Link to the article: Sonia Faleiro
IN today’s India, secular liberals face a challenge: how to stay alive.
In August, 77-year-old scholar M. M. Kalburgi, an outspoken critic of Hindu idol worship, was gunned down on his own doorstep. In February, the communist leader Govind Pansare was killed near Mumbai. And in 2013, the activist Narendra Dabholkar was murdered for campaigning against religious superstitions.
These killings should be seen as the canary in the coal mine: Secular voices are being censored and others will follow.
While there have always been episodic attacks on free speech in India, this time feels different. The harassment is front-page news, but the government refuses to acknowledge it. Indeed, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s silence is being interpreted by many people as tacit approval, given that the attacks have gained momentum since he took office in 2014 and are linked to Hindutva groups whose far-right ideology he shares.
Earlier this month, a leader of the Sri Ram Sene, a Hindu extremist group with a history of violence including raiding pubs and beating women they find inside, ratcheted up the tensions. He warned that writers who insulted Hindu gods were in danger of having their tongues sliced off. For those who don’t support the ultimate goal of these extremists — a Hindu nation — Mr. Modi’s silence is ominous.
This is a turning point for India, a country that has taken pride in being a liberal democracy and that often adopts a high-minded tone when neighbors fall short of the same standards.
When the liberal Pakistani politician Salman Taseer was assassinated in 2011, the Indian journalist M. J. Akbar, now the national spokesman for the Bharatiya Janata Party, or B.J.P., chided, “If Salman Taseer had been an Indian Muslim, he would still have been alive.” In the run-up to the 2014 general elections in Bangladesh, India expressed concern over the future of the country’s democratic institutions.
We should be worrying instead about what’s happening in India, and recognize that it could go the way of the very neighbors it criticizes. As Nikhil Wagle, a prominent liberal journalist based in Mumbai, told me, “Without secularism, India is a Hindu Pakistan.”
The murders in India share striking similarities with the killings of four Bangladeshi bloggers this year. But while there was a global outcry over what happened in Bangladesh, India is hiding behind its patina of legitimacy granted by being the world’s largest democracy.
Like the murdered bloggers, the Indian victims held liberal views but were not famous or powerful. Mr. Kalburgi had publicly expressed skepticism toward idol worship in Hinduism, but he didn’t pose a threat to anyone.
While the authorities are pursuing the culprits on a case-by-case basis, the overarching attack on free speech has not been addressed. The threats and killings have created an atmosphere of self-censorship and fear.
Some of the killers are still on the loose, and while in one hand they wield a gun, in the other they wave a list. On Sept. 20, Mr. Wagle, the journalist, learned from a source that intercepted phone calls had revealed that members of yet another right-wing Hindu group, Sanatan Sanstha, had marked him as their next victim. The extremists who celebrated the August murder of Mr. Kalburgi were more direct: They used Twitter to warn K. S. Bhagwan, a retired university professor who is critical of the Hindu caste system, that he would be next.
The goal of transforming India from a secular state to a Hindu nation, which seems to be behind the murders, is abetted not just by the silence of politicians, but also by the Hindu nationalist policies of the ruling B.J.P.
Over the past few months, the government has purged secular voices from high-profile institutions including the National Book Trust and the independent board of Nalanda University. The government is not replacing mediocre individuals: The chancellor of Nalanda was the Nobel laureate Amartya Sen. It is replacing luminaries with people whose greatest qualification is faith in Hindutva ideology. The new appointees are rejecting scientific thought in favor of religious ideas that have no place in secular institutions.
Sonia Faleiro is the author of “Beautiful Thing: Inside the Secret World of Bombay’s Dance Bars” and a co-founder of the writers’ cooperative Deca.