Sectarianism Suppressing Democratic Right of Expression — Ram Puniyani


During the last few years, we have tragically witnessed murders of the writers, social activists who have been upholding rational thought, those who have been opposing the hold of values which support caste system, those who have been opposing politics in the name of Hinduism. 


THE 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 a heavy cost, the major leaders had to face the wrath of the 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 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. The ruling party, through its control over a section of media, is using a heavy hand to control the free thinkers as well. One major and frightening phenomenon accompanying the attempt to muzzle the dissenting opinion has been to eliminate the thinkers and writers – physically.

We know that sometimes state can outright control the media, as has happened during the emergency. The censoring of media, raids on the publication houses had been resorted to by the authoritarian state then also. 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 law into their own hands, with full knowledge that the ruling party and state is with them, and they can get away with their crimes of eliminating thinkers and activists, whom they can’t oppose at the ideological level.
By nature, most of the ideologies which promote nationalism in the name of religion, are grossly intolerant and indulge in violence, and killing to promote the communal divide. 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 bloggers, and have been physically eliminating them.

During the last several years, we have tragically witnessed 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 politics in the name of Hinduism. When Narendra Dabholkar was shot, 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 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 as a humane king, taking care of his subjects, 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, 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 Lingyats as a religious minority. The impact of these activists was perceived as a threat and was perceived as a thorn in the flesh of divisive ideology. The pattern of their murders was similar: motorbike riders coming and shooting them.

The investigations have so far not yielded much and except one worker of Sanatan Sanstha, ideologically close to the dominant political tendency today, no arrests have been made.

As such these murderers are like the tip of the iceberg. These murders are accompanied with the growing intolerance in the society, which has also lead to killings and beatings of Muslims, Dalits in the name of Holy cow and beef. The killings of Mohammad Akhlaq, Junaid Khan, and Una flogging have 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 the 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, the first major act of ideological murder, killing for political goals, prompted by intolerance was the murder of Father of the Nation, Mahatma Gandhi. Godse was the killer and the RSS was banned after that. Sardar 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 the Emergency of 1975 was the one imposed by an authoritarian state, but 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 the society.

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

Ram Puniyani is an eminent author, activist and former professor of IIT Mumbai


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