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Mighty Pen or Mightier Inkpot?

By Parvin Sultana

20 October, 2015

The old saying “A pen is mightier than a sword” pointed to the strength of ideas. How ideas of philosophers and authors gave the language to people to talk about rights, equality, justice, how ideas along with material conditions paved way for popular revolutions and toppling of totalitarian governments. In free democracies it is the pen of an informed electorate that can keep the government from becoming authoritarian. But this will be possible only if the people are assured the freedom of expression.

The right to dissent, disagree and criticize of citizens must be safeguarded. In recent times, it is this right which is under assault in India. Dissent is being scuttled. Books are banned, pulled off from publications, authors are harassed and threatened, rationalists and ideologues are persecuted for their academic works. Rationalists were killed for speaking out against the right wing fanatics and religious superstition.

But instead of outright condemnation of such increasing acts of intolerance, what we witnessed is a jubilant celebration in many in many corners of such assualt. M M Kalburgi, an eminent Kannada litterateur and an ex Vice Chancellor of the Kannada University was shot dead for his opposition to religious superstition. While this murder was preceded by the cold blooded murders of Narendra Dabholkar and Govind Pansare, it has been succeeded by continuous harassment of other authors like K S Bhagavan.

The murders of elderly authors points to a war of ideas and ideologies. The justification and jubilation that followed Kalburgi’s murder showed an increasing intolerance towards difference. While the idea of “hurt religious sentiments” has been misused regularly, at this juncture its ramifications have become more violent. Authors are being silenced. The situation has been worsened by the callous response of the government who did not show any priority in bringing the murderers to book.

The murders of M M Kalburgi showed a new face of intolerant India. This picture was made bleaker by lynching of some Muslim men on suspicion of eating beef and smuggling cows. Apart from the brutality of the murder, the disturbing element was the absence of remorse on the part of those who witnessed it. People conveniently justified the murder by calling it an accident or even equating the life of a cow to that of a human being. Such brutal murders found support in many insensitive comments of our political leaders. Justice for the family of victims of this hate crime continues to be evasive.
The tide of intolerance continued when ghazal maestro Ghulam Ali was not allowed to perform in Mumbai by Shiv Sena. Their protest against Pakistan became all encompassing and included artists from the nation as well. The role of their ally BJP, the party in power, ended in a mellow critique of such opposition. The organizers gave in to the protestors and the show was cancelled.

This was followed by another incident of intolerance. A few hours before the launch of a book by former Foreign Minister of Pakistan Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri, organizers Sudheer Kulkarni was attacked with black ink by Shiv Sena activists. However Kulkarni who heads the Observer Research Foundation, went ahead and addressed a press conference with his face still painted black.

In the antics of Shiv Sena which behaves like a Khap Panchayat, the BJP was a mute spectator. This khap mentality of crushing dissent has made its way to prime time television with an absolute absence of remorse and guilt in attacking someone or in someone getting murdered. This so called peaceful mode of protest of disrupting press conferences and blackening the face of people became very popular with intolerant fringe groups. The next victim was a Jammu and Kashmir MLA Engineer Rashid. Some men threw ink at him while addressing a Press Conference on the recent violence in Uddhampur. Later Hindu Sena took responsibility and said he was attacked for organizing a beef party.

With this the circle seems complete. Now a few intolerant individuals will decide what books we will read, what food we will consume and what music we will listen to. And the government will be a mute spectator to such infringement on individual liberty. It shows that the state is giving more space to dangerous elements. It is confused where it stands on higher values and is ready to give up even without a slightest hint of fight. No wonder murderous mobs believe that they can get away with it.

Amidst the conspicuous silence of the establishment with sudden bouts of mudslinging from political outfits, authors took a stand in a unique way. Authors starting with Uday Prakash, a respected Hindi writer, decided to return his Sahitya Akademi award as a protest against increasing intolerance and incidents of suppression and violence. He was followed by other eminent authors like Nayantara Sahgal, Ashok Vajpeyi, Krishna Sobti, Munawwar Rana along with some 40 others decided to return their awards.

These authors expressed concern on the attack on free speech and rationalists and the increasing instances of intolerance, communal hatred and the Sahitya Akademi’s silence on these atrocities. Showing solidarity Shahshi Deshpande, K Satchidanandan and PK Parakkadavu resigned from the Akademi’s councils. Many other eminent writers from all over have also threatened of similar step if no action is taken.

This dignified gesture by eminent authors was trivialized by many including our Finance Minister. Authors were accused of political partisanship for not returning their awards during earlier instances of communal violence. However the group of authors was so varied, some being awarded by this very government, that painting them in one colour or talking about some grand conspiracy is difficult.

Authors have clearly stated that they are opposing the rising intolerance in the society in general and particularly against authors and rationalists. While many have called the protest symbolic and pointed out its limitations, it did make the Akademi called an emergency meeting to decide the course of action.
In today’s time we can juxtapose these two protests --- authors returning their awards opposing oppression of expression and meetings being vandalized by Shiv Sainiks by throwing ink on people with whom they may not agree. The might of the pen is pitted against the inkpot of mischief makers. Vandalizing book launches and press conferences is a direct violation of freedom of expression upholding which is the government’s responsibility. The space for debate, discussion and deliberation is shrinking. Disagreement leads to violent consequences. Let a book be countered by another book, not an inkpot which is a coward’s way out.

Parvin Sultana is an Assistant Professor in B N College of Assam. Her research interest includes Muslims in Assam, development and northeast, gender etc.


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