Whether External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj was responsible for the transfer of a junior-level officer in the passport office at Lucknow, whether she did so out of a sense of pseudo-secular enthusiasm or whether the officer in question had become a victim of a secular clique — these are important questions, but they are of secondary importance. This is not because they are not serious questions, but because they need proper scrutiny before we arrive at a conclusion.
What is of primary importance is whether the language of obscenity, hate and worse, violence that we employ in our social media conversations is acceptable. The golden rule for social media activists should be, “Don’t do unto others that you don’t want done to you”. Each word should be weighed properly, with a calm mind, before it is used. If you are angry, don’t come anywhere near Twitter or Facebook. Because a word that is written on these platforms, like an arrow released from the bow, cannot be taken back before it hits somebody.
Panini, the great grammarian of ancient India wrote, “Ekah shabdah samyakgnatah samprayuktah loke swarge cha kamadhuk bhavati” (One word, understood properly and applied appropriately, can secure good in this world as well as in the heavens). We have to choose our words carefully. Because each drop of ink that takes the shape of a letter ignites millions of minds.
Now, about the genuine questions raised by some social media activists. Certain facts need to be understood first before anger and intolerance takes us over. The case pertaining to Tanvi Seth, the woman in question in the passport row, should actually have been used against the regressive clerics who insist upon changing the name of a Hindu woman to that of a Muslim in the nikahnama. In most cases, it is done against the wishes of the women.
In Tanvi Seth’s case, while the nikahnama gives out her name as Shadia, all other documents, including the most basic identity card of every Indian citizen, the Aadhaar card, besides her bank accounts, mention her name as Tanvi Seth. The benefit of doubt, thus, goes in Tanvi Seth’s favour as one who decided to retain her Hindu name even after marrying a Muslim man — mind you, some 15 years ago. Such instances of individuals retaining their religious identity, even after inter-religious marriages, are numerous. There are many such prominent people in public life, including in the BJP. It is a glorious testimony to the omnitheistic nature of Indian society and culture.
The social media activists should have taken on the clerics who insist on writing a different name in the nikahnama, or the officers, who take cognisance of that false document and overrule all other valid documents. Unfortunately in this case, a woman who stood up and said I wish to continue as a Hindu has become the villain and the regressive cleric who changed her name to a Muslim became the hero.
All other matters are technical. The new passport rules only ask for the criminal records of applicants to be supplied by the police through its verification reports in two specified columns. In this case, the state police had submitted their report that stated “nil” in the two columns. The police did add two points in handwriting, apart from the proforma columns, in which they stated that the applicant doesn’t live at the address provided in the application. Upon verification, it was found that the address mentioned was the applicant’s permanent address. The passport rules permit that. In fact, most people probably don’t reside at the address they mention in their passports largely for reasons of employment.
The administrative decision to transfer the officer was taken at a much lower level. It is improper to blame the Union minister for that decision. It appears that many well-meaning people have also jumped the gun in this matter. Every issue that involves two different religionists need not be seen from a religious prism alone. There can be secular issues involving people of different religions. They should be seen from a purely administrative or governance prism.
But then Sushma Swaraj would have openly invited criticism of the existing passport rules or verification systems or even the system of transferring the officials. A difference of opinion in these matters is plausible and valid as well. What is not valid is the hounding, the abuse, the death-wishes, the obscenities like calling her Begum Sushma or worse commenting on her health and kidney — or a retired professor asking her husband to beat her up. All this to a leader who championed the cause of nationalism for over four decades in the rough and tumble of our politics, by those who claim allegiance to the very same ideology. The leader has responded with dignity; so has her husband. Readers may read their responses.
“Social trust”, argues Francis Fukuyama, “is the unspoken, unwritten bond between fellow citizens that facilitates transactions, empowers individual creativity, and justifies collective action.” Trust is the basic Indian virtue that we all should imbibe. Trust our own leaders; they have attained leadership positions because of that.
(The article was originally published in Indian Express on July 6, 2018. Views expressed are personal)