The voice of dissent is often clamoured down by whataboutery and the dreaded tag of being an anti-national, which opens one up to a barrage of now socially-sanctioned hostilities and threats. Disagreeing with the present-day jingoism, majoritarianism, and partisan discourse is seen as a threat to the hostile form of predominately right-wing nationalism which had emerged over the course of the last few years.
The word anti-national is thrown around often to digress from discussing subjects of paramount importance or when dated practices or beliefs are challenged. In the media, it is common for anyone who doesn’t agree with right-leaning anchors and their politics to be called anti-nationals, terrorists and to be met with vitriolic diatribe. Recently, members of the Opposition and others asking for proof of the Balakot air-strikes – after the number of reported casualties kept fluctuating – were called terrorist sympathizers and anti-nationals. This was preceded by international media claiming the air-strikes had failed to cause any casualties. In the Indian media and online, the discourse was distorted and made to look like a mockery and question upon the integrity of the IAF, in order to silence anyone demanding proof from the government.
This comes in the wake of the hostile discourse over the situation with Pakistan. On social media, speaking out against a possible war is being seen as a testament to anti-national sentiments. Anyone advocating against it is being called a terrorist and a Pakistani sympathizer. The hashtag #SayYesToWar was trending on social media, which enthusiastic and delusional pleas to declare war.
This aggression isn’t limited to the tensions with Pakistan. Recently, in Muzaffarnagar, BJP party workers brutally trashed a young man who questioned the government’s exaggerated claims about better jobs and education, saying the current government had failed to provide jobs. The Mob of nearly 15-20 workers was heard calling the man a terrorist. All this comes in the wake of the increased violence against Kashmiris after the Pulwama attack. A few days back, members of the Vishwa Hindu Dal beat-up a Kashmiri vendor in Lucknow.
Last year, artist Durga Malathi had stones pelted at her house and was met with rape and death threats after her paintings condemning the Kathua rape emerged online. The mainstream categorization of anyone who expressed dissent as anti-national probably came into being in 2015 with Aamir Khan. Khan mentioned in 2015 that his wife who was alarmed by the increasing instances of intolerance and violence suggested they leave the country. For this statement, Khan was met with threats and was asked to move to Pakistan. A leader of the Hindu Mahasabha said that Khan should either convert or leave India for Pakistan, he also went on to suggest that he should be tried for treason. Taking the seemingly inane issue further, attorney Manoj Kumar Dixit filed a case of sedition against Khan. Ironically, all of this only went on to prove Khan’s wife and her claims of intolerance right.
This trend of emerging hostility towards dissenters is perfectly embodied by Republic TV’s Arnab Goswami. After being condemned for his war-mongering rampage following the Pulwama attack, Arnab Goswami started coming down brutally on panelists on his prime-time debate who disagreed with him.
The past two weeks have seen Goswami call-out everyone who doesn’t agree with his right-leaning politics, yelling at them, berating them, and unsurprisingly, calling them anti-nationals.
The current level of discourse in India is abysmal. Vicious personal attacks, problematic remarks, open hostility, and humiliation are all used as tools to digress from important subjects of discussion. Few days ago, BJP’s National Spokesperson Gaurav Bhatia was called out by journalist Rubika Liyaquat for his sexist remark. When questioned by Congress’ Rohan Gupta during a debate, Bhatia yelled at him to wear a petticoat and chudia, implying they represent weakness because they are associated with women. Liyaquat called him out for his sexism and also for his uncivilized approach towards the Opposition.
The fast-emerging intolerance towards dissenting opinions brings us to the question of where we are heading and how policing thought and speech by shaming, hostility, and threats is setting an extremely dangerous precedent. The stories of Salman Rushdie, Gauri Lankesh, Shujaat Bhukari, and every other voice of dissent that is met with hostility and violence is a cautionary tale. Not a cautionary tale to the dissenters, but a cautionary tale to the nation. Without fostering and empowering every voice of reasonable dissent, we create an atmosphere of fear and hostility, where silence is safe and a voice against popular opinion is met with verbal attacks, aggression, and even violence. The freedom to dissent is essential to accountability and progress when one voice is empowered and the remaining are suppressed and eliminated, we are looking at a draconian dystopia where only one voice is allowed to lead, with absolutely no accountability.