The latest victim of cultural fascism in India is Professor Mahesh Chandra Guru. He has been arrested and remanded for “insulting” Lord Rama! It seems that the intolerant elements that rule the country today will now introduce blasphemy laws to smother intellectual dissent, quest and critique – all salient features of a democratic society. Free speech offends, free speech reforms and free speech leads us forward. To expose the rot within and offend some people zealously keeping it under wraps is the greatest virtue of the fine arts, of free speech, of alternative narratives, of dissent.
The greatest tragedy of humankind is that the attack on both the free speech and the quest for truth started from the very beginning of free speech and the quest. Socrates may be both the founder of free speech and the first to be martyred for it.
When Socrates was told that he would be let off if he promised to stop engaging in discussions with people and asking questions or else he would have to drink hemlock and die, this is what he had to say to his accusers and judges: “If you propose to acquit me on condition that I abandon my search for truth, I will say: I thank you, O Athenians, but as long as I have breath and strength I will never cease from my occupation with philosophy. I will continue the practice of accosting whomever I meet and saying to him, ‘Are you not ashamed of setting your heart on wealth and honours while you have no care for wisdom and truth and making your soul better?’ I know not what death is – it may be a good thing, and I am not afraid of it. But I do know that it is a bad thing to desert one’s post and I prefer what may be good to what I know to be bad.”
He drank the poison (the sap of the plant called hemlock) calmly and died. But as long as there are humans on Earth, Socrates will continue to live in their minds. The accusers and judges who persecuted him, on the other hand, have been consigned to oblivion long since.
But those of the ilk of the accusers and judges who persecuted the man who advocated free speech abound in our world. They reincarnate as the Ayatollah Khomeinis, the Taliban, the Shiksha Bachao Andolan, the Sanatan Sanstha and many others, known and unknown, that lurk around us.
We are living with a lot of rot within us that should be cleansed or else it will destroy us. Free speech or the power of the pen offends us in order to cleanse us, but instead of removing the rot within, we eliminate free speech or the harbingers of free speech.
The attack on free speech continues today. Ignorance, intolerance, bigotry, fundamentalism, fanaticism and obscurantism reinforce each other and drag the world back to the Middle Ages, to the Inquisition. The forces that killed Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare and M. M. Kalburgi are trying to drag India into Darkness, into the Age of Inquisition.
The rights to offend and to be offended are fundamental to freeing the world from the forces of Inquisition.
As Ambedkar says in his Annihilation of Caste, “The assertion by the individual of his own opinions and beliefs, his own independence and interest as over against group standards, group authority and group interests is the beginning of all reform. But whether the reform will continue depends upon what scope the group affords for such individual assertion. If the group is tolerant and fair-minded in dealing with such individuals they will continue to assert and in the end succeed in converting their fellows. On the other hand if the group is intolerant and does not bother about the means it adopts to stifle such individuals they will perish and the reform will die out.”
What we witness in our country today is the stifling and killing of the much-needed reform. An India that kills people like Dabholkar, Pansare and Kalburgi and intimidates people like Kancha Ilaiah and Professor Guru will cease to be democratic, secular, plural and civilized despite all the dreams of economic and technological advancement that Narendra Modi’s government is trying to sell.