Since 2013, three noted rationalists have been shot dead—in 2013, Narendra Dabholkar was gunned down during a morning walk, and then in 2015, Govind Pansare and MM Kalburgi were murdered. Many perceived these deaths to be related directly to the views that they espoused. Towards the end of 2015, several writers, filmmakers, and academics launched a spontaneous movement against communal polarisation and attacks on free speech in the country—they began returning the awards they had received from the government or from institutions such as the Sahitya Akademi. The “award wapsi” and the rationalists’ murders, along with various other events such as the suicide of the PhD scholar Rohith Vemula and the arrests at Jawaharlal University in Delhi in February 2015, prompted a countrywide discussion on dissent—one that is still ongoing.
The following is an extract from the introduction to the 2016 book Words Matter: Writings Against Silence, written by its editor K Satchidanandan, a Malayali poet. The book is an anthology of essays by various writers, academics and intellectuals on the freedom of expression. In the extract below, Satchidandan writes that political Hindutva poses a challenge to Indian democracy and “the very integrity of our social fabric.” “It wishes to trample underfoot India’s pluralist ethos that believes in dialogue, exchange and debate,” he notes.
In order to understand democracy, we need to detach it from the instruments of the state and see it as people’s power. It is not the people who “resist” the state but the state that seeks to constrain, contain and suppress the power of the people through its institutions. True democrats always speak of expanding the base of democracy, overcoming its constraints through popular action aimed at social justice, and going beyond its present limitations and curtailments of rights. The enemies of democracy, on the other hand, fear the exercise even of existing freedoms by the common people and want to curb them further.
Democracy is not a static form of government. It is the action that constantly wrests the monopoly over public life from oligarchic rule and the omnipotence over lives from the power of wealth. No institutional form can guarantee democracy unless it is forever active and can wrench its power from those who monopolise it for their private ends. This is where politics too begins: when it converts what was just noise into language, when those men and women who don’t have time for anything other than their work prove that they are indeed speaking beings, participating in a shared world and not furious or suffering animals. Thus the inaudible is rendered audible, the invisible becomes visible, what was animal noise becomes human speech.
The challenge to Indian democracy has always come from sections that hate democracy as an idea. This hatred is rooted in a deep contempt for the people with their diverse natures and aspirations, and manifests itself chiefly in four ways: one, intolerance towards India’s religious, philosophical and cultural plurality; two, silencing of popular and intellectual opposition and the consequent thwarting of the freedom of expression; three, the enfeeblement of the federal polity and increasing centralization of power; and four, contempt towards those sections of the population whose welfare constitutes the very goal and measure of democracy: women, peasants, workers, Dalits, Adivasis and religious, ethnic and sexual minorities.