One can hardly deny the fact that our country is suffering from a social crisis today. And I believe the reason behind this can be explained in just four effective words from Plato – “Your silence gives consent.” But the purpose of mentioning this statement is not to make you understand how important it is to speak against the government. It is to let you know how wonderfully our government has understood this philosophy of Plato. Hence, to gain the consent for carrying out any sort of work (no matter how undemocratic it is) all they need to do is to make everyone silent.
The very purpose of having a democracy is to hear many voices presenting different opinions. But today, in the largest democracy in the world, attempts to silence those voices are no longer limited to student activists or common citizens. While celebrating 70 years of our freedom, the fundamental right to freedom of expression was snatched away from the elected Chief Minister of Tripura, when Prasar Bharti refused to air his Independence Day speech on Doordarshan and All India Radio.
On the morning of August 15, Manik Sarkar, the Chief Minister of Tripura, was even directed about what he should not say in his speech. Later, when he delivered his speech in which he talked about unity in diversity and economic equality, he was asked to ‘reshape’ it. And when he declined to do so, the broadcast of his speech got denied.
The only parts of his speech, which authorities might have found offensive were the ones in which he said, “Today, the spirit of secularism is under attack. Conspiracy and attempts are underway to create an undesirable complexity and divisions in our society; to invade our national consciousness in the name of religion, caste and community, by inciting passions to convert India into a particular religion country and in the name of protecting the cow…” But how are his views in any way different from the words coming out of Lal Qila on the very same day, which said, “Aastha ke naam pe hinsa nahi chalegi (Violence won’t be tolerated in the name of faith)”?
One might argue that government has no role in censoring his speech and it is the work of the officials of Prasar Bharti, but what is interesting is that his speech continued with the following words, “…Because of all this, people of minority and Dalit communities are under attack. Their sense of security is being shattered.” Now if his speech had been blacked out for going against the guidelines, like ‘anything obscene or defamatory’ or ‘affecting the integrity of the nation’, it could have been blamed on the officials. But his speech, perhaps, went against the idea of the government’s ‘New India’, where there is no place for dissent and criticism, especially in cases related to minorities and Dalits.
The last time someone shared the exact same views was just a week before this incident, and despite the fact that it came from a man who once held the second highest constitutional post in India, the fate it met was not very different. Former Vice President Hamid Ansari’s views about a sense of insecurity creeping in among the Indian Muslims (which is backed by a large number of facts) triggered tremendous outrage from the ruling party. The current Vice President said it is ‘a political propaganda’. The Prime Minister’s complete incivility during his speech for Hamid Ansari’s Rajya Sabha farewell cannot be forgotten in decades to come.
Now if a Vice President can be labelled a follower of Muhammad Ali Jinnah (by many right-wing leaders) for expressing concern for his fellow citizens, how can one expect ordinary citizens to break their silence on atrocities against any section of our society? The Prime Minister accused him of following the ideology of Congress and Muslims during his career as a diplomat and said he might have felt unease while following the Indian constitution for the last decade. By fiercely insulting anyone who raises questions about minorities and Dalits, they are simply proving Hamid Ansari’s point.
These are definitely not isolated cases. Walter Cronkite had said, “Freedom of the press is not just important to democracy, it is democracy.” And hence, the constant attacks on the press – the ban on NDTV India, clampdown on newspapers in Kashmir and other parts of the country, recent raids spurred by baseless allegations, are not attacks on just the freedom of the press, but on democracy itself.
The university is undoubtedly a place of dialogue, discussion, debate and dissent, to ultimately strengthen democracy. But frequent attacks on the freedom of university students are also gaining momentum. Rohith Vemula’s voice was among the first ones to be silenced, and it was silenced so ruthlessly that he chose to remain silent forever. Kanhaiyya, Umar and Anirban were labelled anti-nationals and terrorists on the basis of doctored videos and fictional stories. Their voices were silenced so brutally that an ordinary citizen would think twice before raising questions against any authority. The attempts to attack their freedom of speech have not yet stopped. Last month, Kanhaiyya Kumar’s had a speech scheduled in my city, Aurangabad. At the eleventh hour, the organisers received a notice asking them to cancel the event, from the authorities. After asking for the reason for the cancellation, the authorities simply said that they had received these orders from ‘above’. This was later revoked after a hunger strike by student activists.
Gurmeher Kaur’s incident was not only about a girl receiving rape and death threats for opposing the student organisation of a powerful party. It was about how freedom of expression on the internet can be crushed with the help of trolls and threats. And one can again argue that the government has no role in promoting such things, but the pictures of Prime Minister felicitating some of the worst abusers on twitter at his own residence – who are constantly engaged in threatening girls with rape and murder – and following them through his private account tells an entirely different story. On July 1, 2016, the PM hosted a group of 150 social media influencers at his residence, where he asked them to use ‘positive language even while facing abuse’. But quite a few of those 150 supporters are alleged to be abusive trolls. One of them, Tajinder Bagga, was appointed as BJP spokesperson shortly after. Besides this, calling Najeeb a member of ISIS and Shehla Rashid a prostitute are just some of the many ways in which trolls have tried to curtail freedom of expression.
Sadhvi Khosla, a former member of BJP’s IT cell, shared her experience of working there, in Swati Chaturvedi’s book “I am a Troll”. She said, “It was a never-ending drip feed of hate and bigotry against the minorities, the Gandhi family, journalists on the hit list, liberals, anyone perceived as anti-Modi,” and alleged that she herself was forced to send trolls and abusive messages.
The striking connections to the government or the ruling party in all these cases definitely indicate something. The ideological ambition of BJP is an open secret and their communal nature an undeniable truth. The consent required for achieving all these goals can be gained by making everyone silent. Attempts are being made to do the same, but by doing so they are creating a sense of awareness in citizens about their freedom of expression. And for every voice that is silenced, the task of silencing voices is multiplying, because the people of India have understood that their silence gives consent.