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The fist is mightier than pen in India

by Mahesh Rangarajan, 23 November 2009

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Reproduced from: Mail Today, 23 November 2009

The attack on the leading Marathi editor Nikhil Wagle and two offices may be shocking but are not surprising.

There has been, in urban Maharashtra a palpable sense of crisis in the Shiv Sena about the new outfit by Raj Thackeray having stolen its thunder. The leading writer Shobha De, no less, even singled out the younger man as having “ felt the pulse of the street” in the recently concluded State Assembly polls.

The Shiv Sena was in crisis. What better way to retrieve lost ground than intimidating an editor and his staff whose only defence lies in pen, camera and computer board? The fist it appears in India of 2009 is far mightier than the pen, the muscle of the bully over the word. It is not a party or a leader who alone should be singled out. It is the very nature of politics that sees bravery and courage in the politics of intimidation.

It is not an editor or a media house that is under threat. It is the right of free speech, the freedom to express one’s views, the freedom, within bounds of the law and decency, to cause offence.

Were dissent to die, democracy would be lifeless. Were free speech to end, the country would be akin to a prison. The very defence of the Shiv Sena speaks volumes. The editor, its leaders say, had caused offence several times to the Marathi people. The people of one of India’s largest states, one that gave this country some of its finest sons and daughters, the home of reformers who reshaped the course of our joint history, are now said to be in crisis.

First, it was the campaign against the so called outsiders, the taxi drivers and chatwalahs who make Mumbai their home so they can remit money to pay for a child’s education, lessen the burden of farm family back home in the plains of the Ganga.

Now, it is Maharashtrians who dare to differ with the tiger of the Shiv Sena. After all, more than four decades ago this was how a cartoonist launched a career in the arena of politics. First it was Communists, and then it was south Indians. Over the last two decades, the targets have shifted, sometimes this minority and sometimes that one.

All along the larger parties have watched, waited and struck deals when it suited them. The Congress saw in the rise of the Sena in VP Naik’s long tenure as chief minister, the perfect stick to beat labour unions and leftists with. By the late Eighties, defence of saffron, a colour associated traditionally with renunciation, was pressed into service for the pursuit of power.

Protest

The tighter of the Sena and the lotus flower of the ascendant Bharatiya Janata Party took them to the position of a powerful Opposition in Mumbai and New Delhi and made them partners in power in the state as well as Centre.

It is striking how nearly 17 years on, the massacres of Mumbai have gone unpunished, the leader of a party who day in and out referred to practitioners of faith as ‘ harive saap’ or green serpants, found the police and the ministers could not find a clause in the Criminal Procedure Code that he had violated.

What the elder Thackeray did, the younger soon excelled at. In 2004, aspirants coming to Mumbai to appear for a railway entrance exam were beaten up on the railway stations, with the police as mute spectator. ‘ Ask not for whom the bell tolls’, the poet John Donne wrote, ‘ it tolls for thee.’ But what is striking about the Maharashtra of today like the Gujarat of today, is how few voices are raised in protest. In Pune, where a mob attacked and vandalised the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, barely a few down men and women, mostly aged litterateurs, many since deceased, gathered to protest.

This ability to garner support for the right to speak is lifeblood for democracy.

It is but natural that an opinion should cause offence and that a view should provoke others to disagree with its proponent.

Of course, the tradition of trying to wrest the public space over to one group and deny others any voice at all is not new or novel to India or Maharashtra in particular.

Precedent

Ramakrishna Govind Bhandarkar, the great historian and Orientalist himself was witness to the power of the mob when he clashed with Bal Gangadhar Tilak on the issue of the Age of Consent Bill. In the 1890s, the government, under pressure from social reformers embarked upon a new legislation. This was not a revolutionary measure: it would simply have raised the age of consent for Hindu girls from ten to the age of twelve years.

The measure, much like prohibitions on Sati earlier in that century, was attacked by conservatives.

Leading the group were nationalists who were proud to be extremists in opposition to the Raj. The law they felt would endanger the family and interfere with religion. The Shastra would give way to secular legislation.

Voices were raised in support of the measure.

Among them was Vivekananda who asked if religion meant being a mother at a tender age.

There was Jyotiba Phule who saw this as the orthodoxy shackling women’s rights. Bhandarkar for his part contested the readings of the Shastra. He drew on his formidable knowledge of Sanskrit to show there was no such sanction in the Shastra for under age marriage.

The extremists were not able to hold ground. But they struck at a weaker target. The Parsi social reformer Bahram Shah Malabari was assaulted in public. The Reform Conference had its stage broken up and its speakers forcibly dispersed. Malabari was publicly attacked and in print. He was, the articles said, a Parsi who dare not meddle in the affairs of Hindus.

Community came before nation, and culture before women’s rights. And needless to add, coercive power ranked above free speech.

The campaign against the age of consent had an ugly side, a mood of intolerance, a streak of fanaticism.

It did not merely differ with its opponents. It sought to crush them, literally and physically. It is a different matter that social reform continued. Its spirit did not break.

Failure

Such incidents are easy to dismiss as the products of personal ambition and the petty affairs of parties and factions. But this might be to err and err seriously. It is not a paper or a channel, an essay or its contents that are at stake. It is the failure all round of so much more.

First, the failure of the government to do its minimal duty to protect those that need the shield of the law. Equally so, it has to wield the law to bring to account the accused. Further, it is the silence of the many. It is this as much as state inaction that emboldens the bully.

It is the idea of an India that gives us all our space to live, breathe and speak in. How can a country be part free and part silenced? If the ruling party is serious about being claimant to a liberal space, the time for deeds has come. Deeds, not words. Or else the nightmare in Mumbai and Pune will be one for all of India.

The writer teaches history in Delhi University