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Editorial - The Telegraph

Mind Without Fear

2 December 2010

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The Telegraph, December 3 , 2010


The right to dissent is one of the prized rights of a democracy. But India has for a time been sliding ludicrously from its chosen path, that of a democratic republic, and confusing dissent with incitement to violence and divisiveness. The charge of sedition against the writer and activist, Arundhati Roy, under Section 124 (A) of the Indian Penal Code for voicing "anti-India" sentiments indicates the blind alley into which the democracy is turning. True, the government did not make the charge. It was made at the direction of a court in response to a complaint brought against Ms Roy and others who spoke at a seminar on Kashmir. But the Union law minister did warn that freedom of speech “cannot violate patriotic sentiments”. What exactly is patriotism? The word is now used as a synonym of nationalism, and both have gathered around them menacing associations of the violent annihilation of difference characteristic of the far Right. Perhaps the law minister should have let the word alone.

There is no need to agree with Ms Roy in order to allow her to speak her mind. Or to admire Rohinton Mistry’s artistry in order to insist that his novel not be banned. As if forcing one of India’s greatest artists to leave the country were not enough, governments in India continue to pussyfoot around one of the greatest dangers to democracy: the suppression of different points of view. Not only did Bharatiya Janata Party activists attack Ms Roy’s home, but the media were also waiting to record it. The complaint against Ms Roy has a distinct and identifiable provenance; the alarming thing is that the establishment has begun to move on it. Yet diversity, difference, debate and discussion comprise the soul of a mature democracy. Even "patriotism" may be understood in different ways. Ms Roy claims that she is calling for justice in a society that is striving to be just, and she speaks from "love and pride", not wanting people to be raped or killed or imprisoned or have their nails pulled out to force them to call themselves Indian. What she says about Kashmir or Chhattisgarh may be debatable, but she, and everyone else, has the right to debate. Wielding oppressive laws, or breaking up a house or vandalizing an exhibition only allows her, and others like her, to voice the most shameful criticism: "Pity the nation that has to silence its writers for speaking their minds."