The politics of silence

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Silence is a useful tactic during periods of difficulty or confusion, but Prime Minister Narendra Modi seems to have made a habit of keeping quiet until very late in the face of violence and intimidation by sections perceived as acting in the name of the ruling establishment. Whether it was the lynching of a Muslim man in Dadri last year or the assault on Dalit men by cow vigilantes in Gujarat, Modi chose to speak his mind only when there was a danger of his silence being interpreted as acquiescence. But when he did speak, he did so forcefully, leaving many people to wonder why he had not done so earlier. While attacking cow vigilantism last week, Modi was not seeking to be just a sane voice advising restraint to his camp followers.
He, instead, ideologically discredited those indulging in such acts of vigilantism, describing them as anti-social elements and criminals masquerading as cow protectors. So, what explains this bold and unequivocal, but very delayed, response? Modi himself appeared to answer this.
The Prime Minister, he said, could not be made responsible for everything at the level of the panchayat or the State. It is possible, though by no means certain, that Modi perceives himself as someone who should maintain a distance from the clamour and the controversy and not engage in the cut and thrust of debate on the sordid happenings in the country. True, law and order is a State subject, but Modi could – and should – have done sooner what he did eventually: ask all States to prepare dossiers on vigilantes and send a strong signal that such behaviour has no place in a civilised, democratic society. The delay in his response has given more credence to the cynical explanations about his motives for saying what he did.
Not surprisingly, his remarks are being analysed in the context of reconciling the ideology of the Sangh Parivar with the immediate electoral interests of the Bharatiya Janata Party. Many cow protection groups in different parts of the country have already criticised him for the statement against cow vigilantism. But with elections due in Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat next year, the last thing the BJP wants to do is to alienate Dalits any further.
As Prime Minister, Modi must realise that his every word and deed is closely watched, not only by his detractors but also by his supporters and admirers.
He must speak out against atrocities of every kind, particularly those committed by groups that either are or imagine themselves to be ideologically aligned with his party. Otherwise, he would fail to live up to his own benchmark as a Prime Minister: One who represents
everyone in India.

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