Welcome Straws in the Wind That Blows From the Right-Wing

Recent examples of dissent within the BJP are valuable because their provenance underlines the fact that the political machine from which they emanate is still dominated by hate-filled intolerance.

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This article first appeared in The India Cable – a subscribers-only newsletter published by The Wire and Galileo Ideas. You can subscribe to The India Cable by clicking here.

During my career as a teacher at Delhi University, I was an activist in the Delhi University Teachers’ Association (DUTA).

Our Association comprised three principal political segments – the Left, the Congress and the Sangh.

Through long decades and many movements, DUTA set an example of consensual, democratic decision-making and united action programmes, some of which yielded lasting constructive fruit for the profession and for higher education.

Some teachers who belonged to the Sangh were exemplars of the culture of decency, dialogue and educated and democratic dissent. Those were the days before the full-blooded weaponisation of religion. One of these that I recall with pleasure was O.P. Kohli, who later became governor in three states.

Indeed, the functioning of DUTA could well be studied by our parliamentarians as a model to follow.

My belief that no cultural or political organisation is ever a monolith now stands vindicated by news that comes from two states, Karnataka and Kerala.

In Karnataka, two legislators of the ruling BJP have spoken against the ban imposed on Muslim traders from doing business around temple areas as “wrong” and “undemocratic”, and have pleaded with the administration to undo this regressive measure.

Even more significantly, some Sangh affiliates in Kerala have opposed the decision of the Koodalmanikyam temple authorities to disallow a Muslim Bharatnatyam dancer from dancing in the temple premises as being  against Hindu “culture” and “tradition”.

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This section of the Kerala Sangh had earlier also supported the Supreme Court’s order about the need for gender equality in the devotional practices of the Sabarimala shrine, although they were later obliged to fall in line with the dominant view of the Sangh.

These stands come against the backdrop of a cultural boycott of Muslims that BJP and Sangh leaders and activists have pushed in Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh, the vilification of Muslim actors, and also calls for the economic boycott of Muslim vendors in the wake of the Hindutva-driven ‘corona jihad’ campaign.

To be sure, these recent examples of rationality are the product of local politics and circumstances in Karnataka and Kerala. It may be far too early to think that these instances tantamount to any substantial cracks in the edifice. But they are valuable because their provenance underlines the fact that the political machine from which they emanate is still dominated by hate-filled intolerance.

Sadly, these expressions of sanity are few and far between and occur too far down the BJP-Sangh food chain to really make a difference. And yet it is important to welcome them. The dissenting Karnataka BJP legislators and Kerala Sangh members bring hope that skepticism, even among seemingly watertight formations, exists. Will the ‘high command’ slap them down? Or recognise that dialogue and the independence of opinions are essential for democracy? Or simply ignore them as a minor hiccup in the consolidation of sectarian dominance?

It is to be hoped that in the days to come, Hindu cultural activists and artists will also participate in the cultural events of other communities. That indeed is the route to firming up both citizens’ rights and cementing inter-community relations – thereby helping to dissipate the atmosphere of hostility that now obtains in many places.

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The failure of the prime minister to even once condemn the multiple expressions of hatred that his party’s leaders and members frequently trade in offers us a clue about what the future holds. Far from speaking out, Narendra Modi has been unable to resist resorting to such articulations. In his first speech from the Red Fort after becoming prime minister in 2014, Modi had asked for a ‘10 year moratorium’ on communalism and casteism. It was odd that he chose to put a time limit on the noble goal of eliminating bigotry. But eight years on, only two straws in the wind, however welcome, suggest how facetious the Red Fort pronouncement has been.

Badri Raina taught at Delhi University.