Right-wing Hindu activists in Mumbai on Monday threw black paint in the face of the organizer of a book launch for a Pakistani author, an incident seen as a sign of growing intolerance in the country.
Sudheendra Kulkarni said his attackers called him “anti-national” by organizing the event to promote the book by former Pakistani minister Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri.
“They told me, ‘you did not listen to us and this is what we can do to you.’ They smeared me with black oil paint and threatened me,” he said. “It’s an assault on Indian democracy and culture.”
The attackers were members of the extremist Shiv Sena party, which advocates Hindu nationalism and is allied with the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The party has said it will not allow anyone from Pakistan to hold a public event in India.
“This is not ink but the blood of our soldiers,” Shiv Sena spokesman Sanjay Raut told local media, taking responsibility for the attack.
“We have no grudge against Mr Kasuri but we are against Pakistan which has supported attacks in Mumbai and other Indian cities,” the Shiv Sena spokesman said, referring to border clashes in Kashmir and the 2008 terrorist attack by Pakistan militants that killed 166 people in Mumbai.
After the group threatened last week to disrupt a concert by Pakistani singer Ghulam Ali in Mumbai, the show was cancelled for security reasons. Shiv Sena is based in the western state of Maharashtra, of which Mumbai is the capital.
The Kasuri book was launched later on Monday amid heavy security arrangements to prevent protests.
Speaking at the event, Kulkarni said that “President Pranab Mukherjee reminded us only last week that tolerance and diversity are the core values of Indian civilization and these must be defended … and we shall defend them.”
India’s intelligentsia have voiced concern over “rising intolerance,” and nearly a dozen writers have returned national awards or resigned from literary bodies in protest since last week.
The protests centred on the killings of rationalist writers allegedly by Hindu zealots and the lynching of a Muslim man reportedly for eating beef.
Incidents of intolerance had risen over the last 18 months after Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came into power, opposition parties have said, questioning the silence of usually voluble Modi about the incidents.
“India’s culture of diversity and debate is now under vicious assault,” writer Nayantara Sehgal, niece of India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, wrote in a letter as she returned the Sahitya Akademi Award, the highest literary award in India.
Monday’s paint attack was widely condemned in India with even LK Advani, the founder-leader of the BJP, saying it reflected “growing intolerance” in India.
“This is a matter of concern for the nation. Democracy must ensure tolerance for a different point of view,” Advani was quoted as saying by broadcaster NDTV. The opposition Indian National Congress dubbed Shiv Sena, “local Taliban” for the attack.
Academic Ganesh Devy also returned a cultural award, referencing the murder of rationalist MM Kalburgi and the decision by scholar Perumal Murugan to give up writing after harassment by Hindu fundamentalists.
“The space for free expression in this country is shrinking and we are encouraging intolerance in the name of purification of religion and culture – that has never been the way of Indian diversity,” Devy said.