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India’s Culture Wars

There is no place for violence to stifle debate in a democratic society

“The use of physical force as a tool to silence principled opposition is profoundly disturbing.” – Puneet Opal, neurologist and director of the Physician Scientist Training Program at Feinberg

This article originally appears on Al Jazeera America on December 16, 2015.

By Puneet Opal

Not unlike their Islamic counterparts across the border in Bangladesh and Pakistan, Hindu ideologues in India have adopted assassination as a tactic to stifle intellectual discourse.

Earlier this year, Govind Pansare, an author, historian, and politician, and M.M. Kalburgi, an eminent professor of ancient languages and a former vice-chancellor of Kannada University, were murdered. Narendra Dabholkar, a writer and founder of an organization to fight superstition in India, was assassinated in August 2013.

These killings have been carried out by unknown assailants who have yet to be brought to justice. Meanwhile, moral extremists lynched a 50-year old man named Muhammad Akhlaq in September for the ostensible crime against Hinduism of eating beef — even though it turned out that the meat in question was not beef, but mutton (not that it should matter).

This violence has led prominent writers to return important awards to the Sahitya Academy, which, despite celebrating Kalburgi in 2006, did not condemn his assassination last summer. The writers’ protest has also encouraged historians, filmmakers and scientists to chime in. The presence of scientists is especially notable, given that they tend to keep away from the public sphere. Some have released a statement explaining their dissent to the general public, noting that they are “deeply concerned with the climate of intolerance, and the ways in which science and reason are being eroded in the country.”

These intellectuals are protesting a growing social movement that contends that India — kept down first by Islamic invasions, then by British colonialism, and now by pseudo-secular socialists — needs to be inspired by its glorious Hindu past. This revanchist thinking has gathered momentum with the election of India’s current government, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), many of whose leaders came up in the Hindu Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) party.

The Hindu religious right wants to conflate religion and mythology with a lopsided view of history so as to propagandize a future inspired by a pre-British, pre-Islamic past where peace and economic prosperity supposedly reigned. New leaders selected because they align themselves with these ideologies are now responsible for education reform. Textbooks are being revised as instruments of change to teach a Vedic curriculum revised to make the past look even more golden that it could ever have been.

Modi himself, using Hindu epics as a basis, has suggested that ancient Indians knew such modern concepts as organ transplantation and organismal cloning. There is much for all Indians to be legitimately proud of, including well-documented, authentic and prescient advances in surgery and mathematics, but by manipulating the public through mythology and superstition, the proponents of this cultural renaissance are not only cheating the citizens and children of India out of their rightful historical heritage, but also undermining a healthy respect for scholarship, knowledge, truth and even the possibility of democratic politics.

There is no denying that fundamentalism, irrationality and superstition have always had a place in India, where gurus, horoscopes, and rituals have a lot of influence. But the use of physical force as a tool to silence principled opposition is profoundly disturbing.

Through all this, Modi, otherwise loquacious, Twitter-savvy and highly eloquent, has kept mute. When pressed, he has given relatively bland and generic statements calling episodes such as the Akhlaq lynching “unfortunate.” His tone-deafness has given way to one muddled response after another from the Hindutva brigade. Among other tasteless comments, BJP leaders have called the lynching “an accident” and that the “cow slaughterers should be arrested” for the crime of “hurting Hindu sentiments.”   

There were clear political opportunities for Modi to extricate himself from these growing protests. For one, the incident was in a state not ruled by his party. He could have given a sympathetic ear and immediately condemned all violence, without putting his political career at risk. Instead, senior members of his party scorned the intellectuals, dubbing them rabid elements manufacturing a rebellion. Their achievements have been belittled and their motivations questioned, including the charge that they have been lackeys of the previous government.  

Other absurd accusations have followed. The protesters have been ridiculed as English-educated elites from the upper class upset at losing their advantages in a new vernacular Hindu India. This is a surprising charge, since many of the writers and scientists are from humble backgrounds, rooted in the vernacular. They have also been called unpatriotic and anti-national, interfering with Modi’s economic agenda and manufacturing a problem where there is none to simply gain attention in the global arena.

Modi is a smart politician. The only likely reason he allowed this situation to fester is because he believes there is sympathy to the Hindutva agenda in the body politic, substantial enough that it translates into votes. The recent elections in Bihar, India’s least literate state, which took place amidst of these protests, show that Modi made a big political miscalculation: By voting out the ruling party, the electorate sent a clear message to the BJP to focus on economic growth and not their divisive and backward cultural agenda.

The intellectuals should take heart from this rejection of dirty politics by the common man at the polls. But they should continue to convince their compatriots on the broader, timeless issues that great leaps forward powered by irrational thinking often set a country a good deal back. Scientists, writers and artists don’t want to be protected from debate; indeed they welcome it — but there is no place for violence in an open democratic society.

- Puneet Opal, MD, PhD, is a neurologist, writer and scientist at Northwestern's Feinberg School of Medicine, where he is also a director of the Physician Scientist Training Program.

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