Last week, an ensemble of 49 filmmakers, actors, authors, artists, activists, historians and professionals were in the news for writing an open letter to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, expressing their concern over rise in intolerance to dissent, distorting meaning of patriotism to hound people and lynching of Muslims and Dalits. Their anguish was no surprise because the signatories had a liberal spread of those who are historically non-conformist, like to swim against the current and are inherently anti-establishment. They also have never had any connect with how criminal justice system works.
Their litany of grievances instantly took you back to 2014, when beneficiaries of national awards had echoed similar sentiments while returning their awards soon after Narendran Modi had become prime minister. They had accused him of promoting divisiveness, Hindu religious bigotry and encouraging his party workers to attack Christians and NGOs and to lynch Muslims and Dalits in the name of protecting cows. They had created so much fear that a few gullible film makers, artists and retired police officers even thought of leaving India for good and settle abroad. It is a different matter, they never left the Indian shores and continued to breathe in Modi’s alleged stifling regime. Their catcalls went on for a few more months but died their natural death in due course.
Yet, they did not lose hope. They kept badgering Modi and selling a narrative that he was breaking India on communal lines, he always lied to people about the insipid record of his government and that he was corrupt, mercenary, vengeful and a master in manipulating electorates’ mind. They made their audience believe that he was a fascist and a failed leader who was going to lose his re-election in 2019. That did not happen. Modi returned with a stronger mandate, leaving them down and out, though temporarily.
Two months after NDA-II returned to power in May 2019 was a long period for these 49 self-proclaimed guardians of India’s moral conscience to remain out of news, as they thrive on publicity and adulation by an audience that forms a minuscule section of India. Hence the open letter which really makes no sense to most Indians who toil day in and day out for food and shelter. In fact, there was no need for Prasoon Joshi (Chairman, Central Board of Film Certification) and 60 others to issue a rejoinder and try to peel off their motive. It matters little whether signatories are mouthpiece or ideologues of insurgents, terrorists and separatists and whether they are out to defame the nation. Forty nine agitated minds cannot define what will be the best for a country of billion plus people. It is for the governments elected by voters to structure policies and programmes and implement them.
There is of course nothing wrong for them to share their anguish and apprehensions. What irritates is when they talk of subjects, they are naïve of. They should have written to suggest how best to protect, preserve and develop a temper of art, history, science and literature in the country. Instead, they wrote about issues that are the sole preserve of criminal administration and judiciary. No wonder, their letter lacks conviction and raises suspicion about their intent.
There is no ambiguity that lynching of anyone is a heinous crime and perpetrators must be severely punished. It does not matter who does it and why and whether this is a bailable or a non-bailable offence. But no Prime Minister has a role in such cases. He can neither lodge an FIR nor investigate or punish offenders. It is for the police to prosecute them and, for courts to convict them. Neither of these institutions functions under the PM. Police works under the state governments and courts under judiciary. The constitution bars the central government from interfering in such matters. PM can at best express anger, frustration or issue advisories to state governments but that means nothing. If petitioners are sincere, they should put pressure on state governments, hire best lawyers for the diseased, offer them financial help and create awareness among people in sensitive areas to ensure that lynching does not take place.
Their other grouse is that chanting of “Jai Sri Ram” has become a war cry and provokes violence. The question is how can anyone stop people from raising slogans in a country that passionately swears by freedom of expression? Moreover, if the chanting leads to riots, why doesn’t the state police impose Section 144, arrest hooligans and prosecute them. Instead of endorsing the letter of the petitioners, Mamata Banerjee (West Bengal’s Chief Minister) should have acted against chanters and rid her state free of slogans hailing “Jai Sri Ram”. Does she really believe that Modi can silence zealots of Ram by just appealing and, why would anyone listen to Modi since it concerns an individual’s faith?
The other concern of the Group of 49 is that when someone criticises the government or BJP, he is branded anti-national and hounded for expressing dissent. Well, it is an oversimplified grievance. If anyone feels aggrieved on these counts or faces wrath of people for his or her creations and views, there are courts and police stations where he or she can go to get his or her grievances redressed. But the individual must understand that he/she has to be responsible for what he writes, speaks and sketches and that he has the capacity to defend himself. He cannot expect a Prime Minister to work as 24×7 vigilante for individuals with no sense of accountability and rescue them from storm troopers.
As for the dissent, no country walks the distance as aggressively as Indians do. The dissent has in fact been taken to a level where politicians abuse merrily and media misinforms with impunity. It is about time, the signatories should come forward to build a mass movement for enacting simpler and effective defamation laws so that sanity prevails in public discourses and courts promptly rescue those who are wrongly incarcerated for expressing dissent. Just writing to the Prime Minister and feeling happy about it, is merely a pathetic public relations exercise.