Wednesday, September 23, 2015

MEENA KARNIK - The Government’s Failure to Control Elements Like Sanatan Sanstha Astonishes Me // Smruti Koppikar - With death threats to journalist Nikhil Wagle, India is closer to becoming a republic of intolerance

NB - Let us all salute and express our solidarity with Nikhil Wagle and Meena Karnik. Freedom loving people the world over should take note of what is happening in India, the worlds largest democracy. Three prominent and elderly thinkers have already been murdered. One of them was told he would meet Gandhi's fate. Members of this so-called 'parivar' or ideological family have iconised Gandhi's assassin and proposed to build temples in his honour. See: The emperor's masks: 'apolitical' RSS calls the shots in Modi sarkar. We are being ruled by persons who swore to uphold the Indian Constitution and rule of law, but has instead shamelessly permitted hooligans to abuse and threaten all critics in open public fora, including TV, the Net and in daily life, via phone-calls and the mail. The climate of violence, hatred and intimidation in contemporary India makes clear that the culprits have no fear of the law, which is being openly subverted. This is an assault on the fundamental rights of Indian citizens for the purpose of overthrowing democracy - DS

Telephone calls, Whatsapp messages, texts, all asking us to take care began flooding in. TV crews and their cameras made my small home look even smaller. On Monday, all of them wanted to interview my husband Nikhil about the threats made by the Sanatan Sanstha, a right wing Hindutva organisation. There is a threat to Nikhil’s life and he has refused to take police protection. For me, it is a feeling of déjà vu.

All this — the threats, the media coverage, the messages of support —  took me back to 1991, when the Shiv Sena first attacked our office, Mahanagar, an evening newspaper in Marathi that Nikhil and a few of us had started and which had become an instant hit with the readers. Nikhil wasn’t new to violence of this sort, having already experienced a personal assault, again by Shiv Sena activists when he edited a Marathi weekly called Dinank. Before that he had been attacked by Right Wingers while in college.

All that was long before I married him. Till Mahanagar, we were, at least I was, quite content with the sports and film oriented magazine that we published. But Nikhil always wanted a newspaper of his own to say and write the things he believed in. The result was Mahanagar, which immediately became popular but also made enemies.

For me, therefore, the first attack was a shock. Yes, I was frightened. My son was six months old and the ringing of the landline after well past midnight made me paranoid. The threats of kidnapping my son, the abusive language and the barrage of obscene remarks were something that I wasn’t prepared for. Those were the most horrible days (and nights) of my life. I remember we had had a meeting of like-minded friends at the Vanmali hall in Dadar where some goons entered with tube lights in their hands and tried to disrupt the proceedings. When we came downstairs, the windshield of our car was shattered and our driver was completely shaken.

The Shiv Sena had asked for a boycott on Mahanagar and the vendors were scared to sell the paper. All of us, including the journalists and proofreaders and those from advertising and circulation department took it upon ourselves to go around hawking the paper. Nobody was afraid of the might of the Sena. They were shouting slogans; some of the younger reporters went straight to the Sena’s headquarters in Central Mumbai shouting and asking the public to buy the paper. And the readers did. From these young, enthusiastic young journalists, I drew my courage. But that was when we were all together; at home I often felt helpless.

Eminent journalists like Prabhash Joshi, Nikhil Chakravarty and N. Ram came to Mumbai and litterateurs like Vijay Tendulkar, Y. D. Phadke and Ratnakar Matkari showed their solidarity. There were phone calls and letters that poured in to show support asking us to take care and reporters from English newspapers and magazines came home for an interview. (Another similarity between this time round and the last incident 24 years ago, if I may say so, is that very, very few from Marathi media took the matter seriously or were openly supporting us. I fail to understand the reason).

Today it is no different. Almost 25 years have passed since that first attack and things have not really changed. And today the need to talk about fundamentalism is more than it ever was. The Sanatan Sanstha – in their mouthpiece Sanatan Prabhat — called Nikhil an anti-Hindu journalist. One has to be profoundly ill informed to call Nikhil anti-Hindu. He has been against all kind of fundamentalism, be it of the Hindu kind or the Muslim variety; he will criticize the Santana Sanstha as much as he will criticize the Raza Academy.

What astonishes me is the failure of the government to control these elements. In an interview to Mumbai Mirror, the Managing Trustee of Sanatan Sanstha, Virendra Marathe openly said they give arms training. Why does a spiritual organization need to do hat? The viciousness of the Sanatan Sanstha can be easily summed up when it calls RSS a moderate organisation. And as a journalist, if one does not talk against them, then who and what do we talk about? The proliferation of such elements goes against the idea of our Constitution. A response to a book is a book not a bullet. But organisations like these are beyond comprehending this simple thought.

When I see Mukta Dabholkar I often wonder what the killers of Narendra Dabholkar must be thinking. Do they ever look at their children and try to put Mukta in their place? Is the animal within them so powerful that they forget the very religion that they claim to follow? How can anybody justify murder? Naïve questions may be because if was so simple, at least the abuses on twitter would stop.

