Ram Puniyani, the affable and relentless campaigner for communal harmony and peace, who at the age of 73 displays the enthusiasm of a 25-year-old ever ready to go from place to place with his characteristic bag full of literature, had some unusual visitors in his house a few days ago.
What was rather strange was that the trio that visited his house in plain clothes on March 9, introduced themselves from CID but were reluctant to show their identity cards and supposedly had come to make enquiries regarding a non-existent passport application, as neither Professor Puniyani nor anyone else from his family had applied for the same.
The next obvious step should have been for these 'CID officers' to have made an immediate exit, apologising for their mistake and unnecessarily disturbing a senior professor from a prestigious Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), who had taken voluntary retirement to dedicate himself to a cause dear to his heart. Not only did the trio remain seated for long, but they kept firing all kinds of objectionable questions at Puniyani and his family members.
Perhaps the only 'silver lining' in the intimidating episode was that while the trio’s unwarranted enquiries and suspicious looks did cause tremendous mental agony to Puniyani and his family, they did not physically hurt him. Remember, India has yet to recover from one such unwarranted visit to the house of a great Vachana scholar, Porf M N Kalburgi, when visitors claiming to be students came to meet him. Kalburgi, who himself opened the doors for the men, was later killed from point blank range in his own house. Four and half years after this assassination, the killers and their masterminds are yet to be nabbed.
Who Was the Trio That Visited Puniyani?
Were they associates of some Hindutva supremacist group who wanted to terrorise Puniyani for his writing and propaganda work targeting communal and divisive forces -- through his speeches and participation in educational workshops of youth held in different parts of India -- or were they members of some special cell of the police that is employed to execute similar dirty tasks, and can remain untraced even a decade after similar acts.
A look into the murder of young advocate Shahid Azmi, who had single-handedly fought cases of 'terror suspects' and got them released through his legal acumen and was fighting all sorts of threats, bringing much discomfort in the higher echelons of the police, could provide enough hints to such operations.
It is a very positive sign that there is growing national outcry against this ‘visit’ and people from all walks of life have demanded from the Police Commissioner Mumbai that an 'enquiry be ordered and the guilty be brought to book for their act of intimidating a known writer and activist'.
It is an interesting coincidence that this outcry has come at a time when people are still debating 'award wapasi of a different kind' which took place under another saffron-ruled state. Well, this time the award was not returned by the writer protesting the 'ambience of intolerance', which had made national headlines in 2015 and had put the BJP-ruled government at the Centre on the defensive position, but the other way round.
Ravikant, who teaches Hindi in Lucknow University and has edited two bestseller books on 'Nationalism' in Hindi and edits a journal, Adhan, reportedly had this disturbing experience few days ago when an organisation that had declared an award to him, wrote back within a week saying that it was 'taking back the award' to avoid any controversy.
As Ravikant's WhatsApp message said: Rajya karmchari Sahitya Sansthan, an organisation of UP government employees engaged in promoting literature, sent him a letter on February 28, 2019 informing him that he has been selected for this prestigious 'Raman Lal Agrawal Puraskar' ( Rs 11,000) which would be given to him on March 17 in a programme. On March 5, he received another letter informing him that it is taking back the award for his Facebook post which supposedly questioned government policies.
What appeared strange is that the writer's social-political views are no secret. He has consistently targeted exclusivist policies of political parties who claim to be furthering a particular religion and has also questioned the Narendra Modi-Yogi Adityanath governments on various occasions. He has made this public through his books and the magazine that he edits and through his public interventions in seminars/symposia.
Second, the Sansthan acted on the complaint of someone who has nothing to do with literature as such and who basically runs a non-government organisation for Human and Animal Crime Control.
What is notable is that this 'award wapasi' even prompted the ex-chief minister of UP, Akhilesh Yadav, to go on twitter :
"The BJP’s assault on Dalits continues unabated.
Today Prof. Ravi Kant of Lucknow University was stripped of a state sponsored award for having anti-BJP views. This is the true face of their so-called ‘nationalism.’"
Where are we headed? Scholars, social activists getting 'strange visitors' or professors being stripped of awards for holding dissenting views, or teachers forced to kneel and apologise to saffron goons over a FB post which supposedly criticised the people in power for their war games and no case being filed against the miscreants, or universities deciding to exclude books which further enhance critical thought in our society.
All these unconnected looking incidents are part of the same mindset that looks for 'internal enemies' in every dissenting voice. Incidents which seem to provide an inkling of what our country has slowly become – a 'nation of resentful hearts, small minds, constricted souls', a concern shared by Pratap Bhanu Mehta in his India Today conclave.
Will the Lok Sabha elections provide relief from this atmosphere of hate and division, which is also characterised by an attack on critical thought itself?
While no prophesies can be made about the outcome, history bears witness to the fact that in 2004, when the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government was kicked out of power, there was a general perception before the elections that it would be re-elected – thanks to the India Shining Campaign launched by them with due help from a significant section of the party in power. Today, too, what is called the ‘embedded media’ coupled with corporate honchos, is making feverish efforts to demonstrate that the saffron dispensation would be re-elected.
As rightly noted by Prof Amartya Sen, the key thing would be how the citizens themselves strive to '[r]einstate the foundation of human values' that everyone must have and continue this process of 'participation and argumentation' in democracy and remain ever ready to question the government when you consider it is wrong without bothering whether you would be branded anti-national for your views or how we are able to pose a 'successful humanist challenge to this menace', as noted by Greek Leftist scholar Varoufakis in one of this articles in Guardian.
The writer is an independent journalist based in Delhi. The views are personal.