By Arihant Panagariya
Over the past few days, BJP has been thrashed, dumped and hammered in all quarters by self-righteous and self-proclaimed liberals. It has been accused of clamping down on freedom of speech with the intention of promoting “ideological confrontation”, of working on its priority of creating a “majoritarian Hindu country” while “fuelling hyper-nationalism” in the name of patriotism.
This criticism of BJP is not limited to the wrongful arrest of Kanhaiya Kumar on sedition charges but also of its excesses in the HRD Ministry, its controversial appointments in various educational institutions, killing of rationalists, ghar wapsi, award wapsi, beef bans, and of course, abuse by trolls on our national treasures — Aamir Khan and Shah Rukh Khan. It is hard to fathom how BJP or RSS are being blamed for some of these, but because it has become the popular opinion, let's accept it anyway.
Not to be left behind, its highly expressive and passionate supporters have recounted innumerable instances where the Opposition (and the Congress, if it can be termed as an opposition) has been as intolerant of free speech, if not more. That some students at JNU made several “indecent” remarks about Durga and beat up students who rose against it or how they did not allow people from the other end of ideological spectrum to speak at JNU (Baba Ramdev, LK Advani), have all now been well documented. And how Congress – the mighty defender of free speech – had systemically abused its power to demand curbs on free speech, From blocking 300 webpages and several Twitter handles over the violent attacks on North-East Students to its drafting of the controversial section 66-A of the IT Act which led to arrests for posts on Facebook. People were arrested and pages were censored for being unacceptable as they were “anti-Sonia”.
Both sides have gone all out against each other while forgetting that the crux of the matter was free speech and reform of our higher education system. It wasn't about left-liberal v right-wing or BJP v Congress or JNU v the Indian Army. Indian liberalism has become about terming others as illiberal and not about fighting for the rights of an individual. Those with hatred for Modi and RSS continue to suffer from selective amnesia while “bhakts” need to be told to go slow on their drugs. It is only the public, as usual, who are being taken for a ride and are feeling the same as you do after a bad hangover.
That is not all. A new buzzword is thrown in at the gullible public from time to time. From secularism in 2014 to intolerance in 2015 and finally “nationalism” which is the new dirty word of 2016, we surely have come a long way. None of this would have been possible without our unbiased intellectuals and secular liberals who have constantly reminded us of how Indira Gandhi-ish Modi has become or how we are being brought down by “culture jihad” or how India has never been “so polarised and pulverised”. While most of these assumptions shall no doubt fit in well within the fiction section of a bookstore, most of these people should ideally spend some more time in the history section.
But then for whatever reasons, these journalists and intellectuals do agree that India has become illiberal and communal. Their prescription of turning things, however, seems to be to remove BJP/RSS from power, help elect Congress again and then all shall be fine. But is it the right diagnosis? No. It is not about electing a different political party in the next election because our laws will continue to allow them to misuse their power. Then is it about changing the laws? May be. But most of our provisions continue to be on our legal books because the Constitution allows them to be. And if you truly believe in liberal ideas, then you need to accept that our Constitution is where the problem lies. It is neither liberal nor secular.
So, if you really are a free speech absolutist, would you stand up and shout slogans against Article 19(2) of our Constitution, which puts restrictions on our free speech rights? If you really are secular, do you have the courage to write against Article 29 and 30, which allows minorities to run educational institutions, which gives them various exemptions just because they belong to a certain religion and caste? If you really believe that state should treat all its citizens equally irrespective of their identity, would you support a political party if it goes ahead with Article 44, which directs the State to ensure a Common Civil Code?
No. All we shall witness is painful silence. All we shall see is “reasonable” and “logical” explanation about why this is not the right time to enforce these ideas in India. This only smacks of blatant hypocrisy and selective interpretation of liberalism and secularism. We have seen countless instances of politicians standing up for these values and will continue to see them, not because they believe in them, but because it suits their political purpose. And this is where, we as voters, should not remain silent, but make time to understand such critical issues and raise our voices against such injustices. Otherwise, rest assured, we shall continue to remain poor and unfree. And that will be a travesty.