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Sreenivasan Jain: The price of silence

By the time this column goes to print, we will be five days past an impassioned demand by Fali Nariman, in a speech before the National Commission for Minorities, for those at the top (of this government and the ruling party) to speak up against the “recurrent instances of religious tension fanned by fanaticism and hate-speeches”, which are straining the “the Hindu tradition of tolerance”. Actually, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) brass – barring, notably, the prime minister – hasn’t been entirely silent during this season of intemperance. Last week, the BJP president told the Economic Times that “love jihad” was simultaneously a “media creation” and a “grave social problem”. A day later, the home minister in response to a question at a press conference, said: “What is this (love jihad)? Can you define it?” keeping alive the pot of ambiguity around a subject that deserves nothing less than unqualified debunking.

By contrast, the only decisive intervention on the subject I have heard from anyone close to the ruling establishment is from Zafar Sareshwala, the Ahmedabad- and Mumbai-based businessman best known as the first staunch Muslim defender of Narendra Modi. Sareshwala called me last week after seeing our reports on the Sangh Parivar-driven anti-“love jihad” campaign in Western Uttar Pradesh, saying he was agitated by such communal nonsense (or words to that effect), which had “no place” in the agenda outlined by the prime minister. He said that the only reason why the BJP swept the 2014 polls was because liberal Hindus voted for Modi’s pro-governance thrust, but that if the BJP goes back to regressive, polarising issues like “love jihad”, they will abandon the party in droves. He would go on to make the same point on numerous TV panels in the course of the week.

Sareshwala is, of course, not a formal member of the BJP, but his proximity to Modi is so widely known that it is sometimes assumed that on occasion he speaks with Modi’s sanction. Not entirely, it appears, in this case. In our conversation, Sareshwala said he had raised these concerns with the prime minister on the Japan trip, where he had travelled as part of the business delegation. He claimed Modi expressed distaste at the Adityanath brand of politics. When I called him a few days later to clarify the prime minister’s exact words on the subject, Sareshwala said he had, not, in fact, directly broached the issue on the Japan trip. He said he brought up hate-mongering by the likes of the BJP’s Giriraj Singh during the 2014 Lok Sabha campaign, asking Modi if he, Sareshwala, could “hammer these fellows” in public debates. (Singh, the BJP candidate from Bihar had urged Modi critics to “go to Pakistan”.) Modi apparently gave him the go-ahead, even urging Sareshwala to ascribe the disapproval to him. “Look at where all of them are now”, said Sareshwala. “Where is Giriraj Singh? Where is Subramanian Swamy? Where is Pravin Togadia (the Vishva Hindu Parishad or VHP firebrand from Gujarat)? If the media ignores the likes of Yogi Adityanath, (the BJP’s MP from Gorakhpur who now faces an Election Commission-ordered FIR for his incendiary comments), they will vanish from the scene, just as Modi has silenced other extremists in the past.”

I put it to him that the media, in fact, rarely gave airtime to Adityanath until the BJP high command made him one of the party’s lead campaigners for the recently concluded Uttar Pradesh by-polls, just as the party has chosen to reward riot-accused MLAs and MPs. For instance, Sanjeev Baliyan, the Muzaffarnagar MP is the junior agriculture minister in Modi’s Cabinet. It was hardly possible that the prime minister would be unaware of these decisions or their repercussions, especially when linked to as politically sensitive a region as Uttar Pradesh. As for the Togadia analogy, I reminded Sareshwala that the VHP firebrand was only rendered irrelevant after a very clear, concerted signal from Modi as chief minister.

And yet, Sareshwala (understandably, given where his loyalties lie) ring-fenced the prime minister from responsibility, claiming that a section of the BJP continued to work against Modi, and was intent on pulling him down. But he did concede that if the Big Man did not step in soon, things will unravel. This sentiment was expressed with a certain pragmatism that perhaps might speak to those currently in power more than the moral imperative of tolerance outlined in the Nariman speech. As Sareshwala put it: “Why do you think Modi held Vibrant Gujarat immediately after the 2002 riots? Yes, a lot of damage was done to Muslims during the riots (Sareshwala’s family-run factory, manufacturing industrial valves, was burnt down). But the longer-term impact was on Hindu-run businesses. Not a single businessman wanted to come to Gujarat.”

The same, he warned, will happen to India’s biggest state if the Adityanath’s are not reined in. “Do you think Adani or Ambani will ever put up a plant in Uttar Pradesh? They will run away.”

The writer anchors the ground reportage show Truth vs Hype on NDTV 24X7


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