Archive: February, 2014

General Election 2014 and the Challenge of Communal Fascism

General Elections 2014 and the Challenge of Communal Fascism

By Purushottam Agrawal

I made the following observations while addressing a National Convention on Democracy and Secularism on 27 February 2014 in Delhi. This Convention was organized by Dilip Simeon, Harsh Kapoor, Battini Rao and other friends. I am posting these remarks online to invite reflection, interaction and most importantly, action – Purushottam.



A meeting similar to this was organised ten years ago in the wake of the Gujarat pogrom, but the mood of that convention was one of fire and ‘josh’, unlike the present one characterised by udaasi. May be you are not that udaas or tired, but let me confess, regarding matters of secularism and rights, I feel tired in spirit.

I had had the opportunity of attending the preparatory meeting for that Convention. The chief organiser described me as a minion of Dilip Simeon in the course of discussion. I told the organiser that I was proud of being considered a minion of Simeon. I was there because of Dilip and I am here today because of him.

The organiser of that convention wanted me to address it “as a Hindu”, because of the name I carry. I told him, unlike many of my secular Hindu friends, I don’t disclaim my Hindu identity, but I don’t take political positions as a Hindu. Today, you want me to condemn the Gujarat pogrom, “as a Hindu”, tomorrow, I might, “as a Hindu” feel sympathetic to the idea of Hindusthan Hinduon ka, nahin kisi ke baap ka! I made it clear that I shall speak as a citizen concerned about democratic institutions and norms. Following this, the chief organizer  said that in his opinion it is best if I do not address his Convention.

A secular friend has often castigated me on my ‘hindu-ness’, saying it is because of people like me that the RSS is gaining strength. I have had to remind him that it is precisely because of those Hindus who are religious, but don’t vote for RSS, that RSS has still not succeeded in its designs.

Friends, I find it rather amusing that many of us have no sense of the Hindu tradition, its agonies, its inner conflicts of hegemony and resistance. We have no desire of engaging with it in a serious way, but when the Babri Masjid is demolished, all of a sudden we want to turn to Vivekananda, even the Vedas to find arguments against communal fascism. Such efforts on our part carry no credibility amongst the people who we want to address.

Today, I have been asked to talk about ‘Freedom of thought and life of mind’.  From this podium, Jairus has put the phenomenon of fascism in a theoretical perspective, and Rahul Pandita has done a great job of reminding us of the plight of Kashmiri Pandits.  I claim no scholarship, not even great knowledge. I just want to share my concerns and ideas as a citizen and as a writer.

Let us face the facts. Over the last twenty years, communal forces have succeeded in changing the ‘mindscape’ of our society. Rahul just quoted a very senior communist leader telling Kashmiri Pandits, in the context of their forced exodus from the valley, ‘Aisi baaten hoti rehati hain…’ (“such things happen”). This statement is reflective of the changed mindscape. Even responsible people are falling prey to the ‘chalta hai’ syndrome. More importantly, it is reflective of a very narrow and short-sighted understanding of communal fascism. This reminds me of a related incident which shows the extent to which we have internalised the ideas rooted in the politics of identity. My friend the late Farooque Sheikh had once visited a refugee camp of Pandits in Delhi, and I had to face a hard time convincing a Kashmiri Pandit colleague of mine at JNU that Farooque was a Gujarati, not a Kashmiri. My colleague’s idea was simple- if not a Hindu, Fartuque must certainly be a Kashmiri Muslim, otherwise why would he visit the suffering Kashmiri Pandits? The prejudice that only Dalits can speak for Dalits, women for women and so on has been given huge respectability by our intellectuals. By this argument, someone like me who belongs to the privileged savarna male minority should speak for no oppressed community or individual. We must not forget that in the wake of the 1984 mass murder of Sikhs in Delhi, the only non-Sikh institution to close in mourning was Vidya -Jyoti— a Jesuit theological institute.

To what extent, has the mindscape of our society changed?  Just look around.  It is not a court of law that has passed an order against Wendy Doniger’s book. The publisher decided to pulp it on its own. There was no formal ban on Aamir Khan’s films in Gujarat, it is just that the exhibitors were “not willing” to release them. Similarly there was no formal ban on Salman Rushdie attending the Jaipur Literature Festival in 2012. But the police couldn’t “provide security”. Moreover on the last day of the festival a ‘celebratory’ mass Namaaz was offered at the venue. If next time around the Bajrang Dal feels like organising a Hanuman- Chalisa path at the same venue how will ‘secular’ politics and intelligentsia be in a position to react? It did not happen in a Christian majority country, but here in India, that the film ‘Da Vinci Code’ was  allowed to be released only after the Information and Broadcasting Ministry had  obtained approval of  the Christina clergy by organising a pre-release screening. This was a case of officially sponsored religious censorship of art.

