Dissent is not simply a right, it’s fundamentally a civic virtue
Journalists, activists, scholars, students and protesters shouldn’t have to fear being physically attacked or killed for their viewscolumns Updated: Sep 10, 2017 18:56 IST
Ten years ago, a 17-year-old student called Ogun Samast walked up to journalist Hrant Dink outside the offices of his newspaper in Istanbul. Samast shot Dink in the back of the head three times. Dink was a member of Turkey’s small but resilient Armenian community, and he had been outspoken about the country’s failure to acknowledge the genocide of Armenians during World War I. His writing and activism had landed him in legal hot water. When he was killed, he was on trial for violating an article of the Turkish penal code, the supposed crime of “denigrating Turkishness”.
I recall the furore and tragedy surrounding Dink’s death quite vividly because he was also a contributor to (and friend of) the London-based international affairs magazine where I was working. The furniture of our little office had to be moved aside for a procession of TV crews to record our reactions to his death. Coming just months after the murder in Russia of Anna Politkovskaya — a journalist, human rights activist, and trenchant critic of Vladimir Putin — Dink’s assassination was strongly felt.
My editors were outraged that despite receiving waves of death threats, Dink had had not been extended the necessary protection. (In 2010, the European Court of Human Rights would rule that Turkey failed to guard Dink even though the government knew of plots against him.) The crime of his killing belonged not just to the murderer (a young far-Right ultra-nationalist), but to a society that condoned the intimidation of journalists and critics, the bullying and prosecution of dissent.
Thousands took the streets of Istanbul afterwards with placards proclaiming, ‘We are Hrant Dink’. I remember being moved by that display, and chilled by its corollary. In Trabzon, the Black Sea town where Samast came from, fans of the local football team chanted the killer’s name: “We are Ogun Samast.”
The killing of Gauri Lankesh in Bengaluru reminded me in a number of ways of Dink’s death. Both Lankesh and Dink voiced unpopular opinions. Both ran small, fairly marginal publications whose impact outweighed their size. Both saw it as their mission to ruffle the feathers of the status quo. For their pains, both had legal proceedings brought against them. And though many political parties and sectors of civil society condemned their killings, both their deaths were greeted in some quarters with an awful glee.
Union minister Ravi Shankar Prasad has correctly denounced the messages circulating among the ‘digital Right’ — the Internet mob of Hindu nationalists — celebrating Lankesh’s killing. This rebuke is, of course, the bare minimum of decency we should expect from our leaders. Journalists, activists, scholars, students and protesters shouldn’t have to fear being physically attacked or killed for their views. Their dissent is not simply a right; it is fundamentally a civic virtue.
In death, Dink and Lankesh achieved a tragic global fame that they didn’t have in life. But treating them like ‘martyrs’ doesn’t really help anybody. Repression works. Turkey and India were robbed of their writing, their attacks on conventional wisdom. Killings of journalists and dissidents have a terrible chilling effect on a society. Months after Dink was murdered, I visited Istanbul. I spent an afternoon with a grizzled Turkish writer allied to Dink. Throughout our meeting in Istanbul’s Taksim Square, he looked over his shoulder, checking to see if the bodyguard he now felt obliged to keep was still in position. He was presciently gloomy about the future of free speech in Turkey. At the time, he preferred the Centre-Right government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan to the nationalist far-Right. In recent years, however, Erdogan has cracked down hard against the press, shuttering publications and arresting reporters. Turkey is now one of the most difficult places to be a journalist and a dissident.
Dink was accused of “denigrating Turkishness” for speaking out against the Turkish State. Dissenters in India increasingly find themselves labelled “anti-national”, beyond the pale of not just our attention or respect, but our tolerance. That language ostracises and dehumanises, and it fosters the climate of hate that leads to these killings.
Dissenters may harbour extremely critical views of the State and the nation. The powers-that-be may see them not only as intellectual opponents, but as moral, existential enemies. But when you shut down their speech with violence, you only confirm your own intellectual and moral bankruptcy.
Kanishk Tharoor is the author of Swimmer Among the Stars: Stories.
The views expressed are personal