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India: Sectarianism suppressing democratic right of Expression

by Ram Puniyani, 21 October

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Freedom of expression has been the core value which accompanied the struggle for India’s Independence. The British did attempt to stifle the voices of dissent but the freedom fighters did see this as a crucial mechanism of rooting democratic ethos in the society. At heavy cost the major leaders had to face the wrath of British colonialist powers for upholding the foundation of a democratic society through freedom of expression. The same values got enshrined in our Constitution, with various articles and clauses upholding it.

What we are witnessing today is a stifling of dissent from the ruling party, the ruling ideology of sectarian nationalism. The suppression of dissent and freedom of giving expression is not just through control of media and stifling of writers. Ruling party; through control of a section of media; is using heavy hand to control the free thinkers. One major and frightening phenomenon accompanying this attempt to muzzle the dissenting opinions has been to eliminate the thinker’s writers physically.

We know that sometimes state can outright control the media, as happened during emergency. The censoring of media, raids on the publication houses had been resorted to by the authoritarian state. The current phenomenon is slightly different. Here along with the heavy hand of the big brother watching, those inspired by the communal nationalism, are taking the law into their own hands, with full knowledge that the ruling party-state is with them and they can get away with their crimes of eliminating those thinkers and activists, whom they can’t oppose at ideological level. By nature most of the ideologies which promote nationalism in the name of religion are grossly intolerant and indulge in the street violence and killing to promote the communal divides. The matching phenomenon to what we are witnessing in India is also seen in Bangladesh, where those inspired by the Islamic nationalism have been targeting the bloggers and have been physically eliminating them.

During last several years we have tragically witnessed the murders of the writers-social activists who have been upholding rational thought, those who have been opposing the hold of values which support caste, those who have been opposing the politics in the name of Hinduism. When Narendra Dabholkar was shot at, the trend began at the abominable level. Dabholkar was active in promoting rational thinking, and had formed Andh Shraddha Nirmula Samiti (Committee for eliminating blind faith) in Maharashtra.

Govind Pansare, a dedicated saintly worker for human rights, was not only promoting rational thought, he was also opposed to sectarian nationalism, he promoted a rational version of Shivaji story, which presented him humane king, taking care of his subject irrespective of their religion and who in his administration had Hindus as well as Muslims. M.M. Kalburgi a rationalist scholar was opposed to the Brahmanical values and so talked to promoting Lord Basvanna’s teachings of social equality, he also articulated that Lingyats should be regarded as religious minorities, away from the grip of Brahmanism dominated prevalent Hinduism.

In the sequence to this came the tragic murder of Gauri Lankesh, a fearless journalist, who opposed the politics of Hindu nationalism at grass root level, who supported the rights of religious minorities, participated in the local communal harmony groups to oppose the politics being constructed around Baba Budan Giri and Id Gah ground. She was also for recognizing Lingayats as a religious minority. The impact of these activists was perceived as a threat, they were wring in regional languages and were perceived as a thorn in the flesh of divisive ideology. The pattern of their murders was similar, motor bike riders coming and shooting them. The investigations have so far not yielded much and except one worker of Sanatan Sanstha, ideologically close the dominant political tendency today, no arrests have been made.

As such these murderers are like tip of the iceberg. These murders are accompanied with the growing intolerance in the society, which has also lead to killings beatings of Muslims-Dalits in the name of Holy Cow Beef. The killing of Mohammad Akhlaq, Junaid Khan and Una floggings has been the major incidents amongst the brutal acts unleashed by the growing intolerance in the society. While intolerance has grown gradually from last decade or so, during last three years in particular, there is a qualitative change in the nature of intolerance. How do we understand the growing communalization of society, worsening intolerance and killings of those standing for democratic norms?

In independent India first major act of ideological murder, killing for political goals, prompted by intolerance was murder of Father of the Nation Mahatma Gandhi. Godse was the killer and RSS was banned. Saradar Patel, the then Home minister wrote to RSS chief Golwalkar, “As regards the RSS and the Hindu Mahasabha… our reports do confirm that, as a result of the activities of these two bodies, particularly the former (RSS) an atmosphere was created in the country in which such a ghastly tragedy became possible.”– Sardar Vallabhai Patel, India’s first home minister, on the assassination of Gandhi, in a letter dated July 18, 1948 to Shyama Prasad Mukherjee. (Sardar Patel Correspondence, Volume 6, edited by Durga Das)

The type of suppression we saw during Emergency of 1975 was the one imposed by an authoritarian state, now the present phenomenon is not just the one brought in by the state. State, since is being controlled by narrow nationalism is playing its role, but the deeper and more damaging part is the one brought in by the so called fringe elements, the storm troopers of the ideology motivated by communal hatred. The divisive ideology is creating Hate not only against the religious minorities but also against those who are trying to uphold democratic, plural and diverse values in society.

Diverse opinions, debated in an open spirit are the best guarantee for democratic society. The sectarian ideologies are opposed to democratic ethos and so they are pushing the intolerance worse possible levels. There is a need to protect the democratic freedom by combating communalism.