A deeply offensive pamphlet directed at AAP Lok Sabha candidate Atishi has been distributed along with newspapers to voters in housing complexes in the East Delhi constituency. This has sparked a furore; Atishi and Delhi deputy chief minister Manish Sisodia accused her BJP opponent Gautam Gambhir of being behind the pamphlet. Gambhir has denied the charge and sent a defamation notice to Atishi, Sisodia and Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal, who echoed their charge.
First things first. There is no evidence that Gambhir or the BJP are behind the pamphlet. However, given the rhetoric of senior leaders in recent years and the party’s tendency to distribute fake news, few will put it past enthusiasts of the ruling party attempting something like this.
Even if it can be assumed to be the handiwork of an overzealous BJP supporter and not the party’s doing per se, the pamphlet can be read in different ways – as a tactic in political combat and as a manifesto expressing a strain in Hindu chauvinist opinion.
A pamphlet is not a WhatsApp forward, it is not a flicker of bigotry that flashes on a screen; it is a more coherent statement of purpose, revealing the worldview behind it. While it is yet to be established who authored it, the language the pamphlet uses resonates with the rhetoric that’s been bandied about in recent years by BJP supporters and, sometimes, leaders too.
The pamphlet relentlessly casts aspersion on Atishi’s personal character, which understandably caused her to choke up in a press conference. This is par for the course for right-wing activists, including those at the BJP IT cell, who cheerily share fake news about Jawaharlal Nehru’s interactions with women. Sonia Gandhi has not been spared this filth either, while such material and jokes abound on WhatsApp. Remember this bit of “sexual” fake news put out by a BJP leader to tarnish the reputation of Jawaharlal Nehru University students?
The personal attack has been designed for the reaction it has elicited at the moment – to break Atishi down, to make her – a bright Rhodes scholar with an admirable record of public service, one who is widely credited for the turnaround in Delhi government schools – conscious of how she’s perceived each time she meets people. And thereby produce a chilling effect on her voice and politics.
This is the sword of tarnished character that the right hangs on women who oppose it, as liberal women politicians, civil society activists and journalists will attest from their experience on social media. That a Union minister can popularise the use of the word “presstitute” and a prime minister follows trolls who threaten women is all of a piece with the moral ecosystem that produces such a pamphlet.
The pamphlet also calls Sisodia names and says he “is a Scheduled Caste”. It goes on to say “he is a handsome man but a SC cannot be handsome” and then makes offensive remarks about his parentage.
This could mean one or more things. It may merely underline the contempt the writer feels for Dalits in general or it is meant to convey that that the AAP is a party of Delhi’s urban underclass, and thus wholly different from the intended audience of the pamphlet.
BJP supporters are suggesting that the party could not have done and said this because it is trying to woo the Dalits in elections. The reality is more complicated. Narendra Modi may want to be pictured grimly washing the feet of Dalits but there is a difference between instrumentalist gestures for garnering votes and the systematic glossing over of violence against Dalits.
The last five years has seen a spike in anti-Dalit violence across the country, Ambedkar statues have been vandalised, activists have been arrested and prosecuted under security legislation, young political leader Chandrashekhar Azad was arrested in UP and a prominent intellectual, Anand Teltumbde, persecuted in Maharashtra. The Dalits are under no illusion as to where they stand with the BJP; in its own way, the pamphlet clarifies – for its intended upper caste/upper class audience – who the BJP speaks for.
The pamphlet also calls Atishi a “mixed breed” for having parents from different states and for being married to a Christian, who is characterised as a “beef eater”. This is of course directly in line with BJP’s ideological project of stigmatising minorities and erasing them in public life. BJP president Amit Shah calls illegal migrants, “termites”, Union minister Anantkumar Hegde says terror will not end unless Islam is uprooted from the country while Pragya Singh Thakur, an accused in a terror attack that killed Muslims, gets a ticket to head for parliament.
The intent is clear; delegitimise Muslims and Christians in the public sphere, and snap the web of cultural, economic and personal ties between religious communities. A consistent tirade against Muslims serves to discourage the majority from renting homes to them; it induces habits of thought that result in denying them government or private contracts, admission to schools or access to services.
The BJP is in the business of alienating citizens from each other. Muslims bear the brunt of this project but the pamphlet against Atishi swoops down on Christians too, who are never far from the minds of right-wing activists.
It’s interesting that the pamphlet has not been printed in Hindi. Perhaps those who printed it wanted to limit its circulation to prevent a blowback. But its contents will circulate and its recipients will have no difficult correlating its ‘arguments’ with the divisive agenda that is being pushed in this election campaign. Whether India wants more of that illiberalism will be known on May 23.
Sushil Aaron is a political commentator. He tweets at @SushilAaron.