The Awards Controversy & A Way Out

There are no whole truths: all truths are half-truths. It is trying to treat them as whole truths that plays to the devil.

– Alfred North Whitehead

We, in India, love the feeling of having had our say. In that, we are not special or different. What is special and different is our ability to say the same thing over and over again. With every round of repetition, we think less and less about the whole thing. Our mind is made up. We are right. What else is there to think of?

There are people who believe that those who return awards against the perceived rising intolerance in India are creating an issue where none exists. And there are people who believe that those who return awards have highlighted an issue of grave concern. Both sides of course believe that they are right and the other side is wrong!

Do we see both sides actually talking with each other? Of course, not. They talk past each other. Each side selects facts most convenient to it and interprets the facts in a special way to make them reach its own exclusive conclusion. The gist is, “See, We are right. They are wrong.”

If they talk with each other, would that resolve the argument, one way or the other? A good counter-question is, are they interested in doing that? There is little sign of that. Both sides are interested in proving they are right. After all, both believe they have a winning case on their hands. They are standing up for what they believe in. That feels worthwhile.

Can we side-step the arguments of both sides and go beyond their positions to appeal to their interest? One question can help us do that, a question posed to both sides. This is the question: Do you want to safeguard India’s communal harmony at all costs? This question needs an unconditional answer. Either a Yes or a No. If both sides truly consider this question, “Do you want to safeguard India’s communal harmony at all costs?”, then, they will have to think. The beauty of this question is that it goes straight to the heart of the matter. It cuts no corners. Ask this question to any person who can be made accountable for the answer, and you will know what I mean.

There are people who believe that those who return awards and warn against rising intolerance are out to safeguard communal harmony. It is a fact that the ruling establishment for most of the years in India has been the Congress. Did the government of the day go only by artistic merit in choosing who to honour with an award? Do you trust any government of any era in any country to be so objective about a decidedly subjective field as arts or literature? Of course, not. Those at the top in a long-standing Congress-dominated political order had a decisive say about awards and honours.

Speaking of awards, we do not have many instances of awards being returned en-masse during that long period. Can we say there were no justifiable causes for such an action? Of course, not.  And yet, it did not happen. Why it did not is a very good question.

Without singling out any individual, I would like to put into perspective the role of artists and intellectuals in our society. Yes, artists and intellectuals are worthy of the highest respect because they follow the dictates of their art and intellect in going against the grain. An artist or an intellectual believes in the power of one to stand alone against the majority. Their power, in the final analysis, stems from the integrity of their mind. They can sacrifice a lot in service of their cause. Their integrity demands such a sacrifice.

Does this make an artist or an intellectual a cut above the rest of the society? I do not think so. Does this mean they are superior to the wage-earning citizens who pay their taxes and cast their votes? I believe they are not. Why should they, when the soldiers who lay down their lives for the country as a part of their job never get so much as a say in how the country is being governed.

The artist and the intellectual has the privilege of commanding attention and influencing sentiment. Those who return awards are using that privilege. Beyond that, they should ideally not have any privilege. Whatever they do next, has to be as a normal citizen.

Why, then, is the government slamming them? Because the government knows they wield a disproportionate influence in society. They influence public opinion and popular sentiment. Even those who bait them as citizens have chosen to not ignore them. Surely, if they are so worthless, why bother about what they do? But there is a concerted attempt by the opposing side to show how these people are not worthy of their awards, their public standing, and the attention they get.  Let us cross over to this side which believes that those who return awards against the so-called rising intolerance in India are creating an issue where none exists.

If we ask this side about communal harmony, to their credit, they can be very realistic. They might say that things are as bad or normal when it comes to communal harmony as they have been all these years. In other words, a change of government has not made anything worse. For this pro-government side, the other side is actually creating communal discord, helped on by a hostile media. According to this side, India is being governed very well and those who can’t tolerate this are doing their best to throw everything off-balance.

A strategic analysis of all big moves by the government reveals extremely sound long-term thinking that is keen on quick wins along the path of least resistance, be it in trade, FDI, external relations, systemic changes, and across the board reforms. The decisions of this government have been right on the money. The challenges it faces are well-known. This government is sizing up the challenges, and laying out a plan to come to terms with them. The best thing has been this government’s refusal to go in for populist schemes and voter-friendly policies that do damage in the long-term.

Is this side vindicated then? A high-stakes analysis answers in the negative. A country’s progress depends so much on communal harmony. On one hand, we have the government working hard for the country to progress. On the other hand, we have a reactionary element of the new ruling dispensation working to renegotiate the country’s communal harmony in terms favourable to the religious majority. The utterances and actions of these people betray this wish.

A ruling dispensation has its hands on the levers of state power. If people develop a majoritarian mind-set as they operate these levers, the damage will be done from inside-out. The silent tug-of-war this government is playing against the Supreme Court when it comes to judicial purview betrays a mind-set which seeks institutional supremacy of the political executive over all other pillars of the state. If that happens, it becomes easier to implement a majoritarian agenda. It could be insinuated that the pieces are being put in place for just that.

The problem with the political strategists in the BJP is this. Some people within the government and the party believe that their core voter base wants them to strive for a majoritarian agenda, one that undoes all the ‘wrongs’ committed by a minority-appeasing Congress. These hardliners are not able to reconcile this belief with the awareness that the BJP won a majority because of the support of an overwhelming number of voters who completely disavow this agenda and would have nothing to do with it.

The pragmatists within the government have reconciled with this, but the party hardliners and Sangh-parivar hawks don’t want to. They are sure  what their core voter base wants. And that is very disconcerting for anybody who wants to safeguard communal harmony.

What about the Prime Minister? It is difficult for a concerned but detached observer to be satisfied by the Prime minister’s official response on communal violence. The Prime minister is battling hard to keep hardliners on a leash, but his public posturing on this subject is cagey, shrewd and evasive. He knows this is his political Achilles heel.

If the prime minister does not call a spade a spade, that is a deliberate decision for a powerful leader with a massive electoral mandate. No savvy observer will fail to read between the lines and understand the significance of the prime minister’s actions. Those who hope he succeeds for the sake of our country are left praying that he knows what he is doing.

Both sides are seeking the power of narrative to turn the tide in their favour. Those against the government conveniently downplay its real achievements and focus on maligning the government, especially the prime minister. Those rooting for the government return the compliment by maligning everybody who criticises the government and pointing to its real achievements.

I come back to the question. Do you want to safeguard India’s communal harmony at all costs? The government of the day is responsible for safeguarding this harmony using all the state power at its disposal. What matters more is the faith and confidence of those supporting the government on this count. Do you think this government will control its hardliners indefinitely into the future and prevent every situation from spiralling out of control ? I don’t want it to play with fire.

And if, as a government supporter, you think this government has no such hardliners or hotheads, I worry more!

Those supporting the return of awards have something to ponder too. You are creating a perception as much as giving voice to one. Are you responsible enough to temper your actions accordingly? Can you create manoeuvring space for pragmatists on the other side to corner the hardliners within? One way is to accept and expand upon the good work that this government is doing. No matter how hard it is, given your political and ideological preferences. That is too small a cost for safeguarding communal harmony. And this cost is small for both sides, given what is at stake.

Being right is a hollow substitute for making the world work.

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