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If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, the proverb goes. When it comes to institutions of the humanities and culture, the Narendra Modi government’s attitude is more like: if it ain’t broke, break it. In the last week, protests disrupted Aligarh Muslim University and the Tata Institute of Social Sciences. Over 50 winners of National Film Awards boycotted the prize-giving ceremony after being told at the last minute their awards would not be presented to them by the president or the vice president. The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting was forced into an embarrassing climbdown over its sacking of Nina Lath Gupta, the dynamic managing director of the National Film Development Corporation. These protests and U-turns signal the government’s basic incompetence, a fact masked by polarising debates such as the one about whether a portrait of Muhammad Ali Jinnah ought to continue hanging where it has hung for some 80 years.

To separate the notion of competence from ideology, let me start with the example of Dr Arvind Jamkhedkar. He was appointed head of the Indian Council for Historical Research back in February, and nobody protested. I welcomed the move silently, having attended a number of lectures by him over the years, always leaving with a deepened understanding of some aspect of Indian history. It is possible Jamkhedkar’s political views align with those of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Bharatiya Janata Party. I assume they do since he has been appointed to a prestigious post. What matters more is that he is a fine scholar, linguist, archaeologist and administrator.

Few people agitated against Anupam Kher’s appointment as chairperson of the Film and Television Institute of India.

 

Kher is a prolific actor who has demonstrated a mastery of drama as well as comedy, and runs a training academy for aspiring actors. He happens to be an ardent supporter of Modi, but what is most relevant are his credentials for the position, which are excellent, unlike those of his predecessor Gajendra Chauhan.

Expertise can be separated from political beliefs, not absolutely perhaps, but with enough accuracy to determine who is worthy of an office and who unqualified. It is the prerogative of governments to nominate sympathetic persons to positions in state-controlled institutions. There isn’t an administration in the world that does not do so.

What is critical is for the appointees to fulfil the basic criteria demanded by the job. Protests happen when that condition is not met. The Modi administration has flouted it repeatedly over the past four years.

This is the case especially in the fields of arts and humanities because the nation’s culture and history are deeply-contested and politically-potent subjects. BJP supporters have been convinced for years that a left-wing cabal rules institutions such as the Jawaharlal Nehru University. JNU certainly has had a historically left-wing slant and it is possible that scholars on the Right have been given a raw deal by certain departments in the past. The more important attribute of the university, however, is its abiding commitment to academic excellence. The BJP government’s own ranking of higher educational institutions placed JNU in the sixth spot, behind only Bangalore’s Indian Institute of Science and the top four Indian Institutes of Technology. The University of Hyderabad and the Aligarh Muslim University also got high ranks. Rather than preserving what is good and making improvements where required, however, the administration is taking an axe to these institutions by exploiting emotive wedge issues.

Among JNU’s success stories is the School of Arts and Aesthetics, which was established 15 years ago and quickly became one of India’s leading centres of art historical research and cultural theory. It has a top-class faculty, many of whose members would be welcomed in art history faculties abroad that offer better salaries. Kavita Singh, until recently dean of the school, is one such. Not only is she a brilliant scholar, she is that even rarer thing – an inspirational teacher. Every time I hear a talk by her, I marvel at the mix of energy, rigour, wit and intelligence she brings to her lectures. Two months ago, she was dismissed from her position as dean, along with six other department heads, for disregarding an order making attendance compulsory for students.

Why should compulsory attendance be a problem? Well, JNU is primarily a university for graduate students, many of whom pursue field work far from the campus. It is idiotic to expect them to sign a roster each morning, something no respectable university in the world expects of post-graduates. Kavita (I use her first name because we are friends) is not close to being Marxist, and the issue over which she was removed has no Hindutva connection. As she explains in this talk given during a protest on the campus, the new dispensation at JNU is destroying traditions of democratic functioning. The examples she provides relate to issues which have no ideological ramifications such as instituting an MSc in mathematics.