In my youth I had read a story by Harishankar Parsai. In this story, Rama appoints Hanuman as the tax inspector and crafty traders get away with tax-evasion by binding their account-books in a red piece of cloth, as Hanuman wears a red loin-cloth. In so doing, they “prove” their devotion to Hanuman. The story “informs” its readers that this is why traders bind their account books in red till date. This was forty years ago. Tell me honestly- will a writer write such a story today? Will any responsible editor publish it? That is the distance we have travelled. That is the change in mindscape we have undergone.

Only this morning, I came across a rather funny – and sad – bit of news. A truck carrying scrap paper met with a minor accident, with its cargo spilling on the road. In it, there were some copies of a holy book- Hindu or Muslim not known. Subsequently, the driver and cleaner were beaten to a pulp by an irate mob and the police have registered a case against the scrap-dealer who dared ‘hurt’ religious sentiments by treating holy books as scrap.

We have discussed the theoretical aspects of communal fascism in this session, and that is really important. The challenge however is that of acting fast and in a credible manner. Just like Jairus, Kamal and Anu, I studied at JNU, and also taught there. We were given to endless discussions and lengthy meetings – sometimes the general body meeting of the students ran for 36 hours straight! We were confident of revolution being around the corner, but the wretched corner has turned into a corridor and we are still waiting…taking rounds in the corridor…and things have changed beyond recognition. The mindscape of our society has changed fundamentally.

We have to realise that communal fascism is not merely a concern from the standpoint of security of minorities. It poses a threat to the very idea of a democratic and vibrant society. Frankly sometimes I pity the state that Indian Muslims have been reduced to. A political party assuring them of merely basic security against murder, arson and loot can claim itself as secular and can hope to take Muslims along. Should not the Left in Bengal feel ashamed at the plight of Muslims as reflected in the Sachhar Committee report? Do our secular parties realise that Narendra Modi is only speaking their language when he points out that in the last 12 years there have been no riots in Gujarat? The communal and secular parties almost seem to be in connivance for restraining Muslims from being equal citizens of a secular democracy.

People like Dilip and yours truly have been shouting hoarse about the importance of ensuring rule of law, autonomy of institutions and the constitutional rights of citizens qua citizens…but the politics of ‘anti- communalism’ listens, nods and goes on exactly as before.

We are going to have elections in less than two months, and these elections are going to be fraught with unprecedented significance. If Narendra Modi becomes PM, chances are that things in this country will change in a very basic way, and for the worse. Theoretical discussions and disagreements are as important as ever, but we have to think of concrete political choices as well. How do we face the very real danger of India turning into just a formal democracy, without the present churn and vibrancy?  We must remind people and also remind ourselves, that democracy is not just about numbers – it is about democratic norms and institutions. It is about ensuring the free expression of even such views which one may find utterly nonsensical.

Let us never forget, Jesus was crucified as a heretic. ‘Heretics’ provide a society with the opportunity of self-reflection, and democracy is fundamentally about ensuring a non-violent and civilised interface between the orthodox and the heterodox in each and every sphere of life. Communal fascism is a threat to the very idea of such a vibrant and meaningful democracy and hence is a matter of concern not only for religious minorities, but for each and every citizen.

So, we have to look at concrete and credible political possibilities. Some friends refer to AAP as an alternative. I too appreciate its role but with reservations and criticism. Such disagreements are not only normal but also welcome. The point however is to arrive at a practical consensus on defeating communal fascism electorally. Perhaps, in the short term we can proceed with a constituency-wise assessment and in each constituency, help the secular candidate who is most likely to present a challenge to communal politics.  In the long term however, there is no alternative to acting in a manner consistent with human rights, democratic norms, autonomy of institutions and upholding the rule of law. We cannot relax these standards no matter who claims to be ‘hurt’. Unless we act fast to recover our credibility, we will find ourselves even more marginalized and communal fascism will only grow stronger.

Towards an insane society? Reflections on Khurshid Anwar’s suicide and beyond


A slightly edited version of the following has appeared in today’s Asian Age.

Towards an insane society?

-Purushottam Agrawal


So-called ‘media trials’ are only one of the disconcerting aspects of the proliferation of 24X7 news channels in an era where the capacity to reflect calmly is waning fast. Everybody, including intellectuals, seems to be in a hurry “to act” on their chosen causes. The idea that calm reflection must precede any action – individual or collective – seems to have become quite old-fashioned. Even in the response of institutional structures to serious issues, one can discern a mob-mentality under the garb of political correctness. The growing reach and power of electronic media is contributing greatly not only to the creation, but also to the institutionalisation of such a mentality and needs to be balanced with a sense of responsibility and ethics.

Recall how, a couple of years ago, a female school teacher in old Delhi was almost lynched by a furious mob as a news channel had portrayed her as a ‘procuress’ by manipulating audio and visual clips. One doesn’t know if the channel and the reporter were ever legally charged and proceeded against.

