The Narendra Modi government had dismissed the returning of awards by about 40 writers as of little consequence.
A text message, which was obviously sent out by a government sympathiser, pointed out that while millions have given up their subsidised cooking gas connections at the prime minister's request, only a few writers, "who want to defame India", have expressed their dissent. The outrage against the assassination of rationalists also drew the derisive comment from an "internet Hindu" that they were "one-sided rationalists in that they only opposed Hinduism (and) were very, very silent (about) the religion and superstitions of Muslims and Christians".
Considering, however, that a section of historians, scientists and filmmakers have now joined the writers in voicing their protests, the government may no longer find it easy to dismiss these signs of dissatisfaction as a "manufactured paper rebellion", as Finance Minister Arun Jaitley said. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) may presume that the rebels are responding to the "pain" of their exclusion from official patronage, which the party sees as the reason for former union minister Arun Shourie's barb about the government being like the Congress plus the cow.
But the rulers will be doing themselves a disservice if they dismiss the protests as something confined to Lutyens Delhi, or an exclusivist phenomenon, as BJP president Amit Shah believes. Had that been so, President Pranab Mukherjee would not have gone out of his way to condemn the climate of intolerance.
It may well be that some of the protesters are indeed "Nehruvians" and "leftists", to quote Jaitley again, for they are obviously far from being pro-BJP and have nothing to do with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh's credo of cultural nationalism—one nation, one people, one culture.
Instead, they can be called Nehruvian because of their belief in a multi-cultural India. But, considering that Modi himself has extolled the country's diversity, the official projection of the dissenters as anti-nationals is odd.
What the government will do well is to ascertain why groups of the intelligentsia are turning away from it when Modi's promise of economic growth is seemingly bearing fruit with India being the destination for the highest amount of foreign investment in the world ($30 billion) in the first six months of this year.
The discomfiture of the intellectuals probably comes from the belief that Modi has struck a Faustian bargain with the RSS that he will allow the saffron fundamentalists to dominate the academic and cultural spheres in exchange for peace and quiet in the economic field. Thus, nonentities like Sudarshan Rao and Gajendra Chauhan can demolish whatever prestige organizations like the Indian Council of Historical Research and the Film and Television Institute of India have acquired over the decades while the government looks away.
The contempt with which Modi regards the world of letters was evident right from the start of his tenure when he appointed someone who had studied only up to Class XII as the human resource development minister in charge of education.
However, the leeway which the government has given to the RSS has led not only to the tinkering with history by Rao or of the school textbooks by Dinanath Batra, but also to the targeting of the minorities by the storm-troopers.
It began with 'ghar wapsi’, love jehad and an occasional attack on churches and now the vigilante groups have the beef-eaters in their sights.
It is possible that the government has realized that the violence unleashed by these lawless elements will hurt its image and is now trying to draw back with union Home Minister Rajnath Singh ruling out a nationwide ban on beef. But the genii are out and it is the fear and despondency which the saffron militants are spreading which have made the filmmakers say that "condoling deaths without interrogating the forces that scripted those murders revealed a tacit acceptance of the ugly force distorting our country".
This perception encapsulates the apprehension that for all the talk of development, the basic premise of saffron rule has not changed. It remains, as always, anti-minority as well as anti-liberal in outlook. Although, mercifully, no widespread communal violence has taken place, there have been sporadic inter-faith clashes and ghastly lynching, with the Dadri tragedy acting as a catalyst to unleash the volley of protests.
The answer to the grouse of saffron sympathizers as to why no medals were returned during, say, the emergency or the anti-Sikh riots is that these were aberrations.
While there is little chance of the draconian rule of 1975–77 period being repeated, the 1984 pogrom was a one-off reaction, shocking as it was, to Indira Gandhi's assassination and not part of a party's longstanding anti-minority world view, as in the BJP's case.
This is why there have been Sikh prime ministers and chief ministers from the Congress after 1984 while there is no question of the BJP ever choosing a Muslim head of government at the centre or in the states.
What the government has to recognise is that the protesters represent the Nehruvian "idea" of a pluralist India while the saffron camp remains committed to a Hindu rashtra (nation) although Modi himself is apparently moderating the fascistic concept.