The themes that will occupy our national discourse as we approach elections to the Lok Sabha in 2024 make for a disturbing trend. The play-out is already being choreographed.
The first is the clamour for a Uniform Civil Code. This is gaining momentum in most of the BJP-ruled states. The chief minister of Uttarakhand has already pledged to introduce it in the state assembly. It was also in the election manifesto of the BJP in the recently concluded Himachal Pradesh assembly election. Now, it is again an electoral promise in the run-up to the Gujarat assembly election. Any discourse on this topic has both an emotive and divisive element. This gives it a communal colour, which in turn has political consequences as we get closer to 2024.
The second is the expression of outrage when a boy from a particular minority community is in a relationship with or marries a Hindu girl. Himanta Biswa Sarma, chief minister of Assam, while recently campaigning in Gujarat, stated that the heinous manner in which Shraddha Walkar was killed is an example of ‘Love Jihad’ and, if Modi is not re-elected in 2024, perpetrators of ‘Love Jihad’ would rise in every city of the country.
This statement is an indication of how a particular community is sought to be targeted for garnering the Hindu vote by using a horrific incident of murder and associating it with the mindset of a particular community. To my mind, this reflects the poison that is sought to be spread in the body politic of our country, only to deepen the schism that already seems to have established deep roots in a society that is essentially inclusive. The media, in turn, seeks to increase its TRPs by giving such conversations free play, allowing for prejudice to dominate national conversations.
A recent statement by our home minister while campaigning in Gujarat is a precursor to things that are to come. Referring to the tragedy at Godhra, he proclaimed that the rioters had been taught a lesson, that communal riots took place because the Congress let it become a habit, that such a lesson was taught in 2002 and there have been no communal riots in Gujarat since then. In a way, the home minister endorsed the violence that took place. Those targeted included women, children and others who had no hand in the alleged tragedy that befell the Sabarmati Express at Godhra station. Spouting venom against a minority community comprising about 200 million may well consolidate the Hindu vote but its impact on our democratic polity may ultimately be a matter of regret.
The third thematic trend is to silence all forms of dissent. Academics who oppose atrocities committed against Dalits are referred to as urban naxals. Any fact-finding exercise to get at the truth about alleged acts of violence by the mighty State is seen as an anti-national exercise. The version of the State must be believed. Those who attempt to question it are seen to be enemies of the State. Such persons are prosecuted under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967. Stringent provisions of UAPA make it difficult for such individuals to be enlarged on bail. The result is that others will be reluctant to question executive excesses and the writ of the State will run unchecked. The courts too are wary in giving relief to those prosecuted under such laws.
The fourth thematic trend seems to be playing out in courts. A public interest lawyer, known to be proximate to the ideology espoused by the BJP, seeks to raise divisive issues in court and has the unstinted support of the government. This often results in judicial orders allowing for the beginning of yet another conversation which helps the ideological cause of the ruling establishment.
One recent example of this is the sudden obsession of the current dispensation with ‘freebies’, resulting in the Election Commission entering the fray. The Commission, which in an affidavit swore that it was not the appropriate authority to deal with issues of ‘freebies’, ironically in a somersault took upon itself the responsibility of taking action in the matter. At the same time, the Supreme Court decided to judicially examine the issue. The reason perhaps behind this sudden obsession is that a particular party seems to have gained political mileage by making promises, which others alleged are hurting the economy and making the power sector unsustainable. While the economic argument may well be partially valid, one cannot miss the political intent behind it.
Added to the above are fringe elements who speak of the imminent threat to the dominance of the majority community unless the increase in population of a particular minority is arrested. This, coupled with hate speeches at various public forums and the so-called frequent Dharam Sansads, allows for communal vitriol to take root. The uninformed are likely to buy into this.
The insouciance with which the State machinery deals with such hate speeches only leads one to believe either of two things: that the state police itself believes in such a divisive dialogue or that their silence represents state complicity. The fact that prominent functionaries of the establishment get away with hate speeches indicates that raising the communal pitch is acceptable and may well be part of a broad national strategy of a particular political party.
Without doubt, India has changed. It is no longer the inclusive India we were born in. The dialogues of today are worrisome. If we do not stand up to this trend, our tomorrow will be in danger. Today, it is they who are targeted. Tomorrow, it may be us.
Senior lawyer and member of Rajya Sabha