Teesta Setalvad’s talk and rogues

The atmosphere was tense, with the expectation of simmering trouble.

The woman on the stage at the Central Lecture Hall at the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras last Monday, was someone who has dedicated her life to fighting for the victims of communal violence. Teesta Setalvad had just completed her speech on “Human Rights and Communal Harmony” and the floor was open up for questions when all hell broke loose.

Teesta, whose fiery criticism of the Saffron brigade is well known, was verbally attacked by a section of the audience who quoted dated allegations against her when she had been exonerated by the Supreme Court and other inquiry commissions. Three North Indian males who, spoke in rustic Hindi, tried to disrupt the session by not letting anyone ask a question nor allowing Teesta to answer. They snatched microphones, shouted at anyone challenging Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, and interrupted the speaker while she tried to answer questions. Their political affiliations were clear, and bullying tendencies most alarming.

Someone from the audience got up and, thanking Teesta for whatever she has done so far, said that being from a minority community he lived in fear of being a victim of something like the post-Godhra carnage everyday. Again, followed a commotion.

Teesta calmly spoke into the microphone, “Please speak. Don’t stop. This is what the fascists do. They don’t let you speak.” She stood at the podium and answered till the last questions were asked. She later disclosed that she had been physically attacked by Hindu right-wing mobs five times.

But Teesta being who she is, didn’t stop. Along with her husband Javed Anand, an IITian who changed the course of his life to write on developmental and communal issues, she has been fighting against all odds, including Modi and his allies.

This need to silence or bully certain voices seems to be of paramount importance for the Hindu Right, especially at this juncture when it is expecting to win the coming Lok Sabha polls.

Journalists like Manu Joseph and Hartosh Singh Bal have quit their jobs in the Open magazine owing to political pressures from their management’s kinship with the Bharatiya Janata Party. There were recent news reports of the alleged pressure on the editorial board at CNN-IBN from Network 18’s management to not speak out against Modi openly. Ramachandra Guha in his 2012 book, Patriots and Partisans, dedicates an entire chapter, Hindutva Hate Mail, to the kind of hate mails—‘hurt, complaining, angry, or downright abusive’—he has received in the last 15 years for writing on subjects related to Hindutva.

When the undermining ideology of a political faction—the Hindu right-wing, under different names and veils—is to uphold and establish a single homogenous social structure instead of a plural, multi-cultural India and a purported sense of majority supremacy over the minorities, then all its activities are bound to be directed towards a certain goal. Be it Gandhi’s assassination, be it the destruction of the Babri Masjid, be it the 2002 post-Godhra carnage, or be it disrupting Teesta Setalvad’s talk, they revealed the same undercurrents of an intolerant fascist mentality.

Minority fundamentalist traits are prevalent in say, an Akbaruddin Owaisi or an organization like the now-banned Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) but as India has more than 80 per cent Hindus, the threat of Hindu majority communalism is most dangerous. This has been reiterated time and again by progressive scholars and activists.

In a parallel development, coincidentally, the very next day after the Teesta incident in Chennai, Penguin India announced that it would withdraw and destroy all existing copies of American scholar Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus: An Alternative History in the country as part of an out-of-the court settlement with a Hindu group called Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti, which claimed Doniger’s book misinterpreted Hindus.

When The Times of India carried an open letter to Penguin by Arundhati Roy asking why it had succumbed to the pressures of religious fanatics, hundreds of comments, filthily abusive, flooded the web page. A reader, who goes by the online name of Hindu Republic of India, even wrote, “Ignore this ugly looking bitch.” So much for a Booker prize winning author asking some valid questions on freedom of speech.

The Samiti, led by Dinanath Batra, a former Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh member, managed to successfully use Indian laws to get a book, written by an international scholar who holds multiple PhDs from Harvard and Oxford, off the shelves.

Leave alone her degrees and other scholarly achievements, prominent Marathi playwright and academic Govind Puroshottam Deshpande, wrote in his review of the book in the Economic and Political Weekly, that though many may not agree with what she has written, the book ‘will provide the Hindus and the rebels some alternative perspectives on themselves. Hindus might discover through such books what alternative understanding of their own ideas they need.’ Historian and journalist Vijay Prasad critically analyzed the book for The Guardian and wrote that Doniger’s book ‘is not an insult to religion but a tribute to its complexity’.

Such scholarly views have no place in the minds of the supporters of the front-runner for the  prime ministership. As Narendra Modi pitches his candidature against a corrupt incumbent regime, it’s important to understand the deeper ideologies that guide the BJP and the Parivar—to know, at least, why the 1984 anti-Sikh riots are not the same as 2002 anti-Muslim riots.

Otherwise, in desperate attempts to be harbingers of change Indians might install a proto- fascist regime—where, as Arundhati Roy notes, may be all writers will have to write only pro-Hindutva books.


This article was published on the online media-portal Saddahaq in February 2014.