(Published in Sify.com, on March 17, 2015, retrieved from http://www.sify.com/news/the-dangers-of-a-society-that-bans-debate-news-columns-pdri0cbhhbjhe.html)
Often, I think about what it is that makes us different from our neighbours – China, where artists of all kinds are in constant danger, Sri Lanka where every column could lead to the issue of a death warrant, Pakistan where it appears no one is safe. Perhaps not very much.
We call ourselves multicultural, and boast of unity-in-diversity. But is this diversity tolerable only when it is skin deep? Are we allowed to have opinions that are different from that of the majority?
One of our most important rights is the right to freedom of expression, but even that Constitutional guarantee comes with a rider that is open to interpretation – that it must not offend or hurt the sentiments of others – and is, besides, bound by several other parameters, ranging from foreign relations to ‘decency and morality’, all of which are open to interpretation.
Irrespective of the government in charge at the Centre, India’s first reaction to controversy, especially when it concerns art, is to ban without question.
Art is often considered representative and reflective of society, and so it ought to come as no surprise that our democracy is only really a pretend-democracy. We, as citizens, have never had a say in the actual running of our country. A politician can change the names of our cities at will, and we have no choice. A party can push through a nuclear deal that offers little guarantee for life or livelihood in case of an accident, and we have no choice.
We live in a country whose rulers actively escorted Warren Anderson to safety and immunity in the wake of the Bhopal gas leak, allowing him to die in peace and of old age – neither of which luxury is available to generations that were affected and will continue to be affected by the tragedy. And, yet, we offer little security to authors and artists who are threatened by bigoted and extremist outfits.
Every day, as the rest of the world grows more liberal and our own country thumps its chest on its economic progress, we are adopting smaller minds.
The clampdown on debate is only getting more stringent.
Nowadays, we don’t simply protest against opinions that are contrary to our own. We will not even allow them to be heard.
A television channel is attacked over the trailer of a programme which discusses the relevance of the thaali. The reason given by the attackers is that the subject is against Tamil culture. Now, the attack would have been disgusting even if the protesters were objecting to the opinions of some people in their programme. But it is absolutely terrifying when the protesters are objecting not only to opinions, but to the existence of debate, to the prospect of an open discussion.
It would be troubling enough if this sort of hooliganism were ignored. However, there is a sense that it is even encouraged. The governments at the state and central level have offered no protection to media networks that want to run programmes to which sections of the population object. Even our judiciary shrugs its shoulders. For the longest time, the judiciary kept legislative powers in check. We must begin to despair if it acts as enforcer now.
The number of bans brought in by the government has turned into a joke. But none of us will be laughing when the control exerted by the government begins to extend to the internet.
Because that is where China is right now. And I worry that its economic model will be held up to us as a shining example of all that can be achieved when debate is banned.
From the re-criminalisation of ‘unnatural’ sex to protests over Valentine’s Day to the treatment of women to religious freedom, it seems our country is moving back a century at a time, and will freeze at the most conservative period of its history.
It is not becoming a ‘Hindu’ nation, because there is no stricture in Hinduism that objects to romance, sex in all its variations – premarital, ‘unnatural’, orgiastic – or to debate.
It is becoming a nation of thugs, who make the rules.
We cannot afford to succumb to a dictatorship of ‘moral’ codes. For too long, we have been a society that has acquiesced in handed-down opinions on what is right and what is wrong. We have allowed these opinions to fossilise into rules, and even define our laws.
This conservativeness must be blamed for most of our current social stigma, our prejudices against divorcees, unwed mothers, single parents, and even rape victims.
Unless we leave this conservativeness behind, our claims of progress will ring hollow.