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Hark! Is the bell tolling?

We don’t expect very much of our politicians, but, at the very least, they should stand up for our freedoms. Karan Thapar examines...

india Updated: Jan 13, 2008 04:47 IST

Of one thing you can be certain, Voltaire wouldn’t approve of present-day India. That may sound facetious but, in fact, it conveys a sad and disturbing truth. I accept he may never have actually said, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to death your right to say it”, but no one has so far questioned the fact that he believed in this principle. Today, this aphorism has become the litmus test of a free liberal society.

Well, we’ve just failed that test, yet again! But what’s particularly galling is that this time round, it’s happened at the hands of our politicians, the supposed defenders of our freedoms! For no reason that I can discern, Priyaranjan Dasmunsi has weighed-in against Taslima Nasreen — as if she doesn’t have enough critics and enemies already! — and kicked his jackboot in. “She should bow down before the people whose sentiments she has hurt,” he says, “and apologise with folded hands.”

Consider for a moment what this amounts to. He’s not simply asking her to say sorry, he’s forcing her to her knees and telling her to plead for forgiveness! And this, from a man, who is not just a senior member of the Congress Party, not just an eminent cabinet minister but, in fact, the guardian of our press and broadcast freedoms! He is our I&B Minister.

Sadly, Mr. Dasmunsi’s intemperate outburst is wholly in keeping with the official position of his government. It only goes further in its crude bluntness. Way back in November, Pranab Mukherjee said in Parliament that whilst Ms. Nasreen would not be refused shelter, “it is also expected that guests will refrain from activities and expressions that may hurt the sentiments of our people.” Even if more subtly phrased, the Mukherjee position was hardly better.

So where does that leave India’s “civilisational heritage”, to use Pranab Mukherjee’s grandiloquent and beguiling phrase? In terrible contradictions, if not in tatters.

When Buddha and Mahavira challenged the brahminical orthodoxy of their day, was this India’s “civilisational” response? Clearly not. More significantly, is it the Guru Teg Bahadurs, the Syed Ahmed Khans and the Ram Mohan Roys we are proud of or our Pushyamitra Sungas, Aurangzebs, and Dwyers? And finally, what has happened to Mahatma Gandhi’s open windows and the challenging winds he hoped would sweep aside the cobwebs in our mind? The Government seems to have shut, if not also barricaded them.

Next, what does this limited welcome mean for Taslima? As Arundhati Roy said to me: “It’s like being sentenced to good behaviour for the rest of your life — which is a death sentence for a writer. If I had to live in these conditions, I would become a yoga instructor!”

But, most importantly, who are these Indians whose sentiments must not be hurt? Who are the people to whom Taslima Nasreen must bow down and plead for forgiveness with folded hands? Not you or me or other broad-minded, rational, free-thinking, enlightened, educated people, but narrow, prejudiced, insular and authoritarian mullahs. Are our freedoms to be judged by their values and reactions? Are they the accepted arbitors of what is and what is not acceptable?

I have to assert that when Mr. Mukherjee says Taslima Nasreen must not say, do or write things that “hurt the sentiments of our people”, I do not recognise the pronoun ‘our’. Am I part of it? Are you? Is he? Or does he only have in mind a small but vocal and violent minority — perhaps disowned by, or at least, embarrassing to the majority of their co-religionists — who, he believes, delivers votes?

We don’t expect very much of our politicians — if there is one lesson experience has taught us, it must be this — but, at the very least, they should stand up for our freedoms. Otherwise, they could soon be tolling the bell for themselves. Let them remember what they deny Taslima or us today, they could end up losing themselves tomorrow.