Nina Lath Gupta is even less liable to be categorised as a left-wing activist than Kavita. She is a hard-nosed professional who slashed the National Film Development Corporation’s workforce soon after taking over in 2007.

She also shifted the institution’s focus from being primarily a financier of films, many of which did not receive adequate distribution, to being an enabler of connections between script writers and filmmakers on one side and private producers and distributors on the other. When the International Film Festival of India was founded, it was a way for cinema buffs to keep in touch with what was happening across the globe. It had none of the commercial tie-ins that undergird festivals such as Cannes and Venice. Gupta changed that by instituting the Film Bazaar alongside the festival. She also set up a project to restore and market old films under the Cinemas of India brand.

Funnily enough, one of the now-withdrawn charges against her was that the corporation “failed to use allocated funds for film restoration”. The charge becomes bitterly ironic when we consider how the ministry is doing preserving films in its charge. An investigation by The Indian Express revealed that thousands of precious films have been destroyed and more are under threat. The previous Congress-led government did little to fix the problem and the BJP has been equally lax. The problem relates simply to air-conditioning and dehumidifying. It isn’t rocket science, nor is it exorbitantly expensive to get the proper equipment working round the clock. But, in the Kafkaesque world that is India’s bureaucracy, the staff at the National Film Archive of India do not control the cooling system. For some reason, that is the responsibility of the Civil Construction Wing of All India Radio.

An example of the minimum government, maximum governance we were promised would be to transfer control of the cooling system to the film archive. Instead we have maximum government, minimum governance, with wacky policies being forced down the throats of universities, and the pioneering head of the National Film Development Corporation being sacked on flimsy charges, one of which is failing to use funds provided to restore films though restoring films was her brainchild.

I have been considering the Modi government’s performance in a series of columns. Since this one is about universities, I’ll end with grades. For the policy of demonetisation considered in the first column in the sequence, I give the government an F because no lower grade is possible. For foreign policy, it’s a C. For the electrification programme and other infrastructure initiatives, a B minus. For higher education, I give the administration a D


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Opinion

Not in the Mahatma’s name

The Kashmir Monitor

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By Apoorvanand

The recent uproar over the glorification of Mahatma Gandhi’s assassin, NathuramGodse, by the BharatiyaJanata Party’s Bhopal candidate Pragya Singh Thakur has forced her party to tick her off. It should be a solace for us that there is at least one non-negotiable in Indian politics, that the political cost of the celebration of the murder of the Mahatma is formidably high! But now we would be told to let the matter rest as she has been chided even by her mentors.

Let us look at the implication of this approach, that Ms. Thakur, sans this statement, should be acceptable to us as a potential representative in Parliament. She continues to be the ‘symbol of Hinduism’, as she claimed Prime Minister NarendraModi had said of her. Our satisfaction over the condemnation of Ms. Thakur makes us forget that she is being audaciously presented as the most fitting answer to secular politics, which holds that a person accused of attacks on Muslims cannot be a people’s representative in India.

 

The idea that a Hindu can never indulge in a terror act is, in fact, another way of saying that terror acts are always committed by non-Hindus. Or, by Pakistan, which for BJP leaders is a proxy for Muslims. Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh, while talking about the Samjhauta Express blast case acquittals, claimed that it was unimaginable to accept that Hindus could be involved in such acts, and that he believed that in all such crimes there was the hand of Pakistan. A crime has been committed, and since the Hindu suspects cannot (being Hindus) do it, it can only be Muslims even if they are not caught — this is the underlying assumption.

It is this theory which is being thrown at us by the BJP by presenting Ms. Thakur as its choice for the electorate of Bhopal. It has another sinister aspect. She was selected knowing well that she could not be a choice for Muslims. Her selection is therefore a message to Muslims that by not voting for her, they disregard the sentiments of Hindus, thus showing intolerance towards the majority.

By supporting her, the ‘symbol of Hinduism’, they have a chance to endear themselves to the Hindus. If they don’t, they would always be a suspect.

