions in the course of dealing with young women over whom he had authority. But the point here is the reaction of the BJP, the ruling party; the RSS, which holds that party’s moral compass and is its moral arbiter; and more importantly the government, especially Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who made Mr Akbar minister, and external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj under whom he served.

It would be understandable if all the above had remained circumspect and quiet when the minister was overseas on assignment. But BJP and RSS spokesmen, speaking on television, were anything but discreet. They in fact went out of their way to attack the women who had accused Mr Akbar — asking for proof of allegations of sexual misconduct as if these can ever exist (by the very nature of the alleged crime) — and the RSS representatives, in particular, maintaining that India “is not a banana republic and the rule of law exists here”.

In effect, the victims of the minister’s alleged predatory conduct were sought to be demonised and traduced. Those engaging in this sport gave no evidence of appreciating that moral uprightness is a requirement in governance, not legal proof, when confronted with allegations of wrongdoing.

They had obviously not heard of a former Prime Minister, a man called Lal Bahadur Shastri (who had resigned as railway minister in the Nehru Cabinet, accepting constructive responsibility when a train accident occurred).

This may be the RSS’ idea of morality, but the Narendra Modi government should have had its own mind on the matter since, unlike the RSS, the government is a creature of the Constitution.

The Prime Minister was morally duty-bound to give the minister marching orders upon his return to India if only to make the point that a sustained record of alleged crimes against women cannot be tolerated as it robs the government as well as the society of its dignity, and the entire class of women of their very being and soul. But Mr Modi maintained a sphinx-like silence as is his wont, and this encouraged

Mr Akbar to file a case of criminal defamation — pointedly not civil defamation — against the first woman to have raised her finger.

The government’s ear-splitting silence was consistent with its lack of any communication with the public whenever serious crimes against women rocked the country, signifying that the Union government had no sympathy for the females whose bodily integrity had been criminally encroached upon.

Two shameful episodes illustrate this — the Kathua gangrape and murder of an eight-year-old child near Jammu and the subsequent open public defence of the criminals by ministers of the J&K government to the shock of the entire country, with the government at the Centre remaining stoical. The second numbing episode is that of a BJP MLA in Uttar Pradesh, Kuldeep Singh Sengar, raping a minor girl and having her father tortured and murdered at a police station when he went there to lodge a complaint.

The second recent instance of governmental encouragement through the use of silence as tactic concerns RSS supremo Mohan Bhagwat. During his recent three-day outreach programme in New Delhi, the RSS leader declared, in effect, that while the Supreme Court may be adjudicating the Ayodhya title dispute, in reality it was the Temple Construction Committee (of the Hindutva outfits) that would decide the construction of the Ram temple (at the site where the Babri mosque was felled in 1992) — irrespective of the outcome of the court’s labours.

This was nothing if not heaping humiliation on the highest court of the land. But the government just stood and watched in a neutral stance. Perhaps the regime’s thinking is in harmony with the outrageous proposition outlined by the top boss of a dangerous outfit whose mention comes up in “riot after riot” (to recall the title of a book authored by Mr Akbar in his pre-BJP days).

This is not the only serious infraction the RSS leader is guilty of. Just weeks afterward, delivering his Vijayadashami address on October 18, Mr Bhagwat referred to the permitting of the entry of women to the Sabarimala temple (by a recent order of the Supreme Court) in inflammatory and prejudicial terms, choosing to renew his assault on the top court with an emotional pitch to the target audience, doubtless with a view to rabble-rousing.

In the context of the Sabarimala judgment, the man actually said that “repeated and brazen onslaughts” happened to “Hindu society alone”. In a Hindu-majority country, this is a call to arms for the Hindus on a false and hypocritical premise. The call to arms is not against the Supreme Court, not even only against the traditionally targeted minorities, but on the Constitution itself. Once again, the government answered the challenge with silence.

It is time to ponder if the leader of the RSS would have thought it prudent to speak in this manner and idiom if he didn’t have under his command a trained paramilitary-style volunteer force, which receives the benign attention of the government. It’s also worth wondering what’s left of the sheen of the government and the majesty of the law. Big trouble lies ahead. We may as well brace for it.