India celebrated its 64th Republic Day on January 26 with much fanfare, displaying its military might and cultural diversity in a parade that rolled through New Delhi.
While the parade showcased the nation’s achievements over the last six decades, the image portrayed is at considerable odds with reality. Since adopting a democratic and liberal constitution on January 26, 1950, the attack on India’s liberal and democratic traditions has never been as acute as it is now.
As the parade moved down Rajpath, New Delhi’s ceremonial boulevard, a religious fringe group in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu was pressuring authorities to withdraw the release of the movie Vishwaroopam from cinemas on the grounds that it insults Islam.
The spy flick—written, directed and co-produced by Kamal Haasan, who also stars—deals with Islamic terrorism. Although the movie was cleared by Indian censors, its release has now been put on hold, to the disappointment of fans.
Nor is this an isolated occurrence. A tiny minority has launched a growing number of attacks on India’s hard-won liberal democratic traditions in recent days.
At the just-concluded Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF), lauded Indian political psychologist Ashis Nandy was attacked by political parties representing socially and economically underprivileged regions for making anti-Dalit remarks during a panel discussion.
Taking offence to this academic discussion, Rajpal Meena, Chairperson of the SC/ST Rajasthan Manch, opened a police case against the academic. Under pressure from the government, the festival organizers dropped Nandy from the program itinerary completely.
In response, Indian-born British author Salman Rushdie, who is in India to promote the film Midnight’s Children, called this intolerance towards dissent a “cultural emergency” in an interview with CNN-IBN. Viswaroopam director Kamal Hassan referred to these fringe groups as “cultural terrorists”.
This element of Indian society has forced Rushdie to refrain from attending the festival in Jaipur, which is Asia’s largest.
Journalists have not escaped this moral politicking. Naveen Soorinje, a reporter working for Kasturi Newz24 in the South Indian state of Karnataka, has been put behind bars by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government for exposing an attack by a radical Hindu group on a group of young students who were holding a birthday party at a homestay in the Mangalore district. The television journalist has become a rallying point for those who are fighting for freedom of speech and expression.
The worrying point about these episodes is not the activism of these fringe groups, but the government’s capitulation to them. Time and again, the government, whether central or local, has taken pains to curb liberal voices rather than put a check on their radical counterparts. Authorities have protected law breakers, and arrested those who uphold the constitution.
This trend is not restricted to right wing groups. Members of the liberal and pro-free speech political class are also involved. India’s subaltern politics are a byproduct of the very liberal political tradition that politicians from this class are now targeting in their efforts to silence dissent.
This can be observed in numerous cases now, from Rushdie and Nandy to Soorinje and Hassan. India’s military may protect the country’s political boundaries, but a growing need exists to protect India’s identity as a pluralistic nation.
Perhaps the Indian Express summed it up best yesterday: “When politicians abdicate the responsibility of standing up for the average citizen in the face of such action, when they become cheerleaders for intimidation in fact, the republic is in trouble indeed.