5 Statements In 7 Weeks: President's Concerns On Intolerance Set In A pattern
President Pranab Mukherjee during a meeting with Ashok Vajpeyi, Vivian Sundaram and Om Thanvi in N.D
NEW DELHI: President Pranab Mukherjee, since October 2015, has been ringing warning bells against growing intolerance in the country. Besieged by a series of letters, statements, petitions as well as visits by concerned citizens, President Mukherjee has spoken out at least five times at public meetings cautioning against attempts to divide the country into “us” and “them.”
Bound by the Constitution, the President of India does not have the space to say or do more except as a moral constitutional authority as he is bound by the advice of the government in power in executing the powers especially assigned to the post. However, he has the space to focus on issues concerning the people of the country in his public speeches and President Mukherjee has been using this repeatedly, at regular intervals now, to express concern about rising intolerance.
December 1: The President of India emphasised the need for “intense effort” to cleanse “minds” of divisiveness. Speaking at a function in Gujarat where he is currently on a three day visit he said “the real dirt of India lies not on our streets but in our minds and in our unwillingness to let go of views that divide society into them and us, pure and impure.”
Incidentally Swacch Bharat is a street cleaning drive started by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and projected as a flagship of his government.
Nov 25: President Mukherjee reportedly assured poet Ashok Vajpayee, artist Vivan Sundaram and journalist Om Thanvi who had called on him that returning awards was “evidently spontaneous” and a recognised way of protest.
The artists, writers, historians, filmmakers and others have been under fire from the BJP/RSS and its affiliates with even senior Ministers intervening to deride what they described as “manufactured protest.” The use of the term ‘spontaneous’ by the President is thus significant. In fact Minister VK Singh had gone a step further than the others in government by maintaining that the writers were “paid” to protest.
November 1: Speaking at the golden jubilee celebrations of the Delhi High Court, the President said,. “Our country has thrived due to its power of assimilation and tolerance. Our pluralistic character has stood the test of time.”
“Multiplicity is our collective strength which must be preserved at all costs. It finds reflection in the various provisions of our Constitution,” he said.
“As an upholder of the rule of law and enforcer of the right to liberty, the role of the judiciary is sacrosanct. The faith and confidence people have in the judiciary must be always maintained,” he said.
October 19:The President’s message on the eve of Durga Puja was again a reminder that “humanism and pluralism should not be abandoned under any circumstance”.He hoped that “Mahamaya, the combination of all positive forces, would eliminate the asuras or divisive forces”.
He emphasised that Indian civilisation had survived because of its tolerance. “It has always accepted dissent and differences,” he said.
A Rashtrapati Bhavan release, headlined “Is tolerance and acceptance of dissent on the wane, questions the President”, quoted him as saying, “Our collective strength must to be harnessed to resist evil powers in society.”
October 7: Speaking at a function at Rashtrapati Bhavan where he was presented a coffee table book ‘The Nationalist President — Pranab Mukherjee’, the President said: “We should not allow the core values of our civilisation to wither away. Over the years, our civilisation has celebrated diversity, plurality and promoted and advocated tolerance. These values have kept us together over the centuries.”
“Many ancient civilisations have collapsed but the Indian civilisation has survived because of its core civilisational values and adherence to them. If we keep them in mind, nothing can prevent our nation from forging ahead. Indian democracy is a marvel and we must celebrate, preserve and promote its strengths,” he said.
This was after the Dadri lynching September 28. The President’s first admonishment, as it was widely interpreted, was referred to by PM Modi at a BJP election rally in Bihar where he applauded President Mukherjee for giving direction and thought to the nation. He has not repeated this sentiment subsequently.
President Mukherjee is clearly responding to the widespread sentiment in India against the intolerance, that has reached Rashtrapati Bhawan through letters, statements and even delegations. A letter from his home state West Bengal signed by concerned citizens from different walks of life said, “As citizens of a democratic country, we are deeply concerned about the growing culture of murderous intolerance and the brazen assault on the fundamental right to life of those who maintain the core values of diversity, plurality and tolerance of which you yourself have recently reminded us. The targeting of innocents like the recent killing of Muhammad Akhlaq in Dadri and the series of attacks against rationalists and freethinkers including the gruesomely casual killing of Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare and M.M. Kalburgi has made us strangers in our own country. We are horrified at the callous lack of support and apathy of the state in finding and bringing the culprits to justice. The stifling atmosphere of fear and uncertainty is fatal to the freedom of expression that is at the heart of our shared lives, and it is for the restoration of this common fabric that we urge you to intervene.” This was in mid October.
Scholars, Indian and foreign, living abroad have written to the President, as have writers, historians, filmmakers have written of their apprehensions and concerns to both the President and PM Modi. Filmmakers who returned their awards recently wrote about the strike of the FTII students against political appointments and went on to add, “The lynching and murder of an ironsmith, Mohammed Akhlaq, in a village at the edge of our national capital has shattered our faith in the spirit of tolerance that is the core of our robust democracy. The mob that stood at this poor muslim man’s house had been empowered by the belief that this was an acceptable way to express rage. The current climate has validated this sentiment. Those who stand outside the circle drawn by the ruling elite are vulnerable in the most appalling manner. It has now come to light that members of the party that rule at the Centre led the mob. It is imperative that we take note of the impunity with which the mob was instigated. No condemnation is complete without naming the politically powerful who scripted this attack.”