This argument is not new. Many pundits, while accepting that Mr.Modi was a divisive figure, urged Indians to choose him as he was the best bet for the economic development of India. So, can Muslims be so sectarian as to think only about themselves while the greater national interest is at stake?

The swift and determined move by the BJP to reject her statement on Godse is a clever ploy to make this issue irrelevant while judging her. It is as if we are asked to judge Godse, setting aside the act of murder of Gandhi by him. There are ‘respectable’ people who feel that Godse spoilt his case by murdering the Mahatma. They regret this folly as they believe that there was strong merit in his ideological stance. According to them, he rightly opposed the Muslim appeasement of Gandhi, his anger at the dangerous friendliness of Gandhi towards Pakistan is correct, and his impatience with the unwise and impractical pacifism of Gandhi is to be understood if we want to make India strong.

We are asked to understand that there was a reason Godse was forced to kill Gandhi. We are asked to not treat him as a simple criminal. He was driven by high ideas. To make him a man of ideas, he is constantly humanised. We have seen over the years people talking about his childhood, his education, his editorship. Gandhi must have done something really horrible to provoke a thoughtful human being to turn into an assassin. If anything, they imply, he was a just assassin!

So, we are asked to move away from the trivia, that is the act of the murder, to the substantive, the issues raised by Nathuram in his ‘brave defence’ in the court, which had moved people to tears even then.

The RashtriyaSwayamsevakSangh (RSS), unlike the Islamic State and the Maoists, understands it well that an individual and identifiable act of violence makes it abhorrent and repulsive for the masses, whereas anonymous acts of violence are always more palatable. It was therefore important for Savarkar to distance himself from his disciple, Godse, to remain respectable. For the RSS it was necessary to disown Godse to be able to keep working on the majoritarian ideas he shared with or had learnt from Savarkar and the RSS. No known RSS hand soils his hands with blood; yet it is the politics of the RSS, not at all different from Godse’s, which makes blood flow.

Gandhi had said again and again that it would be better for him to die if India were to become inhospitable to Muslims. He was talking to those who were objecting to the recitation from the Koran at his prayer meetings. Death he could accept but not the narrowing of his heart! Neither bowing to threats or force! In the same invocation, he said, if you ask me to recite the Gita at gun point, I would refuse to obey you.

Gandhi told his audience, your heart is also large. Don’t constrict it. It is this challenge which needs to be accepted. It requires immense bravery of intelligence and humanity to be able to hear Gandhi. This intelligence would tell us that the distancing from the murder of the Mahatma by the co-travellers of Godse is in fact a strategy to enlarge the space for majoritarian ideas and draw more and more Hindus towards them, thus making Gandhi irrelevant while keeping his facade decorated.

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Opinion

Why I want Pragya Thakur to win

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By Saba Naqvi

Regardless of whether NarendraModi remains Prime Minister or not I want terror accused Pragya Thakur to win from Bhopal. The esteemed leadership of India’s pre-eminent political party chose a terror accused as a candidate and they must endure her tenure as MP.

Pragya may be a poisonous vendor of hate and violence but she is not a hypocrite. Ever since she spoke her mind on describing NathuramGodse, the individual who shot MK Gandhi to death, as a patriot, the BJP national leadership has claimed to be disturbed. The Prime Minister spoke up after her statement, saying, he would never forgive her for what she had said and the party stated that it had initiated disciplinary action against her.

 

But by the time the party took this position, many members of the BJP had come up with twisted arguments somehow justifying Pragya’s validation of the assassin of a figure many revere as a Mahatma or Great Soul. Party members exposed their own problematic ideological heritage that included non-participation in the freedom movement led by Gandhi. Some of them could not help but reveal their own natural impulse to drop the veneer of falsehood and come clean on how they do indeed believe that Godse was a patriot despite having killed Gandhi.

The Godse remark in just two days exposed the ideological underbelly of the ruling party that does indeed have members who believe that Gandhi was a villain who loved Muslims and Pakistan. That’s why Godse, by his own account in a famous trial, shot him. A must-read for those who wish to engage with this debate is the book titled “The Men Who Killed Gandhi” by ManoharMalgonkar.

