By Ashley Tellis
Jignesh Mevani’s talk being cancelled at H K Arts College, his own alma mater in Ahmedabad, because of threats by the ABVP is only the latest episode in the muzzling of the freedom of expression that has become routine across India. Earlier this year, there was mayhem by the BJP Yuva Morcha at the Dharwad Literary festival after Shiv Vishwanathan’s talk and the festival organisers apologised. Loyola College also apologised after Tamil BJP leaders and rabble-rousers attacked an ‘anti-national’ (read critical of the government) art exhibition on the college premises. The college apologised for holding the exhibition.
It comes as no surprise that the BJP and its goonda politics was behind all three conniptions. It is a sad and pathetic statement on the government that its party needs to resort to violence to muzzle any voice of dissent but this is the practice that has made them popular. It is, however, much more deplorable that institutions give in to this sort of arm-twisting and apologise for or cancel events.
It tells us something about the nature of our commitment to the principles of democracy that we capitulate so easily to pressure from goonda politics. All that needs to be done, it appears is to threaten violence and institutions cower, apologies pour forth. This shows that we are living in a goonda raj and not in a democracy.
It is not as if standing up for what one believes in is so difficult. The Principal of H K College, Hemantkumar Shah, for example, has resigned and when people congratulated him and told him he did a great job, he answered that he was only doing his job and it is what anyone would and should do. (The Vice Principal also resigned). Amol Palekar in firmly standing by his words and asking whether he was being censored at his talk at NGMA in Bombay is another example. These men have taken on heroic proportions because their responses are so uncommon.
People congratulating them, however, only expose their own pusillanimity and backbonelessness. Why is it that we are unwilling to take a stand for principles in which we claim to believe? Why is the response to any such goonda politics a cowering in fear? What does that reduce our public sphere to? In buckling, we send a clear message to the Hindu Right: that we can be browbeaten quite easily, that all it takes to break us are some threats, some violence, some breaking of chairs and mikes and the beating up of people.
The answer is not counter violence but a sticking to our principles, continuing to do what we do. Yes, the police will not turn up in time. Yes, even if it is hanging around it is likely not to stand by us. But that should not stop us from believing in what we do. Allowing screenings to stop (Kirorimal College), conferences to be dismantled (Ramjas College) and speakers to be cancelled (Nayantara Sahgal) only lets the Hindu Right know that it has won, that we are easy to defeat, that we will not even put up a fight.
Surely there are enough of us to cordon off a space? Surely there is enough technology to capture the violators in action and build a body of evidence? Surely there are ways to hold others responsible and hold ourselves responsible for what we believe in?
Yet all we do is remain spectators as institutions (and we ourselves) grovel and recede. It seems that brute, primal, visceral physical violence, or the threat of it, arrests us, paralyses us. The time has come, five years into this regime which has seen an unprecedented number of attacks on the freedom of expression since Indian independence, to ask what is so seductive about violence that it incapacitates us.
Is it because violence, or the threat of violence, terrifies us since birth in the space of the family where we are vulnerable and defenceless? This continues in the school, the college and the workplace. Is what the Hindu Right does, then, merely, a continuation of what we have faced all our lives and not the aberration we claim it is? Is it that the Hindu Right rips open the façade that we are a society that works on civilised and democratic processes?
Is it this stage of neoliberalism or late capitalism that has made it apparent that might is right and this is why we see violent assertions of retrograde forces across the world, the rise of rightwing regimes across the world and a middle class in thrall of this?
Is it that at the heart of this is the fact we are all fascists, that given a chance we will all assert our power and dominion violently, that beneath the veneer of civilisation and democracy, we are no different from other animals?
We have to make up our minds – and, yes, as humans we have minds – whether we want a dog-eat-dog world or one in which we ensure that we live peaceably with each other and converse even, indeed especially, when we do not agree with each other.
For those of us who want the latter, it is time to stand up to this violence with every non-violent means we might imagine.
Ashley Tellis is an LGBH, anti-communal, feminist, child, Dalit, adivasi, and minority rights activist. He lives and works in Hyderabad.
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