Silencing of Dissent in India Spells a Weakness of Democracy
Across India, dissenters from the mainstream narrative pay the ultimate price for their opinions.
India has a rich history of questioning and philosophizing. In ancient India, women like Gargi were lauded for their ability to tire people at debates. Atal Behari Vajpayee, India’s former prime minister, was noted for his ability to weave language beautifully during debate. Democracy was the very foundation of the newborn nation of India in 1947. In the early days of independence, people spoke up for their rights, went on hunger strikes and openly protested against the government. Amidst all this struggle, India became an example for other nations in the way it stuck together as a country and a democracy, despite its extreme diversity and dissent from one corner to another.
The country’s democratic tradition took an ugly turn in 1975, when the Indira Gandhi-led government presided over a period that became known as the Emergency, lasting almost two years. During that time, political dissidents were suppressed, the freedom of the press curtailed and opponents of the regime jailed. Those were scary times for journalists and academics, and the remnants of that era continue to haunt many Indians today.
One would expect the India of 2017 to be a changed, liberal version of itself, having seen so much blood and gore and having sacrificed many who disagreed with the popular opinion. Unfortunately, it appears that there are many people in India who still have a problem with its democracy and the right of dissent. A black cloud has been descending around the country’s free thinkers, ever since the cold-blooded murder of Narendra Dabholkar, a rationalist author from Maharashtra, a state in western India. Dabholkar was killed in broad daylight in August 2013. At the time of his death, he was trying to get the state government to pass an anti-superstition and black magic bill through his organization, Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti (Maharashtra Blind Faith Eradication Committee).
Dabholkar’s death created a domino effect. Less than two years after his demise, Govind Pansare, a Communist Party of India politician and author of a book on Maratha King Shivaji, was shot and killed. Six months later, M.M. Kalburgi, an academic from the state of Karnataka, met the same fate. When India thought it had all ended, Gauri Lankesh, the editor of Gauri Lankesh Patrike, a weekly Kannada-language tabloid, was shot outside her home in September 2017. Days after her death, the Bombay high court concluded that the “trend of killing all opposition is dangerous” and that there was a lack of respect for liberal values and opinions in the country. All four victims were critics of both the government and society at large, and all espoused liberal values.
Another thing in common between Dabholkar, Kalburgi, Lankesh and Pansare was that they were prominent writers in the vernacular, or local, languages. India’s diverse population still reads in the vernacular. Among the over 82,000 newspapers in circulation, nearly 40% appear in Hindi, the most commonly spoken language across the country. According to India Ratings and Research, local language print media is expected to grow by 10-12% in 2017. Though unknown amongst the 10% Indians who primarily read and speak English, these four individuals had a powerful effect on their readers in their community.
With a wider audience and, hence, wider influence, they convinced Indians against superstitious beliefs, introduced them to the tenets of communist thought and spoke up frequently against the establishment. According to Mausami Singh, an editor with Aaj Tak news service, journalists who report in the local language have always been seen as targets for speaking out about micro issues on the ground — the real, rural parts of India. She cites the example of Ram Chander Chhatrapati, a journalist from the state of Haryana, who exposed a famous “godman,” Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, for sex crimes and was subsequently killed by the religious leader’s followers.
The Narendra Modi-led government has been accused of inciting right-wing fringe elements to suppress people like Lankesh and Kalburgi. India is dangerously leaning into right-wing rhetoric, with reports of Muslims being killed over alleged consumption of beef and forced conversions to Hinduism. Lankesh was a fervent critic of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a right-wing Hindu organization, and the current Karnataka government, led by Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) B.S. Yeddyurappa. An article in her publication accused Prabhakar Bhat Kalladka, an RSS functionary in the state of Karnataka, for instigating communal agitation in parts of the state. The article alleged that he had collected over Rs500 million ($7.7 million) from his followers in the name of faith to establish religious institutions and educational centers to spread the ideas of communalism and “blind hatred” for people of other religions, such as Christians and Muslims.
