NEW DELHI: There have been only “three occasions,” when India has been most “polarised,” said former Union Finance Minister and Home Minister P Chidambaram: the Partition, the demolition of the Babri Masjid and now.

 “How many of us realise how polarised the Indian society has become? Please talk to your Muslim friends, please talk to your Dalit friends. Please talk to people who have small farmholdings,” Chidambaram said.

 He added that there existed “great insecurity, great apprehension” among the poor, the marginalised. “We are heading towards a deeply divided and polarised society. How did this happen in one year?” according to the Indian Express.

 Speaking at the launch of Standing Guard-A Year in Opposition, a collection of his 51 columns in The Indian Express and The Sunday Express (published by Rupa and part of the Express Book Series), Chidambaram said that in just one year, the narrative of this government had dramatically changed from one of development to one of division.

 His observations came days after HRD Minister Smriti Irani defended the government action in the JNU in Parliament. In an apparent counter to Irani, Chidambaram said: “What do we understand by a university? The university is not a monastery. We are confusing between universities and monasteries. A university is a place, where I, as a student, at my age, have the right to be wrong,” he said, adding that in a university there was no need to always be profound as “I can be ridiculous also”.

 “How are we framing debate in the country? Please reflect on the manner, the perverse manner in which debates are being framed,” the Congress leader said.

 “Look at how the debate is being framed today,” Chidambaram said. “The debate in Dadri was not whether the man had beef or buffalo meat or mutton in his house. That is how the debate is being framed. The real issue was whether the mob had any right to lynch a person. The debate in Hyderabad central university is being framed as was he (Rohith Vemula) a Dalit or not a Dalit. The real debate is how an insensitive university drove a first-generation learner from an underprivileged family to commit a suicide. The debate in JNU is not whether a bunch of misguided youths allegedly raised some anti-national slogans. The debate is what is a university?”

 Chidambaram was part of a panel that discussed his book and his columns. Former J&K Chief Minister Omar Abdullah, sociologist Shiv Visvanathan and former diplomat Pavan K Verma were the panelists. The discussion was moderated by policy analyst Sanjaya Baru.

 Underlining the importance of standing guard in a democracy, Chidambaram, to much applause, quoted poet Thiruvalluvar: “A king without a critic will fall even if he has no enemies. A king must embrace his critic. A king must listen to his critic. A king must welcome his critic.”

 Chidambaram said that in his first column of 2015, he had written that 2014 was the year of acrimony, “2015 promises to be the year of acronyms”. “Today, at the end of the year I am afraid”, as it turned out to be a “year of deep polarisation”.

 He noted that when he had begun the column Across the Aisle in The Sunday Express in January 2014, he had “decided to write mainly on economics, but as the year went by the narrative has changed so dramatically, that there are fewer columns on economics and more columns on other issues.” 

“This is what worries me, that how this narrative has changed for the worse dramatically in such a short time. Was it an intended change? Or was it an unintended change? Is it just madness or is there a method to this madness?” he said. “The year did not end with a narrative dominated by the economy. It ended on a completely different narrative. Instead of a rise in economy, we have a rise in intolerance. Instead of a narrative of cooperation, we have a narrative of confrontation,” he said.

 The panelists commented on what they said was the government’s tendency these days to see the Opposition and dissenters as an “enemy.”

 Verma said that if the government was really serious about GST, it should have had “structured negotiations” which it has not and is now blaming the opposition for not passing it. To which Chidambaram said that it was a flawed bill and the flaws needed to be fixed before it was passed.

 Omar Abdullah expressed his concern at growing intolerance and Visvanathan highlighted the “ethical nature of the book” and said the chapter on the revocation of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act “raises questions of ethics in a fascinating way”. “Ethics is an art of balancing the two improbables,” he said.

 Verma pointed to a column in which Chidambaram had predicted the impact of the Bihar elections. “You said a defeat in Bihar will have a sobering effect on Mr Modi and the BJP, they will pause and step back,” Verma said, adding, to laughter, that it was a rare occasion when Chidambaram was proved wrong.

 Among those in the audience were former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Rahul Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi’s political secretary Ahmed Patel, CPM General Secretary Sitaram Yechury, former Planning Commission deputy chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia, Justice B N Srikrishna, Congress leader Kapil Sibal and former National Security Advisor Shivshanker Menon.