Descent Into Chaos: A Review of the Teesta Setalvad EML


by Aroon Narayanan and Liza Tom

(The video of the lecture, along with the question-and-answer session that followed, has been uploaded by the EML team.)

The EML team and IIT for Society organised a talk with Teesta Setalvad, Padma Shri awardee, journalist, human rights activist and secretary of Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP, the organisation which sought criminal trial of Modi and other prominent names for their involvement in the Gujarat 2002 riots), on Monday, the 10th of February. The motto of CJP is ’Hate hurts, harmony works’, and their aim is to combat communalist thought through discussion and dialogue because “the riots in the mind fester for long … before spilling into the streets”. In 1997, Ms. Setalvad founded Khoj, which seeks to change the history taught at school, which she she believes is one-sided and gives a rather damning perspective of the traditionally minority populations — Muslims, Dalits, etc. A rather controversial figure, Ms. Setalvad was also in the news recently when an FIR was filed against her for misusing money collected to build a museum for Gulbarg Society massacre victims.

Monday’s EML was memorable and revelatory in more than one way. The questions she raised are tough to answer, but some answers she did provoke were equally hard to stomach. Ms. Setalvad’s actual lecture was a blog piece, which she read out.

 It is easy to misinterpret Ms. Setalvad as being anti-Hindu (as many members of the audience did), but what she said deserves attention as a larger crusade against the disease of communalism. As she puts it, communalism is the clever use of religion (its deities and symbols and language) for political ends.

Historically, the rise of any form of fundamentalism is usually concurrent with a shift in the economic conditions of the time. A good example is the phenomenal rise of the Nazi Party post the Great Depression in the early 1930’s. When the economic situation changes, the first and worst affected are poorest of the country, and as they lose their jobs and the food disappears from their tables, they turn toward the promise offered by these political parties. Their ire is directed not against those responsible, but against the Other (communities which are the numerical minority and with little/no representation in governing bodies — Jews, Dalits, blacks).

Ms. Setalvad pointed out that it was significant that both liberalisation of the Indian economy and the appearance of modern Hindutva in the political arena of the country occur at the same period in history. “The frightening growth of proto-fascist development in the name of neoliberalism … leads to jobless growth.” It is true that the BJP has been pro-growth. It is Modi’s USP — change through ‘development’. But is this development pro-poor? Or is it, as Ms. Setalvad and others allege, a pro-corporate capitalist growth that widens income disparities? What complicates the scenario in India today is that the secular party opposing the BJP is also neoliberal, a fact neither the voter nor Ms. Setalvad can ignore.

Another point that a student raised was how extremism was on the rise in liberal democracies and whether it is a problem with the system. Ms Setalvad said that ‘incursions of extremism’ in democracies did seem part of a larger trend, but acknowledged that this was a question to which she did not have an answer. For example, it is established that a liberal democracy holds freedom of speech dear. That the rise of Hindutva creates an unfriendly atmosphere for such expression has again been made obvious by Penguin taking books off shelves in India. 

Conversely, there is the issue of the fundamental divide in a democracy between political parties and the state, which Ms Setalvad raised by calling the RSS a ‘poisonous ideology’ and the BJP as the ‘political wing of the RSS’. Barring acts of violence, is it acceptable to discriminate against any ideology in a liberal country? Is it unconstitutional for a party to base its politics on religious grounds?

These thought-provoking questions found no space in that hall in the first place. The reason is simple — as soon as the Q/A session started, the points raised were of a personal nature. Ms Setalvad was asked about the source of her funding, advertisements in her magazine, allegations of Communist and Congress partisanship and so on, which were ostensibly aimed at questioning the credibility of her campaign. This throws up the question of how democratically acceptable it is to equate one’s personal beliefs and funding to the validity of one’s social work. A section of the crowd raised a number of allegations which she vehemently denied — however, in the process, they also made the relevant points of how she was accused of witness intimidation, how a couple of people had defected from her side citing differences in opinion (whom, they claimed, she labelled as RSS supporters at whim) and whether she ought to have been so close to the legal proceedings of the ’02 riot cases. Throughout all this, Ms. Setalvad demonstrated a certain resolution and dignity at most times, but her supporters and detractors didn’t. The discussion turned into a brawl, despite the organisers’ best efforts to maintain calm. This led some to remark that ‘this is why topics like this must not be talked about — you are spreading communalism by talking about it’. Must all debates on controversial topics descend into chaos and defeat their purpose? The only solution is that both parties to the argument enter with open minds willing to learn, which certainly was not the case at this EML.

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