In the book Pluralism and Democracy in India: Debating the Hindu Right, edited by Wendy Doniger and Martha C Nassbaum, historian Mushirul Hasan talks about the first issue of the Encounter—a literary magazine founded by poet Stephen Spender and journalist Irving Kristol—that was published in 1953. Hasan cites an article with the following note: “Between a past reduced to practical impotence but offering a resistance to depth, and a future only skin–deep, India’s present seems to lack substance.” Sixty-two years later, set against the context of the hanging of Yakub Memon—who was convicted over the 1993 bombings in Mumbai— yesterday, the image that this grim pronouncement paints, bears a striking resemblance to the India of today.
Memon’s hanging came in the midst of unprecedented circumstances and several twists and turns that have played out over the past week. On Tuesday, 28 June 2015, a two-judge bench of the Supreme Court delivered a split verdict on Memon’s plea against the death warrant he had been handed, following which a three-judge bench dismissed his plea and upheld the death sentence on Wednesday. Immediately after, a fourteen-page mercy petition written by Memon was delivered to Pranab Mukherjee, the president of India, who—during a two-hour long meeting—was advised by the home ministry to reject it. Memon’s petition was rejected at around 10.45pm. His lawyers along with Delhi-based lawyer and activist, Prashant Bhushan went to the residence of the Chief Justice of India, HL Dattu. Three judges agreed to convene in the Supreme Court to hear the review petition into the wee hours of the night, and ultimately rejecting it by early morning on Thursday. To say that these proceedings were unusual would perhaps be an understatement, and the effect of the subsequent pandemonium could be witnessed through the stir it caused on social media.
However, even as cacophony took over the public space at large, a sepulchral silence continued to rein over 7, Race Course Road. After all, Prime Minister Narendra Modi chooses to speak only on matters that would be better left to his junior colleagues in the cabinet. These are matters that are everyday, routine, and more importantly, “safe.” But while he refuses to comment on issues that are grabbing the headlines, his social media acolytes are more than willing to do so. They are happy to rant about what they consider the real issues of the moment—be it the recent controversy surrounding the External Affairs minister Sushma Swaraj and Rajasthan’s Chief Minister Vasundhra Raje over their murky connection to Lalit Modi, the former commissioner of the Indian Premier League; the scores of mysterious deaths around the massive Vyapam scam; or now, the raging controversy over awarding the death sentence to Memon. These flag-bearers of Hindutva and vociferous supporters of Modi are also distinguished by their violent opposition to views that are contrary to their own. An attempt to engage with them, results at best, in being branded a “pseudosecular”, and at worst, in being threatened with acts such as murder or rape.
Between the deafening silence at the top and the constant bullying on social media at the metaphorical bottom, we are coming to embody a republic where name-calling and chest-thumping have taken over from reasoned debate, discussion and disagreement. We are becoming a people who do not wish to hear the other speak. In fact, it may no longer be an exaggeration to suggest that the tomb-like silence at the top is feeding the incessant, unrelenting commotion below. Both ends of the spectrum, so contradictory and yet complementary to each other, are moulding a new republic that is intolerant and ready to strike down dissent in all spheres of life.
It is in this backdrop that Teesta Setelvad—the activist who spearheaded the cause of the victims of the Gujarat riots in 2002—has been hounded by investigative agencies under the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) dispensation at the centre and in Gujarat. It is also in this backdrop, that the students at Pune’s Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), who have been protesting the appointment of the under-qualified Gajendera Singh Chouhan as the institute’s chairperson, are told to return to their classrooms or face suspension. This new republic has resulted in Greenpeace—an environmental non-governmental organisation—being threatened by impending closure after being squeezed dry of funds by the government. In the meantime, individuals who dare to disagree with the government’s policies on a public platform may not be faced with an intervention by the state, but are faced with a barrage of vile abuse online.