Seventy-one years after that crime on January 30, 1948, we have come to the point where a candidate contesting in an election for Parliament embraces the Godse world view. What’s more, a member of Modi’s council of ministers, AnantkumarHegde, endorsed her position. The MP from Karnataka had earlier kicked up a storm when he had said that “we are here to change the Constitution”. Yes, the same Constitution he took an oath to protect.

Hegde’s also received a show-cause notice to explain his position and on May 17 BJP president Amit Shah said the party’s disciplinary committee would submit a report on the matter in 10 days, after the election verdict, that is. There was more: the BJP media cell chief in Madhya Pradesh, the state from where Pragya is contesting, was brazen enough to say that Gandhi was the father of the nation of Pakistan. The BJP suspended him.

So how do we read the ideological contortions ever since Pragya uttered the “Godse is a patriot” words? One could say that the BJP is trying to occupy the space of both extreme and moderate in a national ideological pendulum that has shifted right-wards. It’s not a bad ploy—the ideological family plays to the more core beliefs, that are to be revealed step by step, and just in case some voters find them unpalatable, there are the “reasonable” elements as well.

And, voila! Modi becomes a moderate who is being stern with the fringe! That is a useful projection at a time when there is the possibility of needing some allies post-23 May. The BJP has made this ideological journey before, of being all things to all men. Earlier, former Prime Minister AtalBihari Vajpayee was offered up as the moderate to LK Advani, the architect of the Ram temple movement, who brought the BJP to national prominence. Today Modi today is the moderate who is speaking up against the hardliners, who are called “fringe” by those who believe it’s all part of a great national purpose.

It’s not. The “fringe” has been mainstream for some years now. Much before Pragya was presented to the nation as a candidate for parliament, the BJP leadership chose an unabashed Muslim-hating monk of a religious order to be the chief minister of India’s most populous state. All these debates about ‘moderate’ and ‘hardliner’ are a farce designed to make the BJP constituency feel better about themselves. It’s part of the good cop/ bad cop tactic.

To conclude, therefore, I want a terror accused to win, just so that we can, as a nation, get a reality check on where we have landed up. And just in case someone wants to ask me about whether I am afraid, here is my reply: I am so certain about the courage of my convictions, that there is no fear, although I do feel some shame for those who have tied themselves into knots over something about which there should have been no ambiguity. Bring on Pragya and let’s see what happens next.

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The ‘unpeople’ of India

The Kashmir Monitor

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By Abdul Khaliq

Muslims now have to live with the bleak truth that the most powerful political party and its ideological parent, with tentacles spread across the country, are pathologically hostile to Muslims.

I fear for our future as a secular, multicultural country that once celebrated a richness of culture and tradition. Till not long ago we affirmed our common humanity even as we celebrated our differences. Our nation represented diversity, kindness, compassion and a revulsion of extremist views. But, over time, our collective souls have been deadened by violence, deepening communal and caste divides and the most perverse thinking. The cosmopolitan spirit has been throttled by hyper nationalism, populism and a deep distrust of the liberal values of tolerance and inclusion. A creeping majoritarianism is spreading across the land.

 

In this overheated, protracted election season, Muslims are up against it, caught between a rock and a hard place. Theirs is an Orwellian world where they are the “unpeople”— a term coined by George Orwell in his scary masterpiece 1984, to define those whose names and existence had been erased because they had incurred “Big Brother’s” ire. Muslims now have to live with the bleak truth that the most powerful political party and its ideological parent, with tentacles spread across the country, are pathologically hostile to Muslims. What makes their plight infinitely worse, is the fact that even the major allegedly secular party has consigned Muslims to social invisibility. Can one trust a party that is afraid to even allude to the Muslims’ problems, let alone address them?

