Incensed by the planned launch of former Pakistani foreign minister Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri’s book, members of far-right Indian extremist group Shiv Sena doused the event organiser with black ink on Monday, the latest assault on free speech in the country.
Sudheendra Kulkarni said he was assaulted as he left his home in Mumbai by Shiv Sena activists who wanted to intimidate him. Kulkarni condemned the incident as an ‘assault on democracy’ as he addressed the media in Mumbai, his face and hair covered in ink.
“A group of 10 or 15 Shiv Sainiks mobbed me, they stopped my car, asked me to come out, they caught me, started abusing me, they said we had ordered you to stop the launch this evening, you didn’t listen to us, this is what we’ll do with you,” said Kulkarni.
The Shiv Sena, a junior partner in a ruling coalition with the Bharatiya Janata Party in the Maharashtra state government, was last week accused of using threats to force the cancellation of an appearance in Mumbai by Pakistani singer Ghulam Ali.
The group had vowed to disrupt Kasuri’s book launch in Mumbai. However, the state government had promised full security for the event. Kulkarni, who was part of Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s office during his stint as India’s prime minister, had spent Sunday night reasoning with the Shiv Sena leadership to give up their plans.
There are growing concerns over freedom of speech in India after the execution-style killing in August of MM Kalburgi, a leading secular scholar who had angered hardline Hindu groups. Several Indian winners of the prestigious Sahitya Akademi (National Academy of Letters) award have handed back the prize in recent days to protest at that incident.
The writers said they were also protesting at the government’s failure to condemn the lynching last month of a Muslim man suspected of eating beef. India’s Culture Minister Mahesh Sharma criticised Monday’s attack, saying protests should be “within the democratic framework of our constitution”.
“In our democracy we should ensure that all our views and protests stay within the constitutional principles,” he told AFP.
Shiv Sena spokesman Sanjay Raut said he supported the protesters’ actions but stopped short of admitting that activists from his party had been responsible. “We do not call it an attack, it was a non-violent protest,” he told reporters, describing the incident as a ‘mild reaction’.
Mumbai Police Deputy Commissioner Dhananjay Kulkarni said officers were seeking the culprits. “It was done by Shiv Sena activists,” he told AFP.
Kulkarni vowed to press ahead with the event, saying the state government had promised extra security. “We will not buckle under this coercion. It’s an assault on democracy, an assault on the Indian constitution and assault on Indian culture,” said Kulkarni.
Kasuri, while expressing his concerns over the attack, said it would not dissuade him from the event. “I have not come so far to sit in a hotel [room].”
“I have been a political worker myself, I understand political protests, but it should be conducted in a peaceful manner,” Kasuri added. “I know there are people in Pakistan and India who do not want good relations between two nations.”
With around 500 police deputed outside the Nehru Center, Kasuri launched his book “Neither a Hawk nor a Dove: An Insider’s Account of Pakistan’s Foreign Policy” to a packed hall inside. He hoped the book would help clear misconceptions between the two nuclear-armed neighbours.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 13th, 2015.