There is a strange view that holds that people like Arundhati Roy can get away with making outrageous claims, like 'Kashmir has never been an integral part of India', because India is a democracy. This view presumes that free speech is not a fundamental right, but a special favour granted magnanimously to the Indian people by the State. And that the citizens of this country should be ever grateful to their rulers for this favour and desist from criticising it.
So how democratic are we really? Ever since the banning of Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses, a steady stream of writers and film-makers have been driven to the wall by bans, proscriptions and extrajudicial censorship. We can mention, among others, James Lane and his two books on Shivaji, which put the Maharashtrian Hindu street in motion, and Taslima Nasreen who did similarly with the Muslim street in Bengal.
Theatre-owners in Gujarat gang up against Aamir Khan and refuse to show his film for he committed the 'mistake' of attending a Narmada Bachao Andolan sit-in. Rang De Basanti is 'shown' to the defence minister so that a sanitary certificate can be obtained before it's released in theatres. Both Khan and Amitabh Bachchan make it a point to wish Bal Thackeray on his birthday lest he turns his own ferocity and that of his followers upon them for one communal or proto-fascist reason or the other. Khushboo, a Tamil actor, is intimidated by fringe groups for having said that men and women should practise safe sex in pre-marital relationships. One could go on and on.
We call ourselves the world's biggest democracy on the basis of the numbers who participate in our polls. But whenever a culture of dissidence threatens to strike roots, we use all our might to crush it. The problem may be that Indians don't have a clear understanding of 'dissidence'. A dissident is not just an opponent of the government or an agent of social and political protest. A dissident goes against the very logic of the civilisation in which he is forced to operate for reasons of history. A dissident is someone who repudiates family (family as in authority, not family as in love and affection), country and religion. A dissident is fundamentally someone who believes that all those who wield power must be called into question over their actions and the legitimacy of their power.
The reason for the phenomenon of dissidence to be rare in India is that culturally, as a nation, we put a premium on harmony, especially social and political harmony. This harmony is not accompanied by equality and justice but it is enforced by strong authoritarian figures placed on top of some very rigid hierarchies like that of caste and class. Parents have life and death power over their children (see honour killings), the community has life and death power over individuals and the nation-state is ruled by a prince who wields absolute power ruthlessly. Progress is made through a head-on collision of ideas, through conflict, strife and discord. But here, such things have no value; intellectual progress and the building of a great society are of little consequence.
In the East, all that matters is money and social peace. The Chinese Communist Party frequently talks about the need for harmony and extols Confucian virtues. It has succumbed to tradition and now runs an authoritarian, Asian values type of regime that was first made popular by Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore. We, in India, are not that badly off as yet. India struggles against its rotten traditions. Our very modernity is determined by this struggle - see Rammohun Roy and the abolition of sati, Vidyasagar and the remarriage of widows, we had dissidents in the 19th century under the British, people who were willing to go against the very grain of their own culture.
But in the recent years, the democratic space has begun shrinking. The state of our fundamental rights - free speech foremost among them - is an indication of this shrinking space.
Soumitro Das is a Kolkata-based writer. The views expressed by the author are personal.