How has all this impacted me? As a journalist and a strong believer in freedom of expression I was of course firmly with Nikhil. But I was not as fearless as he was and still is. One day while talking about the threats of kidnapping our son, I casually asked him what his reaction would be if something like that really happened and he said, “It would be the price we would have to pay for my kind of journalism!” I hated him for this reply.

But then I came to terms with his kind of journalism. It is fair, gives space to all ideologies but is based firmly in a strong belief in the Indian Constitution. Being neutral doesn’t mean you sit on the fence; hence there never was any ambiguity in his stand. He has always been a firm believer in non- violence and free speech. I remember his argument with some Dalit organizations when they came to our office protesting against Arun Shourie, whose weekly column appeared in Mahanagar and who had written a series of articles against Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar. He defended Shourie’s right to write what he feels is right. Whether as an editor he agreed with it or not was beside the point.

It took me a little while to get used to living with the journalist Nikhil Wagle. We have had our share of arguments and fights. And I realized that not just journalism, but the values that he believes in the way he lives; it’s a way of life. He never ever preached anything that he did not practice, in his professional and personal life. Also, I understood that while we might disagree on certain issues, our basic principles are same and if I have to be true to myself, I need to support this man. This also meant that I will have to accept these threats and attacks as a part of our life. I would have to get used to police officers coming home to offer security and Nikhil asking them to go back. I would have to act normal while pacifying his worried mother.

I still haven’t got used to these abuses and threats. It still disturbs me, though I try to not show it. It still makes me look back every time we go for a walk. It still makes me insecure when he refuses police protection. I still try to argue with him for being so aggressive. But I will never ever try to stop him from what he is doing. Come what may!

Smruti Koppikar - India is closer to becoming a republic of intolerance
Killing an adversary has become so matter-of-fact that random people discuss this possibility gleefully on social media.

Nikhil Wagle, seasoned journalist and editor, knows a thing or two about countering abuse and death threats. Unfazed by the latest threat to his life allegedly from the radical Hindu organisation Sanatan Sanstha, he plans to live and work as aggressively and “without fear or favour”, as he always has. But the threat to him and Shyamsundar Sonar, a journalist and preacher, is a telling comment on at least two aspects of contemporary India – that death threats are effortlessly issued to those who challenge the dominant ideology, and that organisations and individuals dismissed as fringe elements of the right-wing are capable of violence that few had imagined. Has the fiercely argumentative India turned into the intolerant India?

For at least four years now, Wagle has lived and worked under threats from the Sanstha, which he said has been on his trail since he, as editor of the Marathi channel IBN-Lokmat, anchored a programme on rationalism and the need for an anti-superstition law. The Sanstha representative had walked out of the discussion.

The next thing Wagle knew, his mobile number was being circulated widely, he was receiving abusive calls, threatened with death, and the organisation’s publication, Sanatan Prabhat, had published articles denouncing him. His photograph was put up with a cross over it, just as the organisation had done with photographs of rationalist Dr Narendra Dabholkar and rationalist-Leftist Govind Pansare. Both were murdered at point-blank range by gunmen, Dabholkar in August 2013 and Pansare in February, who then fled away on motorcycles.

Alarm bells: So, when Sameer Gaikwad, an activist of the Sanstha, was arrested last weekend in connection with Pansare’s murder and his call data records revealed that there were frequent references to “Wagle being next”, the alarm bells went off. The investigation has widened to include at least one more activist of the Sanstha, who may also be linked to the murder of scholar Dr MM Kalburgi in Dharwad last month. The Sanstha has denied any involvement in the grisly turn of affairs and claimed that Gaikwad has been framed. Predictably, the effort is to project him and possible others as lone rangers acting on hurt sentiment, ignoring the thrust and threats of the organisation itself.

Wagle has refused police protection. This is no different from the manner in which Wagle reacted in 1990s when enraged Shiv Sainiks, sometimes on instructions from their leader Bal Thackeray and at other times acting of their own accord, frequently assaulted him, beat up his staff with sticks and crow bars, ransacked and vandalised his office, as payback for the articles in the popular Marathi eveninger, Mahanagar, which he edited. He had firmly stood his ground.

In the mid-1900s. journalists and editors who dared to question the Shiv Sena were routinely attacked, journalists who stood up against the strong-arm silencing tactics were also targeted, even notable historian-editor Dr Aroon Tikekar was threatened with “certain death” for a hard-hitting editorial in the Marathi daily, Loksatta. Since then editors, writers, researchers and scholars have often been threatened by one or another fringe outfit in Maharashtra. “Nothing has changed,” Wagle said. “We are all still battling similar forces who want to silence all reason and opposition.”

Vicious atmosphere: But times have changed. The culture of verbal and physical violence as counter-argument has deepened and turned more vicious than anyone could have imagined. And killing an adversary – now looked upon as the enemy, no less – has become so matter-of-fact that random people discuss this possibility gleefully on the social media. Paid trolls denounce, disparage and threaten those who dare to voice an opinion different from the dominant majoritarian one.