Khurshid Anwar, the well-known activist and writer committed suicide on the morning of 18th December last year. The previous night, in a distorted  and sensationalist programme, the Hindutva supporter chief of a news channel and a celebrity feminist turned Narendra Modi enthusiast  had repeatedly described him as a ‘rapist’ and vowed to have him punished.


This programme was the culmination of a sustained hate campaign against Anwar. For the preceding three months, he was being charged with rape on the social media. The statement of a girl from a north eastern state was video-recorded by the Hindutva activist, in which Khurshid was charged with raping and sodomizing this girl, and the CD of this recording was distributed to many social activists in various parts of the country. This was done well before any official complaint was lodged with the police or even before an act of rape was established as the complainant has never been subjected to a medical test.

In spite of this, the distribution of this CD and other scurrilous material was condoned and even promoted by ultra-left hate-mongers posing as activists. A vigorous campaign of innuendos was launched against Khurshid on social media websites. The most curious thing in this entire affair was that the accused was acting more transparently than the accusers! Khurshid Anwar kept challenging those charging him to go to the police, to have a medical test of the complainant and proceed formally so that he gets a chance to clear his name. He said this publicly many times over this period, and was thoroughly dispirited at the idea of living with this taint on his reputation as a fierce fighter for gender rights. He filed a defamation case against some of the people whom he knew to be distributing the recording, and reported the matter to the police. No action seems to have been taken to quell the rumours which were damaging Anwar personally and professionally.

It was the wisdom of the well-known activists who knew of the matter and presumably knew of the targeted smear campaign to condone such a course of action. This alliance of the ‘ultras’ of the left and right was probably a result of the uncompromising and sustained stand Anwar had taken against the fanaticism of both Hindu and Islamic variety. His recent series of articles against Wahhabi Islam had particularly angered some ‘comrades’ who refuse to acknowledge the possibility of Islamic fundamentalism.

It is more than two months to the death, but the police have not registered a FIR in the case. The family of Khurshid Anwar lodged a complaint charging the TV channel head, the Modi enthusiast and those who distributed the CD and carried out the social media campaign with conspiracy and abetment to suicide. They have provided documentary evidence which calls for at least a FIR and a thorough inquiry, but the police remain unmoved.

The police seem to be under pressure due to the involvement of ‘big names’ on one hand, and the pressures of identity politics on the other. This is symptomatic of the rot not only in the system but also in the ways the media and intellectuals seek to address systemic short-comings. The rot is characterised by the plethora of laws passed as a result of knee-jerk reactions to situational challenges and under pressures from identity politics of various types. It is also characterised by the fast spreading habit of domain-specific and sometimes frankly opportunistic thinking amongst activists and intellectuals.

To take an example, those well-meaning scholars who are disturbed at Penguin pulping Wendy Doniger’s book due to the fears of harassment under the vague provisions of section 295 of IPC, have been enthusiastically supporting laws which are almost customised for harassment and which compromise on the basic tenets of the rule of law. One mustn’t forget the lampooning of Sharad Yadav by our ‘thinking’ classes for showing the courage of questioning the dangerously vague provisions of the law passed in the wake of the horrendous rape and murder of ‘Nirbhaya’.   Passing stringent and often ill-defined laws has somehow became equivalent with ‘action’ against sexual harassment in the minds of our chattering classes. In this, they forget the duty to protect the rights of the accused. The accused is not guilty just by virtue of accusation.

Such laws are empowering not individual victims but rather ‘representatives’ of identities which have a stake not only  in perpetuation of conservative power structures, but also in creating of an even more oppressive state machinery. The presumption of innocence till proved otherwise has been replaced by the presumption of guilt; instead of state proving the accused guilty, the accused has to prove his/ her innocence under the regime of ‘progressive ‘and ‘empowering’ laws. It is not the victim, but the policeman and his bosses who are becoming more and more powerful.

To take another recent example, the Goa police have charge-sheeted Tarun Tejpal for ‘rape’ under the post-Nirbhaya rape-law. The peculiarly broadened definition of rape under this law can lead to ten years RI for Tejpal. Is it not analogues to legally eradicating the difference between a fist-fight and an attempted murder? Sexual harassment is of course morally repugnant and ought to be treated as a legal offence as well; but can it be put at par with rape? ‘Off with his head’ for each and every offence, may be understandable in the wonderland ruled by the Queen of Hearts; certainly not in a civilized society.  

Khurshid Anwar was driven to desperation due to the psychological pressures created by the troublesome combination of the media cherishing the creation of a moralist mob-mentality and the thinking classes succumbing to the desire of being seen to be politically correct even at the cost of basic tenets of rational thinking. The pressing need of the hour is to resist the temptations of such ‘domain specific’ thinking and move away from knee-jerk reactions.

Gender rights and the rights of other social groups and identities can be ensured only by a system which is genuinely committed to the broad framework of human rights and basic tenets of rule of law. The tragic death of Khurshid Anwar is a stark reminder that the only alternative to such a commitment is to speedily tumble toward an insane society.