What could possibly connect an assistant professor at a Bihar university, a principal at a madrasa in Uttar Pradesh, a municipal corporator in Maharashtra and the principal of a missionary school in Assam? The answer is sobering. As India celebrated Independence Day and mourned the death of former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, these individuals refused to participate, either in the festivities or in the grief. For this, they were punished, some with violence and others with police complaints. It is troubling that both strategies appear to work in the same direction.
The madrasa principal and two others found themselves booked for sedition and taken into police custody because they allegedly tried to stop schoolchildren from singing the national anthem. The Assam school principal was held for not hoisting the national flag and for refusing to observe seven days of mourning for Vajpayee by flying it at half mast. The All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen corporator from Aurangabad was arrested on charges of trying to promote enmity and inciting a riot because he opposed a condolence resolution for Vajpayee. Five Bharatiya Janata Party corporators were also booked for allegedly beating him up but they are yet to be arrested – the threat of violence seems to call for more pressing action than complaints of actual violence. Those who assaulted the assistant professor in Motihari for criticising Vajpayee on social media also reportedly threatened to douse him with petrol and set him alight. Two people have been arrested for the attack. But it is too little, too late.
Even though it is recognised as a fundamental right, Indian governments and other institutions have not covered themselves in glory when it comes to freedom of speech. A foggily defined clause allowing for “reasonable restrictions” to the right also seemed to make room for arbitrary bans and censorship, especially when books, films or ideas went against the keen sensibilities of the Hindu nationalist. Take Rakesh Sharma’s Final Solution (2003), a film on the Gujarat riots of 2002, banned from public release on the mystical grounds that it threatened “national integrity”. Or AK Ramanujan’s pleasant, chatty essay, “Three Hundred Ramayanas”, whisked out of the Delhi University syllabus after the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad went on a vandalising spree.
Meanwhile, certain public figures had to be regarded as objects of worship rather than subjects of art or history. So former prime minister Indira Gandhi was not to be satirised in Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. And Joseph Lelyveld’s book on Gandhi, speculating on the leader’s personal life, drew howls of protest, a ban in Gujarat and the threat of another one in Maharashtra. Similarly, in death, Vajpayee has been turned into an article of faith and a national treasure rather than a leader who lived through decades of turbulent history, built a successful political career and made all the complicated choices those two factors would entail.
But the arrests and violence of the past week show some frightening differences from the previous attacks on free speech. First, it is no longer just works of art, literature or scholarship that are being targeted but also individuals who attempt quotidian acts of dissent, who refuse to go along with the tide of national sentiment. Second, apart from the teacher in Bihar, those who were targeted worked in minority institutions or belonged to religious minorities. It adds to a roster of allegations that the current government is unable or unwilling to protect the rights of minority communities. Finally, it is no longer just governments, universities or publishers being populist, worrying about their own image or caving under pressure. Such bullying has the prior sanction of the law when complaints are readily registered by the police. Freedom of speech seems to be a Constitutional ideal that has been rendered obsolete.