A contrarian Twitter or Facebook post brings torrents of abuse, rape threats to women and death threats to men. The bile in the virtual world is matched by the situation in the real world. Such threats are rarely criticised by influential political or social leaders. Each word of abuse, every threat, is dismissed as the ranting of a person or organisation on the fringe but it takes us closer to becoming a republic of intolerance.

Here, it is the Sanatan Sanstha allegedly threatening to murder its critics and questioners; elsewhere, a scholar like Kalburgi is shot dead, a Muslim scholar is stopped from writing columns on the Ramayana, Nobel winner Dr Amartya Sen is vilified, Dalits and Muslims are denied their beef, the Vice President of India is mocked and taunted for his religion, a Bharat Ratna is demanded for Vinayak Damodar Savarkar and so on. The Sri Ram Sene in Karnataka “prevailed upon” two Kannada writers to withdraw their names from a letter that suggested its involvement in Kalburgi’s murder. The intolerance for other points of view is now turning endemic.

In this republic of intolerance, murdering those with differing opinions or agendas, seems completely acceptable, as demonstrated by the innumerable delighted reactions on Twitter to the threat to Wagle. Organisations such as the Sanatan Sanstha draw admiration, not condemnation.

A history of violence: Wagle’s style of journalism and questioning is perhaps aggressive and riles up some in his audience, as some editors inimical to him have pointed out in the past. But what explains the similar threat to the genteel, popular warkari preacher and columnist Shyamsundar Sonar? He too was issued death threats by the Sanstha earlier this month for spreading "unscientific interpretations" of the bhakti saint Sant Tukaram’s writings.

The Shiv Sena’s attacks on journalists in Bombay, then still Bombay, in the 1990s were thought to be so despicable, the idea that journalists who disagreed with the party could be beaten with crowbars so atypical of the dominant culture, that it had brought more than a dozen stalwarts of Indian journalism and scores of journalists from across the country together for the first and only open dharna against Bal Thackeray opposite the Sena Bhavan, right in the tiger’s lair, as it were. Can we even imagine a comparable act of defiance against the Sanatan Sanstha now?

The Sanstha’s hostility is a continuation of the idea that the only way to deal with adversaries is to beat them into silence – or silence them forever. Registered as a charity organisation with its own cult following, the Sanstha has consistently portrayed rationalists and anti-superstition campaigners as “anti-Hindu”.

The organisation’s publications and books assert that “its mission is the reinstatement of the Divine Kingdom through social upliftment, national security, and awakening of Dharma…which includes creation of awareness about the ‘unscientific’ campaigns of the Andhashraddha Nirmulan Samiti” that was co-founded and led by Dabholkar, and supported by Pansare among others. The Sanstha considered Dabholkar and Pansare as “unrighteous individuals who ridicule Dharma, deities", clearly identifying them as enemies of the faith. Wagle was the lead speaker at a well-attended programme in Pune last month to mark Dr Dabholkar’s third death anniversary.

Moving to the mainstream: For years, as it spewed such diatribes, the Sanstha was considered a fringe element. But its capacity for violence was demonstrated even before its activists set out to allegedly commit murder. In June 2008, its activists set off three low-grade bombs in Thane in suburban Mumbai – two in the parking lot of theatres that screened the film Jodha Akbar and one that staged a Marathi play. The following year, in October, two of its members were killed when an improvised bomb went off on the scooter on which they were transporting it near Margao, Goa. Eight activists of the Sanstha were charged in this case. However, three went absconding and the other five were let off for lack of evidence.

The incidents prompted the Maharashtra government to seek a ban on the Sanstha in 2011 but the central government did not entertain the case. Since then, the organisation has moved on from religious propaganda, threats and crude bombs to alleged assassinations, and threatens to carry out more of them. If there is any wonder that the snare is closing in on the Sanstha under a Bharatiya Janata Party government, it should be remembered that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh spokespersons have been at pains to differentiate the Sanstha from their own cultural organisation. The threat to Wagle and Sonar are personal but they actually represent a broader, creeping culture of intolerance.
See also
Mindless glorification of Hitler in Gujarat's textbooks <In Modi's Gujarat, Hitler is a textbook hero> 'While a Class VIII student is taught 'negative aspects' of Gandhi's non-cooperation movement, the Class X social studies textbook has chapters on 'Hitler, the Supremo' and 'Internal Achievements of Nazism'. The Class X book presents a frighteningly uncritical picture of Fascism and Nazism. The strong national pride that both these phenomena generated... are detailed, but pogroms against Jews and atrocities against trade unionists, migrant labourers, and any section of people who did not fit into Mussolini or Hitler's definition of rightful citizen don't find any mention.."  
Infochange Agenda 'Speaking Freely'
Purushottam Agrawal’s letter to the Hindi Akademi of Delhi on artistic freedom