Economist Jean Dreze could not complete his speech at a programme organised by a Hindi daily in Ranchi, when the state agriculture minister, Randhir Kumar Singh, angrily objected to his argument that communalism was most dangerous when the state itself created antagonism between the communities. Union Agriculture Minister Radha Mohan Singh and some other ministers were also present in the programme.
Dreze made this argument in the backdrop of the advertisement brought out by the government a day ahead of the tabling, and passing, the anti-conversion bill in the Assembly. The advertisement had quoted Mahatma Gandhi asking Christian missionaries not to go for religious conversion of poor and gullible tribals. The programme, called Jharkhand Conclave-2025, was held in the capital on Sunday.
Contacted for his version on the angry objection, Minister Singh said: “I only objected when he began talking about RSS. I told him that he doesn’t know about RSS.” The minister did not speak any further.
A video of the incident showed Singh, who was seated in the front row in audience, getting up suddenly and objecting angrily to Dreze and asking organisers to apologise for his remarks. Radha Mohan Singh then came to the mike, even as a couple of people sought an apology from Dreze, while a few others could be seen trying to pacify the minister.
The video also showed Radha Mohan to the mike and repeatedly asking Singh to calm down, assuring that he would clarify to Dreze on what Mahatma said on conversion.
By this time, the video showed, Dreze, had gone back to his seat on the dais. Even as Singh continued to seek apology, Radha Mohan virtually had to admonish him to calm down.
Subsequently, Radha Mohan referred to an interview given by Mahatma Gandhi to his publication “Harijan”, in which he had purportedly said that he would get entire business of conversion stopped, if he had the power to make laws.
Speaking to The Indian Express, Dreze said: “I was interrupted when I argued that communalism was most dangerous when the state itself created antagonism between communities. I gave the infamous (government) ad quoting Gandhi (which had appeared on August 11) as an example.”
Dreze added that the Union agriculture minister countered his view after asking everybody to calm down. Asked whether anybody asked him to complete his address, Dreze said: “Nobody insisted on my being allowed to complete my speech, so I just sat down.”
To a query on whether he wanted to register his protest at any forum, Dreze said: “I would prefer to meet my critics and engage with their arguments, if they are willing.”
However, a group of tribal and civil rights activists, including Dayamani Barla, gathered at Raj Bhavan to protest against infringement of right to freedom of expression by the minister. “He wasn’t only to speak and many demanded that he be asked to leave the stage,” said a spokesperson for the group.
During the programme, however, Rajya Sabha MP from Janata Dal (United) and former journalist Harivansh, who was long associated with Prabhat Khabar not only defended the right to freedom of expression, but also pointed out towards the contribution made by Dreze over several years in Jharkhand.
Dreze has been a critic of several government’s policies and has been raising the issue of challenges in service delivery to those in the interior.
Speaking on the condition of anonymity, one of the speakers, said: “Everybody has a right to object. But, the person objecting should have waited for his turn; more so, when he is a senior functionary in the government.”
Contacted Vijay Pathak, resident editor of Prabhat Khabar, who was part of the organising team, said: “Dreze had almost concluded when he pointed out about the advertisement. Earlier, he had raised a few questions on the involvement of RSS. The Union Minister intervened and asked the state minister to calm down and take seat many times and then quoted Mahatma Gandhi on conversion. It was not that Dreze was not allowed to speak right from the beginning.”