NEW DELHI — On October 27 the Indian news site Scroll published a letter signed by over 300 artists that expresses support for the more than 40 writers who have returned their state awards over the past month as a form of protest against the increasingly intolerant environment in India for minorities and cultural producers. The petition, signed by artists including Anish Kapoor, Amar Kanwar, Bharti Kher, Gauri Gill, Nalini Malani, and Vivan Sundaram, is one among a growing number of gestures expressing deep concern over how the current government is empowering right-wing groups that exhibit fascist tendencies, leading to lynchings and murders. Prominent filmmakers have also returned awards in recent weeks and powerful corporate voices such as Infosys founder Narayana Murty and entrepreneur Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, as well as Reserve Bank of India Governor Raghuram Rajan, have all expressed deep concern.
The public outcry, which has become more visible in the past months, was sparked by the murders of two prominent free thinkers and rationalists in India that have occurred since Narendra Modi became Prime Minister in May 2014 and his party, the Bharatiya Janata Party — whose core ideology is rooted in Hindu Nationalism — came into power. In August, M. M. Kalburgi, a scholar and academic from Karnataka, was shot dead at his residence in Dharwad district. And Govind Pansare, a Marxist politician, author, activist, and member of the Communist Party of India, died from an attack in February 2015. Before Modi’s rise to power, Narendra Dabholkar, a free-thinker who set up an anti-superstition organization in 1989, was shot down in August 2013 while on a morning walk.
The extent of the histories, politics, and current narratives of repression and religious and communal violence that the artists’ petition refers to cannot be covered in the scope of this article. What is most pertinent and urgent is that the scale of the persecution is becoming severe, for both well-known figures and the layman. (In September a Muslim man was lynched and murdered by a right-wing Hindu mob because they suspected him of having beef in his house, which was later found to be false — 24 out of 29 states in India prohibit slaughtering cows.) For the first time, many of the voices expressing concern about the situation in India are getting louder. More importantly, the language used to describe the anger, alarm, and need for accountability and action — especially from a very silent PM — is straightforward and more palpable than before.
Apprehension at the kind of future India is heading toward was first expressed in particular by communities of writers, artists, and thinkers both within and outside the country the moment Modi was elected last year. The nation was willing to forget the atrocities of 2002, when thousands of Muslims were attacked, murdered, and raped in riots that many independent observers have called genocide and “state terrorism.” By 2013, the word on the street was that what had happened in 2002, when Modi was the chief minister of Gujarat, was deliberately wiped from the nation’s collective memory because of his administrative prowess, which resulted in economic growth for the state. What he could therefore bring to the table as PM, and what indeed his campaign and policies are rooted in, is this idea of a shining, growing, and powerful India.
The artists’ statement articulates a refusal to forget what has happened in the past within the community, including the self-exile of MF Husain, who died abroad after being driven out of the country by the Shiv Sena, and the recent declaration by author Perumal Murugan of his death as a writer after being threatened in a similar manner. What the letter also highlights is that the government and Modi’s ideology facilitates religious extremism and emboldens fringe elements to act on their extremist stances.
Co-opting culture has always been a core tactic used by fascist groups to obliterate, erase, and re-write histories, construct a ‘particular’ and ‘singular’ present, and use that to imagine a future. Doing so requires conformity to one system of thought, belief, and practice, as the artists note in their letter. The nominating of grossly unqualified people to positions of authority and power in cultural institutions, including the Film and Television Institute of India, has already begun. India still functions with a dominant patriarchy that reaffirms hegemonic systems, be they based on gender roles, minorities, caste, or religion. The ideologies of the present government seem to fan those flames while talking of a bigger and brighter India. Modi and his party are both directly and indirectly enabling a bigoted environment in which the country’s citizens feel threatened. If India is to be a true democracy, this must be questioned and those in the wrong held accountable.