First writers then artists, followed by filmmakers, historians and scientists. The chorus of Indian intellectuals protesting religious bigotry and communal violence grows louder by the week with a single message for Prime Minister Narendra Modi: protect India’s tradition of secularism and diversity.
Those protesting are angry and worried by a spate of deadly attacks against atheist thinkers and minorities, and by Modi’s relative silence through it all. That silence appears to have encouraged some of his party colleagues to make comments asserting Hindu pride and superiority.
On Thursday, more than 100 scientists, including some of India’s top nuclear physicists, space scientists and mathematicians, expressed their anguish at the ways in which they said “science and reason were being eroded in the country.” The protest by scientists is significant, given that most work for the government or in state-funded organisations and so could risk being punished for speaking out.
“What we are witnessing instead is the active promotion of irrational and sectarian thought by important functionaries of the government,” the scientists said in a statement. They said the dozens of Indian writers who have returned national awards in protest had “shown the way.”
The uproar among intellectuals began in late September, when a village mob beat a Muslim man to death and put his son in critical condition over rumors that their family was eating cow meat. In fact, it had been a goat. Ten people have been arrested in connection with the attack.
There have been other incidents in recent years, including the killings of three atheist scholars who had campaigned against religious superstition, and more mob killings over rumors of cow slaughter or smuggling. Many Hindus, who make up more than 80 percent of India’s population of 1.25 billion, consider cows to be sacred, and many states ban the slaughtering of the animals.
Communal violence and prejudice are nothing new for India, born as a secular democracy in 1947 amid deadly Hindu-Muslim riots that killed an estimated 1 million people. Since then, horrific riots and clashes have erupted at intervals, mostly between Hindus and Muslims.
Yet India has still largely been seen as overwhelmingly tolerant, with a cacophony of cultures that have lived side by side for centuries. Secularism is enshrined in its constitution.
Some political analysts said that the protests were going too far in making it seem like India was on the brink of a fascist revolt, and that the government may simply be stumbling in its communication strategy. Modi has no media spokesman, instead relying largely on senior ministers and his official website to get his messages out.
“If you look at the history of religious violence in India, it is far less today than it was three decades ago,” analyst Ashok Malik said. “This is part of the democratic discourse in India. While I’m not doubting the concerns of writers and artists, their use of words like ‘fascist’ is over the top.”
Worries over India’s secular identity began rumbling before Modi was elected prime minister last year. Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party won the election in a landslide, largely on promises of lifting the economy.
But some cautioned that his support was grounded in the party’s Hindu base, and noted that Modi himself had come up through the militant Hindu fundamentalist organisation Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. For years, the group has been accused of stoking anti-Muslim prejudice, including among teenagers attending youth camps.
Modi, having dodged allegations of responsibility for deadly 2002 riots in Gujarat, insisted during his election campaign that he would be prime minister for all of India and guaranteed protection for minorities.
Since taking office, however, Modi has said very little on the subject of tolerance and diversity, even questioning why his government should be called on to comment on local matters.
Yet his government has also clearly promoted Hindu pride and practices, such as calling for a nationwide ban on cow slaughter and leading an international day of yoga.
Scientists as well as historians have said they are increasingly alarmed by government attempts to rewrite Indian history by distorting facts about a glorious Hindu past.
This year’s national science conference, an annual gathering of the country’s top brains, devoted an entire session to discussing ancient Indian technology with claims that jumbo airplanes and organ transplants were common in India thousands of years ago. Some said that the Hindu elephant god Ganesh proved that ancients had mastered plastic surgery.
“I fear that we are losing our democracy and replacing it with a Hindu religious autocracy,” said molecular biologist PM Bhargava, adding that he would be returning a national award in protest. “I would not like to live in a country that has lost its democracy and has become a theocratic state.”
Modi’s government and party colleagues have largely remained nonplussed.
Indian Culture Minister Mahesh Sharma suggested that unhappy writers could stop writing if they found the country’s cultural climate not conducive to their work.
“This is as good as saying that intellectuals will be silenced if they protest,” Romila Thapar, a scholar of ancient India, said in a statement along with 50 other historians.
A day earlier, more than 100 artists also criticised the government for dismissing writers’ and scholars’ concerns and said the government had a responsibility to acknowledge public dissatisfaction.