The right to be offended is now an all-inclusive Indian sport that unites citizens from Tamil Nadu to Kashmir, Jaipur to Kolkata, women, Dalits, Muslim, Hindus.
The events of the past few weeks have a depressing sameness. In Kashmir, an all girls’ rock band is declared un-Islamic and disbands. In Tamil Nadu, Kamal Haasan agrees to seven cuts to allow for the release of his film, Vishwaroopam.
In Kolkata, Salman Rushdie cancels plans to attend the book fair. In Bangalore, paintings of nude goddesses cause offence. An academic faces arrest for an intemperate idea. And on it goes.
These disparate events of the past few weeks have some common threads. The first is the growing power of assorted loonies to hold the State to ransom. Today, any group with five black flags can, and frequently does, threaten public order.
Feeding into this blackmail is a hungry media that provides the oxygen of 15 minutes of primetime publicity. Who do these rabble rousers speak for? They certainly do not represent public opinion. There has been no mass upsurge against a film or writer.
There is more angst in Kashmir over the hanging of Afzal Guru than ‘un-Islamic’ girl bands. We have seen nothing even remotely close to the raw anger in the wake of the December Delhi gang rape. The ‘banners’ are groups that seek to serve their own limited interests and do not reflect any larger protest.
The second obvious thread is the failure of the State to rein in these groups and protect the right of citizens to listen to a rock band, see a film or an exhibition, listen to an author, and argue with a bad idea.
Freedom of expression guaranteed by our Constitution, albeit with strictures, includes not just my right to speak (or paint, make movies and so on) but also my right to listen and watch.
It is preposterous that chief minister J Jayalalithaa says she doesn’t have the police force required to protect cinema halls.
It is equally preposterous that Mamata Banerjee’s administration should tip off groups about the arrival of Salman Rushdie. (And let’s give Omar Abdullah credit for arresting those who issue death threats).
Yet, ironically, guarantors of law and order demonstrate their reluctance to act against progenitors of real hate speech whether it is Akbaruddin Owaisi in Andhra Pradesh or, now, Pravin Togadia in Maharashtra.
Even worse is when the State itself resorts to suppression through means like Section 66A under which students get arrested for Facebook posts.
But it is the third thread, related to the first, which is the most disquieting. If there is no larger public demand for bans then there has been no larger public protest against the bans either.
In television studios and newspaper columns the same few people argue for tolerance. But this liberal voice has no larger resonance. Yet, every ban, every compromise whittles away at our constitutional freedoms.
Our failure to protest loudly enough — as we did against corruption or growing sexual violence — makes us complicit with weak governance. We are meekly handing over our rights as citizens to an enfeebled State that clearly does not trust us to make judicious choices.
“Democracy in India,” said BR Ambedkar, “is the top dressing on Indian soil which is essentially undemocratic.” Sixty seven years after Independence we seem to be becoming less democratic, less liberal.
The restrictions placed on freedom of expression in Article 19 of the Constitution places strictures presumably on the assumption that it is easy to stoke enmity between disparate groups in a fledgling republic.
But when Supreme Court judges tell sociologist Ashis Nandy that he has ‘no license to make such comments’ then we have to conclude that even our highest court recognises that we continue to exist in a fragile State where citizens lack the maturity to peacefully reject unsavory ideas and so, it is better not to voice them at all.
It’s a silence that threatens democratic ideas and places every citizen, regardless of ideology, at peril.
Namita Bhandare is a Delhi-based writer
The views expressed by the author are personal