The ban(e) on the Republic

The push for a political movement for the continuity of a liberal, democratic, republic has to happen now.

We, in India have in the last few decades become a democracy, with little political will to defend the republic. In a race to prove our cultural and regional exceptionalism, we have systematically and emphatically alienated ourselves from the liberalism and pluralism that marked the spirit behind the framing of the Constitution. India has spent 65 years as a contradictory republic, one that celebrates the liberal values of freedom of speech and expression on paper, while using archaic, Victorian laws to implement them. The recent settlement against Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus is just one among the many disturbing trends that sees the rioters and the religious zealots being given a free hand to shape society in ways that they deem right. Of what use then is the idea of liberalism, if there are few to stand up for it?


Liberalism was shaped as an ideology, a movement that stood against a hereditary and privileged monarchy, a state sanctioned religion and the prevailing belief that the monarch had a divine right to rule. Liberalism rested on the idea that every person was naturally entitled to life, liberty and property, a right that included freedom of speech, practice any religion and have the freedom to choose to be governed. One of the most emphatic defence of the freedom of the press and speech was given by the English poet John Milton in 1644 in the form of a prose Areopagitica where he wrote “Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties” As someone who had to suffer constant censure of his books and writing, his passionate argument called for respect to the privilege and dignity of learning and for deference to the reason, authority and free will of people who could make up their own minds on a book, good or bad.

India’s problem with censorship, the insistence on following archaic laws without considering them in a newer light, and more importantly the glaring lack of liberal education, thought, ideals and actions in society and in the political arena is the root of our problems. Wendy Doniger, Salman Rushdie, Mira Nair, MF Hussain, Kamal Hassan are only a handful of public figures who are at the receiving end of this void in our republic. The risk that our society faces is not the vacuum of liberal thought, but the insistence on filling that vacuum with a distorted and radical interpretation of religion and the assertion of reverence towards something that few may accept or adhere to. This ideology complicates the nature of an otherwise diverse, plural and tolerant society.

The glaring lack of initiative and support be it from individuals or corporations against the clampdown on free speech, expression and freedom of the press is unnerving. A strong, silent ultra conservative majority has managed to make its presence felt by pushing against books, arts, education, press, and even the establishment of liberal values in the country, and we are to blame for letting them be. We have let them make goddesses out of women, enrobe transgenders in the garbs of superstitions, reject homosexuality as a myth and aberration, and violently denounce aspects of modernity as against culture. We have let them establish a culture and a way of life that is erroneous and anachronistic.

For the people who still think quoting Martin Neimöller makes sense, it should be said, that “they have come for every one of us, and we still remain silent”. The idea that we as a republic uphold the notion of freedom of speech, expression, and equality for all, regardless of race, sex, gender, ethnicity and religion, no longer applies. We have given our consent to systematically and lawfully segregate citizens on the basis of their ethnicity and gender, banned people from expressing their sexuality or the cultural and artistic expression of religion, and sexuality.

The idea of Indian exceptionalism has been recast and framed such that only a few ‘good’ men can fit into it. These are the people who decide what is acceptable and what is not, in this country. The abuse, attack and denigration of anyone who doesn’t agree with their views has released a poison so venomous that any defence of our rights, values and cultural freedom becomes impossible. Schools, colleges, offices, courts, governments, dead leaders, arts, books, movies, television, papers–every last one of them has been systematically invaded and re-tailored. The message is clear, if you are not in agreement with their uni-dimensional interpretation of culture, religion, society and values, you don’t belong. A ban on cultural expression and artistic freedom in an age where ideas, have multiple ways of spreading is asinine and presumptuous. It underestimates the ability of people to comprehend, and weed out the lessons from the idle chatter.

It stands as an indicator of social trust and a barometer of how much value the government and the judiciary put on its people. The greater fear is that the consistent censorship of ideas, writing, media and laws leads to the inability to educate people on diversity and expose them to the multiplicity of opinion. It ends up breeding a group of zealots whose only point of reference becomes a tailored and manufactured opinion that has little grounding in facts, or reality. It ends up in a citizenry, unable to see more than what it has been taught. It ends up in a democratic republic that sees censure as norm and diversity as a threat to the way of life. Unfortunately we are nearly there. Almost every form of plurality in the country that does not comply with the imagined standards of cultural majority is shut down, or forced to go underground. If not that, expression is stifled in the name of peace, politically manipulated to spare the sensitivities of a segment of people.

The coming elections are supposed to be one of hope.  However, amidst the rhetoric of economic upliftment and growth, not one political leader or party has talked about the continuous assault on rights. Perfunctory statements have been made but these hold little value for the people. We have had debates, on the damages of banning books, art, movies, songs and artists. We have had deliberations about the wrongs of segregating people based on their gender, ethnicity and religion. But there is an intrinsic question that all our discourses on this subject have missed out on. How do we raise the next generation of citizens in this climate, where the caustic obliteration of anything deemed, as the ‘other’ has become the norm? How will this affect the future of our republic? Why is there no greater rallying movement which will ensure that the next generation of Indians be able to “know, utter and argue freely” The Satanic Verses, Hindu Philosophy, Hussain’s Paintings, Nair’s movies and the many political biographies?

We approach the 40th year of the proclamation of the Emergency– one of the darkest periods for our republic and our democracy. A small group of men and women in the months after the Emergency was imposed, had the courage to stand against the tyranny of an elected government and criticise the misuse of democracy and the republic. 40 years later, how many can say they have, since then taken a non ideological stance against zealots, cowering governments, badly written and interpreted laws, and mute industries? People, corporates, parties, political leaders, all are sorely lacking the will and the imagination to push back against this rising illiberal movement. Without support for free speech, we will continue to be a nation of people who are consistently censored. The push for a political movement for the continuity of a liberal democratic, republic has to happen now.

Photo: A.MASH

The piece has been updated to reflect certain changes.