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IS it time, as Prime Minister Vajpayee pleaded in his recent visit to Gujarat, to ‘forget the past’ and ‘ensure that the flame of hate is extinguished forever?’ Coming, as this did, in the wake of the Gujarat High Court judgement on reopening the Zahira Sheikh case, wherein the learned judges were evidently more concerned about the ‘sullied’ reputation of their fraternity than ensuring ‘justice’ for the victims of Best Bakery, one is entitled to be a little skeptical.

For Vajpayee, currently basking in the ‘feel good’ feeling suffusing the country post his ‘successful’ visit to the SAARC summit in Islamabad and a resumption of the stalled dialogue with Pakistan, relegating Gujarat to the past is crucial. He may even feel that he has ‘tempered’ Narendra Modi, forcing him to focus on issues of development rather than further ghettoise the states’ terrified minorities. But for those fearful about the terrible knocking that our country’s ‘plural and tolerant’ ethos has taken, ever since the Ramjanmabhoomi agitation and the growing centrality of identity politics, not foregrounding issues of justice can hardly be read as good news.

Take the recent vandalising of the Bhandarkar Institute in Pune by activists of the Sambhaji Brigade protesting against an acknowledgement to the institute in a book written by James W. Laine on Shivaji. Subsequently, the publishers, Oxford University Press who had already withdrawn the book were forced to shut down their showroom in the city. It is worth remembering that this is the first time that a centre for learning widely regarded for its classical scholarship and valuable archives has been so targeted. It is ironic that ‘followers’ of Sambhaji, a great Sanskrit scholar, should in the process of ‘upholding’ the dignity of their icon, desecrate a painting of Saraswati, loot and destroy rare manuscripts and even deface texts on Shivaji.

Instead of unilaterally condemning this Bamiyan like act and arresting all those responsible, the state government under Congress-NCP rule has banned the book, a first for a scholarly monograph. Clearly it is not only the Shiv Sena and the BJP who fan the flames of intolerance and false pride but also those who claim to uphold the secular banner. It is symptomatic that the ‘leader’ of the Sambhaji Brigade, an employee of the PWD in Pune, is still at large, confident that his BJP MLA wife will ensure his safety.

Less attention has been given to the fact that Salman Rushdie, visiting Mumbai for the first time since the banning of Satanic Verses and the Iranian fatwa, was threatened by a Muslim fringe group and had to leave the country. Nor can we forget that the Left Front controlled West Bengal assembly had earlier censured and passed a resolution against Khushwant Singh for characterizing Rabindranath Tagore as a ‘minor’ poet, marking another first in our history. More recently ‘banned’ Taslima Nasreen’s autobiography. Clearly the way politics is evolving in our country, every fringe group feels emboldened to uphold ‘sentiment’ and ‘hurt pride’ and censure critical thought. The modes might vary – from a war of words to violence – but each such act of closure only wounds India as we knew it and would like it to be.

The growth of this tendency, more than any other act of omission and commission, represents the greatest failing of the Vajpayee led NDA regime. Episodic new year musings and hand-wringing over the failure of rajdharma are insufficient to rein in elements – both in government and outside, allies or opponents – from practising a politics of perpetual resentment. We are fast approaching a situation where no figure – religious or secular – whom someone elevates to the level of an icon will be amenable to scholarly scrutiny.

Without for a moment denying either the need for heroes and icons or ‘pride’ in one’s culture and identity, no liberal order can sustain itself without confidence to lay itself open to internal and external examination, multiple narratives and explanations. To insist on a unique and true account is a sure sign of stultification and death. We need to evolve institutional modalities within which an exchange becomes possible. And fear of retaliation has no place in this framework.

If Vajpayee’s ‘India Shining’ is to carry credibility, it is imperative that the claims go beyond forex reserves and monsoon-induced growth rates. Even more feeling good about the ‘weaknesses’ of one’s opponents. It would be churlish to deny the progress towards external peace – though some of the rapprochement with Pakistan must be credited to nudging by the US and the changed international environment post 9/11. To simultaneously ensure internal peace, Vajpayee will have to focus attention on the working of his colleagues of the Sangh Parivar as also the HRD ministry under Murli Manohar Joshi, ‘infamous’ for its ‘historical’ and ‘cultural’ interventionism. Else we can look forward to fresh acts of vandalism.

Harsh Sethi