India's outgoing Vice-President Hamid Ansari is no stranger to controversy. Through the ten years he held office, between 2007 and 2017, he faced several scathing attacks from the Opposition, each of which he fielded with dignity, so he probably wasn't surprised by the fresh wave of hostility aroused by some of his valedictory comments to the media.
In multiple interviews, one with journalist Karan Thapar on Rajya Sabha television and the other with The Indian Express, Ansari made a number of hard-hitting remarks about politics in contemporary India. Most people with their ears to the ground will find it hard to dispute his statements, especially if they were to stick to the bare facts, but the troll brigade on social media is a class apart, and so is its organised wrath.
Asked about the current social climate in the country, Ansari said Muslims were besieged with "a feeling of unease" and that "a sense of insecurity is creeping in" due to the atmosphere of fear and repression created by the recent spate of hate crimes perpetrated by self-styled groups of cow-vigilantes.
Coming from the former Chairperson of the National Commission for Minorities—Ansari held the position between March 2006 and June 2007, before giving it up to become Vice-President—the observation didn't strike as unusual. In the context of the question Thapar had posed to him, specifically mentioning lynching, communally divisive campaigns like 'love jihad' and 'ghar wapsi', killing of rationalist thinkers by right-wing activists, and people being coerced into saying 'Bharat Mata ki Jai', Ansari's reaction seemed pertinent. But not to those who prefer to whitewash plain facts with a coat of insidious political agenda.
When asked about the recent court rulings that mandated the playing of the national anthem before every movie screening and the singing of Vande Mataram in schools, colleges, public and private institutions in Tamil Nadu, Ansari didn't mince words either. "The courts are a part of society. So what the courts tend to say sometimes is reflective of what the prevailing atmosphere in society is," he said. "I call that a sense of insecurity... this propensity to be able to assert your nationalism day in and day out is unnecessary. I am an Indian and that is it."
Unfortunately, the former Vice-President's confident assertion of his Indian identity is no longer as obvious, even for law-abiding citizens of the country, who pledge their fealty to the nation by observing the duties directed to them by the Constitution. To be recognised and protected by the State as a rightful citizen of India in 2017, it's no longer enough to pay taxes, live by the rules, and let others live as they may.
The model Indian now must sing themselves hoarse praising the nation, stand upright the moment their ears catch the faintest strains of Jana Gana Mana, no matter if they are physically able to do so or not. They must run a mile away from any sign of contraband meat, forge alliances (of course, only sealed by holy matrimony) with partners of the right religion and caste, and desist from expressing opinions that pales the ruling dispensation's self-imposed halo around its own machinery of governance. Any diversion from the script, in real life or on social media, can incur the wrath of the foot-soldiers of the regime, in the form of abuse, harassment, assault and worse.
The penalties are worse still if the gender, religion, caste and other markers of the critic's identity happen to put them in a minority. Ansari's remarks also faced the brunt of such prejudice from a veritable army of trolls on social media platforms, precisely for being spoken by a Muslim man. It's par for the course now for ordinary citizens to jump into the defence of the presiding political ideology, but what's shocking in Ansari's case is the active participation of public functionaries and loyal supporters of the ruling party in promoting hate against him.
Sample this response from Priti Gandhi, national executive member of the BJP's Mahila Morcha.
Her sentiment was echoed in thousands of tweets by faithful followers of the party, some of them asking Ansari to take leaf out of former President Pranab Mukherjee's book. Their allusion was to one of the several controversial moments during Ansari's tenure when he was accused of being disrespectful to the national flag for not saluting it during the Republic Day celebrations in 2015, when US President Barack Obama was visiting India, while President Mukherjee and Prime Minister Narendra Modi raised their hands.
Although Ansari put the controversy to rest by citing the rulebook, the BJP didn't waste an opportunity to hound him. However, each time—be it during the uproar over the adjourning of Rajya Sabha before the Lokpal debate in 2011 or his absence from the International Yoga Day celebrations—Ansari provided a flawless explanation himself, citing the exact protocol he had followed.
As he told The Indian Express memorably, "If people don't know what the correct protocol etiquette is, well, then that's it. If one thing I know very well, it's protocol." He added, "I have been the longest serving Chief of Protocol in the history of modern India. I know protocol and etiquette. I didn't deviate from it."
But such bookish considerations are scoffed at by the current upholders of nationalism for whom the test of patriotism is won only by the most egregious show of allegiance to the political dispensation in power. Such is the depth of their loyalty that they don't think twice before making derogatory comments about the man who held the second highest constitutional office in India after the President and is also the only person in the history of India, since S Radhakrishnan, to be elected to the Vice-President's office for two successive terms. Ansari defeated Najma Heptullah in 2007 by 455 votes and Jaswant Singh in 2012 by 233 votes. He also has the singular distinction of having been in office under three serving presidents.
The best rejoinder to those who are riled by Ansari's plain-speaking comes from the man himself. Tolerance of all communities is not the only way to redeem India's fractured reality, he said, it has to be followed by a move towards acceptance of all. "The PM's slogan is impeccable—Sabka Saath Sabka Vikas," he told The Indian Express. "But then sabka saath means sabka saath. If you and I are standing together, then we can move together. But if you are standing 10 or 20 yards behind me, then you cannot catch up with me."
Like a true gentleman following the protocol of the remit vested on him by the Constitution, Ansari waited until his term in office was over to speak out freely against the government he had served for three years.
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