Over the last two years, the business of life has been turning into a nightmare for most Indians. Art, popular culture, education; or, simply, getting on with livelihood: all are under siege.
There are, of course, opposing voices. These voices speak in every Indian language, literal and metaphorical. They are raised in every setting, from classroom and court to the media and the street. They come from every region and from every walk of life.
What is the response to these multiple voices? How is opposition — the rights of citizens to question and oppose — treated in our constitutionally secular, democratic republic under the current dispensation?
The voices of the opposition are not met with arguments, but with threats, abuses, and enquiries based on false charges. Often, they are silenced with lathis, bullets and knives, especially when opposition comes from those perceived to be powerless. Consider the growing list.
Lynching is an acceptable response to the “crime” of disobeying the majoritarian dictat. Shooting a dissenter passes off as morning sport. Silencing a writer is a legitimate mode of literary criticism. Removing clinching evidence of arson and murder against one’s ilk is the best defence strategy. Minorities are the easiest scapegoats for everything that goes wrong in the country. Writing in Urdu is treason. Interrogating communal bigotry; criticising the government’s domestic or foreign policy; raising uncomfortable questions about anything from perverted educational reforms to nuclear reactors and mega-development schemes that render people homeless; or declaring solidarity with the ostracised and disempowered Muslims, Dalits or tribal people: all these may lead to the use of the colonial sedition law. The conscientious acts of returning awards, or resigning positions, is “manufactured dissent”. Every honest historian and dissenting intellectual, whatever his/her ideological persuasion, is inevitably a “leftie”. Myth is turned into history and history into myth through senseless rhetoric. Films are censored for absurd reasons, and now a “leader” wants literature to be censored on similar lines. The only qualification to head prestigious institutions is some sort of connection to the ruling ideology. Corruption of the worst kind has become the only legacy the new dispensation has inherited from their predecessors. A new lexicon is underway in which the term “secular” is replaced by “pseudo-secular”; and anyone with a liberal-socialist political persuasion is called a “Nehruvian”, considered an effective put-down. Gandhi can be replaced by Godse as a national icon. Discrimination against Dalits is on the increase; farmers continue to be forced into suicide, and workers deprived of the freedom to fight for their rights.
But despite this long sampling of an even longer list, the voices of resistance have become stronger. These voices are determined that attempts to drown the cries of the people will not succeed. There’s dismay and courage on display; argument and debate. There’s recognition that India is being unmade. And there is anger at this unmaking of India. Rainer Maria Rilke could have been describing people of reason in India today when he wrote, “We who sleep with our anger/ Laid beside us like a knife…” We cannot be blind to any of this, to a situation in which we may be ostracised, beaten, silenced or murdered for what we eat, ask, question.
But we also need that fuel for staying power: hope. We cannot lose hope that people’s voices will prevail, and that we will seize and build the democracy all Indians are entitled to. No pessimism of the intellect should kill the optimism of the will, to recall Antonio Gramsci’s famed phrase. The recent Madras High Court judgment insisting on Perumal Murugan’s right to “live again” is one open door to hope. Now it is for us — readers, writers, citizens — to impose our reason-driven will on those who seek to unmake India.