Opinion: Religious intolerance and other sacred cows; the Indian government's losing comms battle

Nikhil Khanna, managing director of Avian Media, highlights the growing violence and mob behaviour spreading across India, and the government's inadequate response to the issue

Nikhil Khanna
Nikhil Khanna

It all began with a cow.

In September, when a 52-year-old Muslim man from Dadri, a village not far from cosmopolitan Delhi, was lynched by a mob of Hindu youth incensed at the rumour that he had kept beef in his fridge, the incident was just one of many that has led to a vast swathe of intellectual India protesting very vocally about rising intolerance in the country.

Despite the horror of the Dadri lynching, the government at this point said nothing.

Earlier, there had been other instances of this sort of intolerance; a politician and writer from the Communist Party of India, Govind Pansare, was murdered in February because his book on Shivaji, an iconic Maratha king, had angered Shivaji’s supporters.

In August, MM Kalburgi, a well-known Kannada language writer was shot dead for his writings on his community and for his opposition to idolatry.

In September, Sudheendra Kulkarni, a right-wing ideologue, had his face blackened with paint by activists of the Shiv Sena, an ally of the ruling BJP, when he went out to promote a book by a former Pakistani foreign secretary.

Kulkarni was accused of being that all-access Indian offence: ‘anti-national’. Again, apart from derisive comments from ministers, there was no communication from the government.

In between all these events, the muscular Hindutva brigade, bolstered by a spectacular parliamentary victory of the BJP last year, has accused the film star Shahrukh Khan, a Muslim, of having his ‘head in India, but his heart in Pakistan’; concerts by a famous and well-regarded Pakistani singer were forcibly cancelled and at another level, NGO’s and civil society have been clamped down on viciously. And so on it goes.

The result of some of the incidents mentioned above was unprecedented; nearly 50 writers across the lingual divide of India returned awards and citations bestowed on them by the government. The protest was followed by scientists, artists and filmmakers doing the same.

The government’s reaction to the protests has been defensive at worst and weak at best.

Ministers have accused the protestors of being ‘pseudo-intellectuals’ (another fulsomely Indian phrase) and of being left-wing, English-speaking liberals aligned to the Congress party whose best interests are met with government patronage, now missing.

‘Lutyens Delhi’ – another deliciously Delhi drawing room phrase, referring to an upper-crust elite that sets the agenda – has been indicted by this new establishment – the rightwing brigade – for arrogance and not understanding the pulse of the people. At one level, the debate is an intellectual one.

From a communications perspective, the government, and more specifically prime minister Narendra Modi, should have reached out much earlier.

When the PM finally communicated, he came across as diffident at first and then, for a strong leader like him (and one who dislodged a cynical, corrupt Congress party), anaemic in his responses.

The PM has lost the last communications battle - nowhere was this more evident than in his parties resounding defeat in the Bihar elections last week.

Moving forward, as the leader of a secular country, he and the government need to reach out and apply the proverbial soothing balm, condemning intolerance immediately and without delay.

At a process level, his government needs to have only dedicated, trained spokespersons for the both the party and the government. There must be a mechanism in place where there is a hymn sheet for government spokespeople and they should stick to it.

The government also needs to speak more of its economic agenda, which given some time, will work as the fundamentals and initiatives planned are sound ones. This is the communication India needs; what it doesn’t need is the plaintive lowing of cows gently calling at dusk.

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