Following Gauri Lankesh’s death, there were rumors that the murderers belonged to Sanathan Sanstha, a Hindu right-wing organization based in the state of Goa; it denied the allegations. Speculation became rife when forensic reports revealed that the bullets which killed Lankesh were fired from the same gun that killed Kalburgi. Ramachandra Guha, a prominent Indian writer and author of the popular book, India after Gandhi, came under scrutiny when he suggested that the BJP government had created an atmosphere of intolerance in India and accused the RSS of killing Lankesh. The Karnataka BJP youth wing, the Yuva Morcha, filed a criminal complaint against Guha.
A Rare Leader
The issue didn’t end there. Hours after Lankesh’s death, it was reported that the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was a follower of certain Twitter accounts that had supported the journalist’s killing. Though BJP’s IT cell later issued a clarification stating that the prime minister is a “rare leader who truly believes in freedom of speech and has never blocked or unfollowed anyone on Twitter,” he continues to follow those accounts. Some people assumed the “patrike” in Gauri Lankesh Patrike meant “Patrick,” a Christian name, and accused Lankesh of being a Christian and, hence, an opponent of Indian society. “Patrike,” unfortunately, stands for “publication.”
The debate about who killed Gauri Lankesh may finally reach its culmination, after the special investigation team finally released pictures of Lankesh’s murderers on October 14 and sought public help in finding them. While the search for her killers is still ongoing, people on Twitter have started speculating about whether the murderers were “commies” (communists) or members of the Sanathan Sanstha. The latter has said that these men are not part of their organization. However, a prominent political leader from Maharashtra did raise eyebrows when he called her murderers “communist rascals that kill their own people when they turn against them and blame it on Hindus.”
One reason Lankesh was attacked could be connected to her political views and her communist leanings. However, another notable thing about her was that she belonged to the Lingayat community. Lingayats account for 12-14% of Karnataka’s population and play an important role in the politics of the state. Lankesh was a proponent of the belief that Lingayat is a religion different from Hinduism as it protests against the Brahminical, or upper caste, traditions of Hinduism. What is surprising to note is that Kalburgi also held a similar view. He had reportedly received death threats from conservative Lingayats for his interpretation of the vachana verses, the founding literature of the community. If the Lingayats manage to break away from Hinduism, they could become a powerful opposing force, uniting many within Karnataka and prompting the breakaway of many opposing forces within the religion of Hinduism.
Indian media outlets have always been critical of the government, and despite reports of political leanings and funding, the media have managed to bring out many important issues to the attention of Indians. Protests have erupted, inaugurating local heroes, because of the power of Indian media. What is unsettling, however, is that journalists now have to live in fear for speaking up about issues that matter to them. Their political and ideological leanings can bring real danger, and there is an unsettling air across the country as some views get primacy over others. Such thoughts are destructive not only for journalists and activists, but all rational thinkers alike. India cannot impose another emergency on itself by sacrificing dissenters.
It’s not uncommon for many in India to think that they need to appease the current government in power in order to live peacefully. Journalists who report in local languages do not have access to the facilities and security that those who report for big English publications do. They risk their lives every day to expose corruption in society. Instead of protecting them for their vital contribution, they are being exposed to gunfire.
The flaring up of religious sentiments is also worrisome. India is not a country of Hinduism — it is a secular nation. The reason India stood out from other countries and still does is because of its diversity and ability to accept and integrate all cultures. However, with the targeting of actors, writers, politicians and dissenters, it is becoming evident that a particular religious discourse has to get primacy over others. While this may or may not be a result of the current government’s stance on the issue, it is alarming that little is being done to curb flared religious emotions. The recent riots in the state of Haryana over the jailing “godman” Singh and the complacency with which the state government dealt with it point toward this disturbing trend.
Gauri Lankesh is one of many murder victims. But how many more need to die before India realizes that, beyond being a crime, it is also a human rights violation?
*[This article was updated on October 30, 2017.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.