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‘An iron curtain on the freedom of thought’

“At a recent conference, Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj did not mention Nehru when talking of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM).” Picture shows NAM founders Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, Nehru and Josip Tito of Yugoslavia.  

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The idea of India is at stake. These are the most dangerous times since Independence

Hers is a lonely voice. Yet, it crackles as she takes on the Narendra Modi government,. The irrepressible Nayantara Sahgal has just edited and introduced a collection of essays, Nehru’s India: Essays on the Maker of a Nation , which will be released in New Delhi this Wednesday. In this free-wheeling chat, she alerts her countrymen to the “dangers” ahead.

“The idea of India is at stake. These are the most dangerous times since Independence. I repeat it and please do not censor my words. I am not speaking of terrorism. The state has brought an iron curtain down on the freedom of thought. The freedom of thought and not just of expression or action is in danger. The scope for dissent, debate, and dialogue is usurped by fascist elements. They want to regiment thinking. We have fascists who draw their energy, their ideals from Hitler’s Germany. They do not want serious academics with impeccable credentials. It was the same in Germany, which produced profound thinkers during Hitler’s time, yet they were reduced to a mere rabble. They are filling all historical and scientific bodies with Hindutva thinkers. The government is trying to wipe off all other schools of thought,” says Ms. Sahgal.

Twist to history

Ms. Sahgal, a niece of Jawaharlal Nehru, not known for mincing her words even when it comes to matters concerning the Gandhi family, says the state is systemically pursuing a policy of regimented thinking by putting in place academics and scientists who are like Sangh pracharaks in their mindset. “The government is revising school curricula, giving a new twist to history. It is placing obedient servants of the RSS in positions of authority. Frankly, what is their idea of history? None. It probably begins with Golwalkar [MS]. We are facing the gravest danger in our academic circles.”

Ms. Sahgal’s affection for her mamu, Nehru, is well known; as are her views on his daughter, Indira Gandhi. And she laments that the Modi government is trying to get rid of the idea of Nehru, and systematically moving away from his ideals of socialism and secularism.

“The Modi government is pathologically afraid of Nehru. They are trying to erase all trace[s] of him. At a recent conference, Sushma Swaraj did not mention him when talking of the Non-Aligned Movement. This, when he was a founder-member of NAM. They do not know how to deal with Nehru and his unrivalled contribution to the nation.”

Yet, Ms. Sahgal thinks it is not just the government that is guilty of tampering with history or forgetting Nehru. “The Congress too is caught napping. Now, finally, with the Bihar elections approaching, the Opposition parties are building bridges. The Bihar experiment is the first step. They realise [which is the] the bigger evil at this point of time. They are awake to the reality that we are at the mercy of an ignorant, obscurantist government, run by the RSS and elements of the Hindu Mahasabha. There is no doubting that the state is trying to wipe out a centuries-old civilisation with all its pluralist ethos and different strands of culture, etc.”

The much-feted novelist, whose latest book includes essays by Mani Shankar Aiyar, Gopalkrishna Gandhi, Mridula and Aditya Mukherjee, Shiv Visvanathan, and Kiran Nagarka, says the contributors have analysed Nehru in a dispassionate way, yet tried to understand his importance in today’s climate. “The book is timed with the 125th anniversary of Nehru’s birth. This collection is like a commemoration. We have included a range of opinions on him. We chose some people on the basis of their unique knowledge of Nehru, others for their feel and judgement of Nehru. People have talked of his concepts, his ideology and tried to analyse his contribution.” She, however, candidly admits there is no contributor from the right-wing. “We will have one on stage at the launch,” she says, referring to Swapan Dasgupta.

Criticism banned

Happy to take in informed criticism on the book, she expresses anguish at functioning of the Indian state, which is wary of criticism. Any criticism against the government, she points out, is taken as criticism of the nation as a whole. “Criticism of Modi is taken as criticism of India. Questioning the government is seen as anti-national. Mr. Modi and his mantris maintain a thundering silence when it comes to awkward questions. They are used to sycophancy and some 75 per cent [of the] media has slipped into the hands of corporate houses whose decisions are dictated by other external issues. It is a dangerous situation, one where you and me and all free-thinking individuals have to raise our voices. We have to combat this ideology that has taken hold of the nation. We cannot remain silent today. Else posterity will ask us questions.”

This “dangerous situation”, she says, has meant that while one man is hanged for the Bombay blasts, those responsible for the riots preceding them are walking scot-free. “A Kodnani has been walking free for about a year now. Why just talk of Bombay blasts or Gujarat violence; let’s go back in time to the Bombay riots, to Babri Masjid, to the rath yatra of Advani. Thousands died yet there is no talk of it today. Such is the predicament of our times that today Mr. Advani looks like a moderate.”

She hopes, however, that all is not lost. “We have an old civilisation. People took remedial measures after the Emergency to get rid of dictatorship. But it is a different situation today. The challenge is for the electorate to realise the gravity of the moment. When Modi won, he had the support of millions of first-time voters. Modi led a Bollywood-style election campaign, hi-tech, lavishly funded. The first-time voters were seduced by such rallies. That was then. Now, the reality is different.”

ziya.salam@thehindu.co.in

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Printable version | Oct 20, 2017 5:02:43 PM | http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/an-iron-curtain-on-the-freedom-of-thought/article7496187.ece