Amit Varma is a writer based in Mumbai. He worked in journalism for over a decade, and won the Bastiat Prize for Journalism in 2007. His bestselling novel, My Friend Sancho, was published in 2009. He is best known for his blog, India Uncut. His current project is a non-fiction book about the lack of personal and economic freedoms in post-Independence India.
This is the text of a speech given by Shri Adolf Shah at the Baroda University on 17 May 2022.
I welcome you to Baroda University for this special ceremony. This day marks the eighth anniversary of Shri Neeraj Jain’s appointment as vice-chancellor of this university by our honourable Prime Minister, Shri Narendra Modi. We have seen some glorious days under him, and have grown almost analogously with our Hindu Rashtra, as India has officially been for the last decade. Indeed, these two stories are interlinked, and if you permit me, I shall take you through some of our most glorious moments. The monitor on top of the stage will instruct you when to clap; please do so.
Shri Jain first came to our notice when he protested against some paintings at the now long-defunct fine arts faculty around 15 years ago. Shri Jain said the paintings offended his religious sensibilities, and his valiant thugs manhandled the painter, who was sent to jail. Many people protested, including the dean of the faculty, who, in contrast with protesters of later years, was lucky to get away with just a suspension. It was an important moment for us, for reasons other than just the emergence of Mr Jain.
You see, what is Hindutva all about? Please do not think it is about Hinduism, though that was our official line until recently. Hinduism has a rich culture with a tolerance for diversity, and is thus of no use to us. No, Hindutva arose not from our cultural heritage or rubbish like that, but from our need to cement our place in the world. Our critics would say that we were insecure. I would say that we merely wanted respect from the world for what we were.
Look at the history of the world and see how other religions have asserted themselves. Non-Christians slept in fear during the crusades. Women and moderate people were equally uneasy in Afghanistan during the Taliban’s rule there. Osama bin Laden used Islam to terrorize people, George Bush invoked a Christian god for his War against Terror, but what were we Hindus doing? How were we to show that we could be equally oppressive and macho?
Great nations are built not by freedom but by fear (it is an aberration that Hitler’s Germany collapsed and the US is so strong today, and I shall explain why some other day.) To show how strong we are, we had to first subdue our own people. Free expression was a threat to us, and it had to go. And in this, ironically, we were helped by our one-time colonizers, the British.
The Indian Penal Code (IPC), framed by the British in the 19th century and amended constantly through the years to curb freedom, is a masterful document of oppression. We could stifle free speech and dissent in entirely lawful ways, for the IPC actually enables and justifies our thuggery. For example, consider Article 295 (a), which makes it illegal to “outrage religious feelings”. What a wonderful law for us! All we needed to do was claim to speak on behalf of Hinduism and get offended by whatever we felt like. Then boom, put the person in jail, all most lawfully.
Such laws made sure that we were not the only fascists around. There was a climate of intolerance enabled by the IPC, and people were already used to violation of free speech. They would hear about censorship and the banning of books and shrug and say, “What goes of my father?” Thus, no one protested when some Sikh gentlemen used 295 (a) to get the publisher of a Santa and Banta Joke Book jailed. And it seemed natural when Christian groups protested against the Da Vinci Code, and when Muslim groups railed against cartoons in Denmark. All that suited us perfectly. Once oppression became commonplace and accepted as routine, who stood to benefit the most? We did!
And so, one by one, we shut them up. Yes, they protested, but their protests were ad hoc. When the government—not ours, I’m afraid—blocked the most popular blog-hosting sites, bloggers protested. When Shri Jain rose up in Vadodara, artists protested. But mostly they protested only when they were directly affected, and did not come together for the larger cause of individual freedom. Even with regular protesters, there was that delightful phenomenon we now call “protest fatigue”. How much can you protest, especially when it seems futile? Eventually, they gave up, defeated not by concentration camps, but by apathy.
And look at the result! In India, we have a Hindu Rashtra which, of course, is really a Hindutva Rashtra, and in Vadodara we have no artists anymore. This must be celebrated, and the efforts of people such as Shri Neeraj Jain must be acclaimed. And yet, the way we planned it, and the way the odds were stacked in our favour, I ask you one question: Could it have been any different?
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