The Bharatiya Janata Party has not even taken charge in Tripura and yet it has already run into its first controversy.
Visuals emerged on Monday evening of people using a bulldozer to bring down a statue of Russian Communist leader Lenin in Belonia, a town about 90 kilometres away from Agartala. Members of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) alleged that the act, with vandals yelling “Bharat Mata ki Jai” was carried out by BJP workers, though the saffron party has denied it. Meanwhile, violence was reported in a number of other places in the state, forcing the imposition of section 144, which bars groups of more than three gathering in public places. Home Minister Rajnath Singh also spoke to Tripura Governor Tathagata Roy and the police and asked them keep a check on violence till a new government was formed in the state.
Tripura Police said they arrested the man who was driving the bulldozer who has since been let out on bail. But the BJP, while denying that the people involved were its workers, have made various noises in an attempt to explain away the vandalism. BJP South District Secretary Raju Nath said that for years there has been resentment against this statue. “Whatever happened in Belonia is the outcome of public fury,” said BJP spokesperson Subrata Chakraborty. BJP Member of Parliament Subramanian Swamy called Lenin “a foreigner, a terrorist of sorts” and said the CPI(M) could well keep the statue in its office. BJP leader Ram Madhav tweeted a picture of the statue being brought down with his party’s Tripura campaign slogan, “Chalo Paltai”, meaning let’s change, only to delete his post later.
Most egregious was the response of Tripura Governor, Tathagata Roy, whose Twitter posts have frequently revealed blatant communal bigotry. As Governor, Roy is responsible for overseeing the maintenance of law and order in the state, particularly at sensitive times such as the transition between two governments. Instead of condemning the violence, Roy seemed to justify it, that too with problematic logic:
Remember, the new BJP-run government in Tripura does not take charge until March 9. Moreover the BJP has clearly disavowed the move, saying it was the public that was involved, not BJP workers. So what democratically elected government could Roy be talking about?
Indeed, by choosing to condone the vandalism, Roy is simply encouraging more violence and seeking to somehow explain it away by referring to public anger. That the person responsible for law and order in the state could espouse what amounts to a fascist stand, forcing the Union Home Ministry to step in, is grounds at the very least to ask if he remains qualified for the post at all – though his past Twitter commentary should make it amply clear that the Centre is not bothered about his suitability.
Conversation from the BJP and its supporters online has gone on to ask questions about Lenin and why his statue should be standing in India at all, but this is an obvious diversion: Nobody is contesting the right of the new government to make decisions in a democratic, legal manner, even if the Left will feel miffed. The question here is whether Roy and the BJP are doing enough to prevent mob violence and vandalism, or simply paying lip service to the idea of law and order while condoning the actions of the violent crowds anywhere. So far, at least, it seems like the latter holds true.
Will of the mob
This majoritarian and frankly, fascist viewpoint is dangerous, especially if it spreads further, as it seems to have in many other parts of the country. In the past, Left governments that the BJP claims to oppose have espoused similar views. Over the last few years, attacks on Muslims transporting cattle have for some time been defended as justifiable acts of violence against those “offending Hindu sentiments”. In Tamil Nadu, the BJP has already said that statues of Erode Venkata Ramaswamy – a massively popular Tamil thinker known as Periyar who is considered the founder of the Dravidian movement, and a man hated by Hindutva supporters – will be next.
The danger of letting such statements go without condemnation and, worse, giving them oxygen and support, is that it encourages an atmosphere of majoritarianism elsewhere. Consider the comments of Art of Living founder Ravi Shankar, known to his supporters as Sri Sri, in an interview to India Today this week.
Shankar has, for some time now, been trying to be a peace broker in the Babri Masjid case, involving the mob demolition of a mosque by Hindutva supporters who believe it stood over the birthplace of Ram. Whether this is connected to his desire for a Nobel prize, Shankar has portrayed his approach to the dispute as the most reasonable. But in order to make the argument, in his interview he told the news channel that whatever decision is taken by the Supreme Court, which is hearing the land dispute at the moment, could lead to a Syria-like civil war.
“If court rules against a temple, there will be bloodshed. Do you think the Hindu majority will allow it?” he said. The BJP has generally tended to dismiss Shankar’s comments, though the spiritual leader claims to have the support of Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath, known as Yogi to his supporters.
Democratic not majoritarian
Nevertheless, it is not just Shankar’s effort that is misguided, his argument also needs to be dismissed: The question is not whether the “Hindu majority” will allow it, but whether the government, those responsible for maintaining law and order, will follow the decision of the top court of the land. Shankar is almost presuming that no one will listen to the Supreme Court and so the stakeholders in what is, at the end of the day, a legal dispute, should commit themselves to an out-of-court settlement before things get out of hand. He may not mean it as a threat, but that is what Shankar’s comments sound like.
Of course, there have been many occasions in the past when mobs have been able to commit unspeakable crimes, from the 1984 anti-Sikh riots to Babri Masjid to the Gujarat riots in 2002. But these have almost always been accompanied by explicit or tacit support from governments or major political parties. Where governments have been firm about shutting down violence, something that Prime Minister Narendra Modi claims he accomplished in Gujarat after 2002, its impact has been minimised.
This is the danger the BJP is flirting with by allowing majoritarian sentiments to be aired as if they are the norm. It may work in the party’s favour at the moment, but the mainstreaming of such ideas – that mobs can decided what to do with public monuments or even be used to influence the way a legal dispute is decided – is a threat to the very democratic fabric of the nation.