In the last few days, as a series of disturbing events have taken place on the ground, an army of talking heads have appeared in print media and on TV to defend the actions of those in power, especially prime minister Narendra Modi. One of the prime agents of this latter set is Swapan Dasgupta.
From writing in The Pioneer, edited by BJP Rajya Sabha MP Chandan Mitra, to appearing on NDTV’s The Buck Stops Here, Dasgupta has been at the forefront of defending the BJP against charges of silence or complicity in recent events.
One of the arguments that Dasgupta made on Barkha Dutt’s show related to his poor assessment of writers who have either resigned from or returned the awards bestowed by the Sahitya Akademi. The Buck Stops Here was telecast on October 12, the same day that Sudheendra Kulkarni’s face was blackened by Shiv Sena workers in Mumbai.
Nayantara Sahgal was also on the program and Dutt started the debate by bringing up Dasgupta’s piece in The Pioneer, in which he sought to question the award returnees’ stance by painting them as rabidly anti-Modi. The article was titled: “Sahgal’s protest stems from hatred for Modi.”
Dasgupta wrote in the piece: “Sahgal and the others hate Narendra Modi, and in likelihood hated him ever since the day he entered public life. The reason may well be aesthetic. In the words of one of their intemperate advocates: “As our Prime Minister we have a man who can’t even be dignified by being called ‘uncultured’, but an ignorant egomaniac who has deliberately made a successful political career of being an enemy of culture wherever and whenever he suspects he may have found it.”
He added: “In normal circumstances, such vitriol would never have passed editorial muster in a mainstream newspaper. But these are exceptional times. So intense is the hatred of Modi – Sahgal called him a ‘fascist’ – that the government’s alleged sins of omission have been merged into a disavowal of the Union of India.”
The gist of Dasgupta’s argument is that in spite of the reprehensibility of what has happened – he listed the Dadri lynching, Kalburgi’s murder in Dharwad, and the Kulkarni incident in Mumbai – these events cannot be read as a statement on the state of the Indian nation. According to him, the awards given by the Sahitya Akademi are awards of the state, and not of any government. When you return these awards you are questioning the institutional basis of the state itself.
Semantically, this argument may not sound wrong, but it hides a deep intellectual dishonesty. Firstly, it overlooks that nothing in this country, least of all awards bestowed by the state, is apolitical. If this were not the case, we would not see a jostling for civilian honours like the Padma awards, which are used by the government of the day to bless public persons close to it. Even the Bharat Ratna, the highest award of the land, has not been immune to such pressures.
Two, there is a difference between routine crimes, on which no one expects the prime minister to speak, and communal conflicts such as the one that happened at Dadri. Dasgupta writes in his piece: “Last week, in an incident that was reminiscent of the Taliban attack on Malala Yusafzai, Maoists in Chhattisgarh killed a teenage girl for daring to attend school; in Delhi, an extremely brutal rape brought forth street protests; and in West Bengal, political murders have become routine since the mid-1960s. These incidents can be multiplied and they bring no credit to the country.”
To make an analogy between such incidents and what happened at Dadri is disingenuous. Dasgupta is keen to stress a separation between the state and the government of the day, but conveniently overlooks the, if I may, covert hand of the state in Dadri. When the son of a BJP leader is arrested for inciting the mob, can Dasgupta expect us to look at the PM in a cocoon, separate from his party?
Three, prime minister Modi, even when he chose to speak on Dadri, did not condemn the incident in clear language. He appealed to Hindus and Muslims to fight poverty, not one another. This overlooks the fact that in Dadri, the lone Muslim was not fighting anyone. It was a Hindu mob that descended on his house and killed him on the suspicion that he had eaten beef.
The prime minister, not once in his speech, defended the right of a Muslim to eat beef. Rather, he took Lalu Yadav to task for claiming that he (Yadav) is a beef-eater. Modi sought to portray Yadav’s statements as an insult to the Yadav clan, and thus, presented his own opinions on beef-eating. Not once in his speech did the prime minister say that people are free to eat what they want. Not once did he signal to Mohammad Akhlaq’s killers that they will not be spared.
It is no one’s case that the prime minister is responsible for everything that happens in this country. Indeed, Kalburgi was killed in a state, Karnataka, that has a Congress government. But to suggest, as Dasgupta does, that the Prime Minister is immune from these forces, that he does not bear blame for not reigning in divisive elements within his party, is plain wrong. Was it not Yogi Adityanath, a BJP Lok Sabha MP from Gorakhpur, who promised guns to Hindus in Dadri to defend themselves? When the prime minister does not rebuke the likes of him publicly, he can no longer claim innocence. (In a fresh interview to Anand Bazaar Patrika, the PM has repeated this line of questioning, asking how the central government could be blamed for Dadri and other incidents.)
Towards the closing of Barkha’s show, Dasgupta added a new explanation for why certain writers have chosen to return awards. In this version, these writers feel left out by the new dispensation, devoid of lines of patronage no longer afforded them. This argument has been made elsewhere to bolster Modi’s image as a man of high integrity. But while it may work against bureaucrats or industrialists looking to curry favour, to tar writers with the same brush is to demean their profession and disrespect their role as society’s conscience keepers. Dasgupta is himself a writer, a “public intellectual”, so to hear him lobby this charge against the likes of Sahgal, was not just surprising but distasteful. It was Sahgal, however, who had the last word. “Writers,” she said, “are not looking for importance. All they are looking for are publishers.”
The term of the Modi government was expected to see a tug-of-war between left-liberal and rightwing ideologies, and most people would have welcomed this debate in the hope that for new insights into India’s developing nationhood will come forth. But when intellectuals such as Dasgupta present one-sided arguments in their bid to save Modi, and present any criticism as offensive to the Supreme Leader, they shrink the public space for debate further and further.