By Arati Nair:
The murder of Dr. M. M. Kalburgi, a renowned rationalist thinker and ex-Vice Chancellor of Hampi University, in broad daylight underscores the festering culture of intolerance gaining perpetuity in the India of today. Dr. Kalburgi was quite vocal in his condemnation of idol worship and fuelled the ire of the Lingayat community in particular through his staunch views on Hinduism and its origin. What is even more alarming, following his death, is the audacity of certain religious groups that vouch for a killing spree on social media, going so far as to name the next victim too. This incident is eerily similar to past instances of scholars like Narendra Dabholkar and Govind Pansare being targeted by hardliners for soldiering against blind beliefs and propagating reasoned thinking.
For a democracy bereft of the essential ethos, strangling free thought and stifling dissent becomes commonplace. The practice of exterminating individuals who question the sanctity of faith and its myriad rituals sets a dangerous precedent for the enlightened new generation. When Perumal Murugan denounced his role as an author, following widespread protests against his works by the Kongu Vellala Gounder community in Tamil Nadu, he inadvertently gave in to the hegemonic demands of the group. Alternatively, he could have done little else as the right to freedom in India is more selective than fundamental.
With ideologues like Nripendra Misra, Ajit Doval, P.K. Mishra, affiliated to the RSS, as policymakers in the Modi sarkar, it seems imminent that inflamed passions against contrarian ideas are bound to burst free. Certain right wing groups have become increasingly active as their ideology forms the bedrock of the ruling dispensation. Political parties usually steer clear of the communal livewire, leaving agitational tactics to fringe elements, for vote-bank gains and this erodes the secular credentials that our nation stands for. But, religious fanaticism curbing free speech has been a feature of our illustrious democratic tradition even before independence. Successive governments run by the UPA and the NDA silently endorsed all such protests. So, both are equally to blame for the present scenario.
Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code was enacted in 1927 after widespread protests by Muslims in India, following the publication of ‘Rangila Rasul‘, a controversial book concerning the marriage of Prophet Mohammad. Thus began the ‘ban’ syndrome in India with books, films, paintings and plays being banned for daring to overstep the diktats of one religion or the other. Salman Rushdie, Taslima Nasreen, M.F. Hussain, Wendy Doniger and Perumal Murugan have all been casualties of a stifling discourse on unilateral thinking.
The Indian law does not confer absolute freedom of speech and expression on its citizens but allows reasonable restrictions on grounds of national security, decency and morality, incitement to an offence etc. However, these do not curtail the right of any person to express an opinion based on rationalism or scientific deduction. The ruling by the apex court in the Maneka Gandhi case (1978) is pertinent in this regard as it provides citizens with the right to express themselves, unrestricted by geographical barriers, and share their opinions without fear. More recently, the quashing of Section 66A of the IT Act further lends credence to the higher judiciary’s attempts to safeguard individual opinion and free thinking.
While bans may emerge as potent tools to safeguard the feelings and beliefs of a select group, the murder of dissenting intellectuals begets a terrifying trend of silencing discordant voices. India has not yet evolved to honour different opinions, as evident from the killing of three academicians within a span of two years.
But has their elimination muzzled free speech?
Narendra Dabolkar’s campaign against fraudulent superstitious practices bore fruit in 2013 when, after his death, the Anti-Superstition and Black Magic Act was passed in Maharashtra. Govind Pansare’s demise increased the sale of his books, signifying greater public support for his ideas against social wrongdoings. Dr. Kalburgi is the latest martyr and his teachings too will not be in vain. It can only be hoped that the perpetrators of all three crimes be put behind bars at the earliest.
Every faith propagates the doctrine of peaceful coexistence. Our holy books too contain varying ideologies interpreted differently by different schools of thought. A mature debate on these distinct features could further enrich our religious legacy. The extremism propagated in the garb of religious righteousness is the means for socio-political dominance by a fanatical faction. The larger populace though, supports loud voices and celebrates differences.