Holding a mirror to society is the primary task of a public intellectual. Sometimes the reflection may not be pretty or what one would want to see, for it may show the warts on one’s own face. This is a hazard that we must live with because hiding the mirror is not an option available to an intellectual. So she must hold up the mirror to society and stop colluding with falsehood. She must speak up and tell it as it is. This is her principal obligation. Doing so is risky in times of social conflict but it is also necessary. One has only to think of how difficult it is to speak up in Israel today (Amos Oz), or the Soviet Union of yesterday (Andrei Sakharov), or the USA now (Noam Chomsky) or the India of the present (Dabholkar, Pansare, and Kalburgi) and one gets a sense of the moral and epistemic challenges that individuals, who have held up the mirror, have courageously faced. Deceits – like the eutrophication of the Dal lake in Srinagar - have a way of taking over our public discourse. They must be vigorously contested.

One such deceit took place in Goa on January 30 on Gandhi’s death anniversary. A book, Nathuram Godse: The story of an Assassin, written by Ashok Anup Sardessai, was to be released that day in the presence of Ashok Savarkar, the grand-nephew of Nathuram Godse and VD Savarkar. The hall where the release was to take place was Ravindra Bhavan, a cultural institution in Madgaon, run by Goa government. The Bhavan is chaired by Damodar G Naik, a Bharatiya Janata Party leader from the state. As was to be expected, there was a furore about the date chosen for the release of the book. Groups threatened to disrupt the function. They argued, even though they had not read the book, that government premises could not be used to malign the Mahatma, especially on his death anniversary. They saw this scheduling as deliberate, as a political attempt by the Hindutva forces, who are very active in Goa, to create a schism, particularly among the Hindu community. They argued that it was another attempt to glorify Godse and justify the heinous act of assassination. They saw a sinister conspiracy by the BJP and the Sangh parivar to poison the climate of communal harmony in Goa.

Under pressure from this negative publicity, the Goa government directed the chairman of the Ravindra Bhavan to withdraw the permission for the function. It was promptly withdrawn, even though the function, according to the chairman, was booked according to procedure. Secularists and rationalists celebrated this decision. Is this really an occasion for celebration? How should one read this episode within the larger national debate on intolerance?

Censorship and intolerance

Much as I dislike the idea of giving support to the cunning of the organisers, to a politics I dislike, to me the answer is clear. The function should have been allowed to be held. The author, in the publicity material preceding the launch, argued that he was not glorifying the assassination but only presenting the facts on the hardships faced by Godse’s family, post assassination. For those of us who know politics well, and who have studied the dynamics of the human condition, it is obvious that the choice of date, the title of the book, the motivations of the organisers, were not innocent. They were intended to provoke, either to give publicity to the book or to offend those of us who value the Mahatma dearly. But these motivations are irrelevant to the issue of censorship and intolerance.

The protesters exhibited intolerance towards a position they did not like. The ban was an act of censorship similar to the beef ban and exhibited behaviour no different from those who have hurled slippers at Taslima Nasreen, or those who vandalised the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute. Threats to censor opinion one dislikes has no place in a constitutional democracy. When the Hindutva forces do it, we oppose them by invoking the sacred principle of free expression. On the day the permission to release the book at Ravindra Bhavan was withdrawn, the right to free expression suffered a major reverse. Banning the event was not the answer. We became our opponents.

This does not mean that there should be no protest on the book. In fact, the occasion of the book’s release was a great opportunity to expose the chicanery of those who killed the Mahatma, their politics of hate and upper caste bigotry. The supporters of a secular society should have used the occasion to build a public debate on the motivations of those who killed the Mahatma and who, when they did so, left us, a young nation, morally orphaned. This comes across in the article, by the renowned Odia poet Jayanta Mahapatra, titled “What Gandhi Means to me”, where he talks about the hush that fell across the nation when the news of his assassination was announced. From the description, one gets a sense of a people wondering who will guide them now. The campaigners against the book should have responded to the cunning of those who deliberately booked the hall on his death anniversary to release a book on Godse. They should have debated the philosophy of the Hindu Mahasabha and its campaign against Gandhi. Censorship was not the route to follow.

Patel-Mookerjee exchange

This exposure could have begun with the correspondence between Shyama Prasad Mookerjee, the founder of the Jan Sangh, and Sardar Patel, the Home Minister, on the question of the Mahatma’s assassination. Mookerjee wrote to the Sardar on May 4, 1948 expressing his belief that those “who are suspected of complicity in the outrage on Gandhiji will no doubt be put on trial”. (Note his use of the word “outrage” to describe the assassination). He was certain that Savarkar whose name was “being mentioned in this connection” would be given a fair hearing.

Sardar Patel, despite his anguish, remained committed to legal and judicial propriety assuring Mookerjee, in his reply of May 6, 1948, that he had instructed the investigators that “the question of inclusion of Savarkar must be approached purely from a legal and judicial standpoint and political consideration should not be imported into the matter”. How many in power today can show the Sardar’s commitment of an impartial legal and judicial process?

But the Sardar was not finished by just giving this assurance. He wanted to take the debate to a higher moral plane. He went on to state:

“...this is, of course, in so far as the question of guilt is concerned from the point of view of law and justice. Morally, it is possible that one’s conviction may be the other way about.” 

For the Sardar, Savarkar was morally not innocent of the crime. Will anyone today challenge this view of the Sardar? It is this last sentence that carries the power and can be used against the organisers of the release of the book who chose Gandhi’s death anniversary for the release. They wanted to offend. We can see in this choice of date a mindset that hated and vilified the greatest Indian of the modern age. In booking the hall for January 30, they may have been procedurally correct but they were morally perverse.

The letter of the Sardar goes on to reveal his anger when he observes:

“I agree with you that the Hindu Mahasabha, as an organisation, was not concerned in the conspiracy that led to Gandhiji’s murder; but at the same time, we cannot shut our eyes to the fact that an appreciable number of the members of the Mahasabha gloated over the tragedy and distributed sweets.”

Yes, gloated. Sweets distributed to celebrate the assassination while the nation mourned. Just think about it celebrating the Mahatma’s assassination with sweets. According to newspaper reports this was done again on January 30, 2016 in Meerut by the same organisation.

Exposing this mindset and challenging this politics of hate is what should have been done by those who oppose Godse and his idea of India. We are today in an intense battle not just for the soul of India but for minds especially of the young. On the one side is Gandhi and the moral and political philosophy of ahimsa and satyagraha he stood for. On the other side is Godse and his politics of hate. By preventing the release of the book, we chose the wrong side.

A commitment to freedom of expression cannot be whimsical. It must be near absolute. That is the only way forward for such a plural country. The forces of censorship are on the rise in India today, driven largely by the majoritarian politics of the parivar and by social groups acting as censors. So AK Ramanujan’s essay on a 100 Ramayanas gets banned as does Rohinton Mistry’s Such a Long Journey. We must be wary of this. Our journey towards a society that protects the freedom of expression is indeed such a long journey.

Peter Ronald deSouza is Professor at CSDS and holds the Dr S Radhakrishnan Chair of the Rajya Sabha, 2015-17. The opinions expressed here are personal.