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  • SEDITIOUS HEARTS AND MATURE DEMOCRACIES

    Posted On June 23, 2024

    By Karan Thapar

    Mahatma Gandhi is, of course, the Father of our country but how often do we remember what he said and, more importantly, how often do governments abide by his wishes? As you’ll soon discover this is not a rhetorical question. Actually, if we still have a conscience, it might be an embarrassing one!

     

    On March 18, 1922, writing in Young India, Gandhi explained his attitude to governments and those in authority over us. “I hold it as a virtue to be disaffected towards the government”, he wrote. “One should be free to give the fullest expression to his disaffection, so long as he does not contemplate, promote or incite to violence.” These are words our government should have inscribed in stone and placed prominently in every ministers office.

     

    Let me now explain why they’re relevant today. Fourteen years after she allegedly questioned whether Kashmir is an “integral” part of India and reportedly advocated the secession of the erstwhile state, the Lt. Governor of Delhi has granted permission for Arundhati Roy to be prosecuted under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act. The fact that for almost a decade and a half – which includes ten long years under the Modi government – no decision was taken, or was considered necessary, speaks volumes. It also raises the question: why now?

     

    This is not the first time a prominent Indian has questioned the accession of a state to India or called for secession. In his maiden Rajya Sabha speech on May 1, 1962, C. N. Annadurai did precisely this. “Dravidians demand the right of self-determination … we want a separate country for southern India”. Nehru may have blanched but Annadurai wasn’t prosecuted. It wasn’t considered anti-national. Yes, offensive and distasteful it may have been but, six decades ago, India accepted this as part of Annadurai’s right to free speech. At the time, we recognized the concept includes the right to offend. And we honoured Gandhi’s famous statement – “I hold it as a virtue to be disaffected towards the government”.

     

    If anything, the world has taught us the need to be more tolerant and accommodating today. If the Scottish Nationalists in Britain, the Parti Quebecois in Canada or the Catalans in Spain can campaign for secession and be considered respectable and not anti-national, doesn’t that suggest that mature enlightened democracies don’t consider calls for secession anti-national? How come we’ve regressed from a position of sagacious tolerance to impetuous and ill-considered intolerance?

     

    Is it because the person who spoke out and upset us is Arundhati Roy? Is it because hers is an irresistible and usually convincing voice heard in sharp criticism of the Modi government? Is it because she troubles our shallow peace of mind by raising doubts we do not want to confront?

     

    We should not make her our Solzhenitsyn nor treat her the way the best-forgotten Soviet Union treated him. She is – and this is how the world knows her – one of our best authors. After Salman Rushdie – who we’ve also shamefully forgotten – our best known and most highly regarded Booker Prize winner. This cavalier, high-handed and ill-judged treatment of her can only give the world’s biggest democracy – nay the mother of the lot – a bad name. Frankly, deservedly so.

     

    Today, when we claim to be vishwagurus, leaders of the Global South, deserving of a permanent seat in the Security Council and, as the Prime Minister recently boasted, his re-election is the “victory of the entire democratic world”, does not this petty and miserable treatment of Arundhati Roy reveal a sad but inescapable truth about us? I’ll leave each of you to answer for yourselves.

     

    Let me, instead, tell you about how I feel. I’ve spent a lifetime proud of our democracy, our respect for constitutional freedoms and civil liberties and the fact they cannot be stolen. Indira Gandhi tried and failed. But now, after the sigh of relief we’ve just breathed, will they slip out of our hands? Yes, if Arundhati Roy’s case ends with the wrong result.


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