One of the worst things in a democracy, particularly in India's case, is the manipulation of the majority by an aggressive but tiny minority—and the failure of a supposedly liberal party to protect the voices of the former.
Take, for instance, the recent ban on English writer Rohinton Mistry’s book Such a Long Journey from the literature syllabus at Mumbai University, thanks to opposition from fringe Hindu rightist group Shiv Sena, which claimed that the book's language is abusive and derogatory towards the party.
Following a protest led by Aditya Thackeray, a third-generation heir to the regional Hindu party and a Mumbai University student, the vice chancellor of one of the best liberal universities in India surrendered meekly and withdrew the book from the curriculum—without holding a meeting with the teachers or other concerned persons in charge of deciding the curriculum.
This isn’t only a capitulation to the demands of a fringe political group, but also an insult to the liberal tradition and an attack on freedom of expression. Such attacks have, unfortunately, become quite frequent in India where small groups or political parties, on some pretext or another, continue to target artistic freedom and creative expression if they deem it to be insulting to their leader, culture or religion.
What saddens me most is the silence, and thereby subtle endorsement, of such intolerance by supposedly liberal political parties like the Congress Party.
Congress Chief Minister of Maharashtra Ashokrao Chavan, without reading the book or understanding the context and time in which the novel is set, has also declared the book to be abusive and not fit for students. In doing so, he gives legitimacy to the protests of the rabid rightist party (which Mistry in his book describes as ‘fascist’).
Who are the politicians to decide what is good or bad writing? Writer C P Surendran, commenting on the issue in Times of India, says writing is all about the right to offend. Suppression of thoughts is for diplomats and politicians—writers must write to challenge the standard notions of correctness and decency. This how the status quo is challenged and how change comes about. The right to offend, in short, is central to the liberty of free speech and thought. The strength of a democracy, on the other hand, is its tolerance to dissent.
I’ve grown up watching the Congress party since the mid-1980s and feel disappointed by its continuous failure to take a stand on any issue affecting liberal and secular politics—be it the Shahbano case to give equal rights to Muslim women, or the banning of Rushdie’s book, The Satanic Verses, or its taking a purely secular stand on the Ayodhya issue, or curbing the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena’s chauvinistic and violent activities toward immigrant populations in Mumbai.
And now, the Congress has again failed us by letting the Shiv Sena create an atmosphere of fear at the campus of Mumbai University.
At this time of restlessness and anger, some lines from the great Rabindranath Tagore’s poem Chitto Jetha Bhayashunyo (Where the Mind is Without Fear) come to mind:
Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls
Where words come out from the depth of truth
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit
Where the mind is led forward by thee
Into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.