When the PM evoked the 1984 mass slaughter of Sikhs and quoted Rajiv Gandhi’s infamous justification about the inevitable effect of the falling of a big tree, why did the Congress president not hit back by recalling the 2002 Gujarat riots and Modi’s Newtonian observation justifying the killing of hundreds of Muslims as a reaction to an action? He refrained, not for any ethical reason, but simply for fear of being seen as empathetic to Muslims and their problems and of equating the two tragedies. Caught between the flagrant hostility of the right-wing and the fraudulent concern of the secular front, Muslims are India’s outcasts.

In today’s India, where all issues across the political spectrum are seen through the lens of identity politics, Muslims are vilified for their custom, dress and tradition. They are physically attacked for the food they eat, discriminated against in employment, housing, and even civic amenities, and, they are routinely victimised by law-enforcement authorities simply for being Muslim. Social media is awash with the most hateful, stereotypical portrayal of Muslims as terrorist sympathisers, baby producing factories and worse. Although India has been the home of Islam and its adherents for much more than a millennium, Muslims today are constantly pilloried about their loyalty to the nation.

All assessments about Muslims are universalised, in black and white and deeply problematic. In a conversation with two CRPF sub-inspectors who have recently returned from Kashmir (I did not reveal that I was Muslim), I was told that “these Muslims are a nuisance as even their women throw stones at us.” Please note that the stone-throwing by the disgruntled Kashmiris is perceived as a common trait of Muslims — all 190 million of them. Their other complaints were that Muslims support Pakistan and insist on eating only halal meat. When I asked how the civil unrest in Kashmir could be resolved, I got an answer that stunned me: “Make sure that the police force in Kashmir is recruited only from the Shia community and they will teach these Sunnis a lesson!” How well have the British taught us the art of “divide and rule” and of polarising communities! The conversation filled me with anguish at the gratuitous distrust and hatred for Muslims. The animosity runs deep and is expressed by ordinary citizens in a matter-of-fact tone that is unnerving.

I recall clearly the sense of cautious optimism among Muslims when NarendraModi assumed power in 2014. His swearing-in was a strikingly symbolic moment, epitomised by the presence of the Pakistani PM that signalled hope of rapprochement with Pakistan (Indian Muslims know through experience that their well-being is linked to this crucial relationship). The PM represented a more decisive polity that promised an equitable social order expressed most eloquently in the Socratic slogan, “Sabkasaathsabkavikas”. This slogan encapsulated this nation’s foremost mission of fostering social solidarity based on the principle that every human being matters. Minorities felt reassured by the PM’s emphatic assertion in 2015 that “my government will not allow any religious group, belonging to the majority or minority, to incite hatred against others, overtly or covertly.” He repeatedly made appeals to preserve our core values of diversity, tolerance and plurality, calling on Hindus and Muslims to work together to fight poverty instead of fighting one another. His stunning embrace of Nawaz Sharif on Christmas Day 2015 filled everyone with hope.

On the ground, however, India began witnessing a deepening cultural mutation as vigilante squads terrorised and lynched Muslims in the name of protecting the cow, launched “gharwapsi” campaigns that have all but ended the freedom to choose one’s faith and used “love jihad” to stifle any kind of solidarity between the two communities. Minorities began to believe that the present dispensation’s aim is to convert India into the Hindu Rashtra of Hindutva where Muslims and Christians would live as second-class citizens. The current election rhetoric has only exacerbated those fears. The BJP LokSabha candidate for Barabanki boasted that “NarendraModi has made attempts to break the morale of Muslims. Vote for Modi if you want to destroy the breed of Muslims.”

We are on the cusp of having a new government at the Centre. Opinion polls and the most reliable — the bookies — predict victory for the NDA, but with a reduced majority. Ironically, the return of Modi as PM is the best hope for peace within the country and the neighbourhood. Imran Khan was right when he said that only Modi could help resolve Kashmir. He is the only leader with the power to rein in the lunatics whose purpose in life is to polarise communities and engage in eternal war with Pakistan. In any case, the new government’s first task would be to combat the overpowering atmosphere of distrust and hate bedevilling society which constitutes the foremost threat to the nation, more so than terrorism. The creation of a truly secular society free of prejudice and discrimination must be the prime mission.

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