Talks on Teesta Setalvad's memoir cancelled: Free speech is under threat, we need to take a stand

Earlier this week, Oxford Bookstore, located at Connaught Place in the heart of Delhi, cancelled a scheduled discussion on the activist Teesta Setalvad’s recently released memoirs.

File image of Teesta Setalvad. AFP

File image of Teesta Setalvad. AFP

It was left to the director of Apeejay Oxford Bookstores Pvt. Ltd, Maina Bhagat, to script a somewhat disingenuous plea. The director argued that the “mood” in the Capital was too “volatile” to risk a discussion on Setalvad’s book, entitled Foot Soldier of the Constitution.

Those familiar with Setalvad’s work would know that perhaps the reason that prompted cancelling the discussion has to do with her brand of politics.

For well over a decade, the activist has, unsuccessfully, pursued legal cases filed by families who lost their loved ones in the 2002 pogrom carried out in Gujarat during the tenure of then chief minister Narendra Modi.

In her email message to the organisers, Bhagat said, “The mood in the capital is very volatile and I am sure that the all partners – LeftWord, Caravan and Oxford Bookstore – would not like to entertain the remotest possibility of disruption by external elements to mar the event in any way.”

Clearly, the “volatility” rendering organisers so dreadfully anxious had much to do with the violence unleashed by activists of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) in Delhi’s Ramjas College days ahead of the scheduled book discussion.

As in Setalvad’s case, the mayhem at Ramjas College, too, was prompted by a culture of intolerance. Incensed over the college’s decision to invite Umar Khalid to speak at a seminar, ABVP activists launched full-blown attacks on students and professors they considered to be ideological adversaries.

Last year, Khalid, a PhD student at Jawaharlal Nehru University, was implicated in a sedition case. Though he has since been given bail by court, the ABVP continues to slander the JNU student as an “anti–national” and a persona non grata.

By now we are quite familiar with the sordid events that took place at the seminar. The violence unleashed by the AVBP occurred despite the college withdrawing its invitation to Khalid, fearing a right-wing backlash.

Just a couple of days on, similar circumstances led to the cancellation of the event in Oxford Bookstore. There is no denying that the tactics of bullying and threatening violence seem to be yielding the results that proponents of such an ideology wish to bring about.

We seem to be fast approaching a situation where nationhood will be defined only by homogeneity. The concept of plurality in thought, ideas and expressions will be outlawed or repressed into non-existence.

There is a method in the madness sweeping the country. If Ramjas or the book discussion were aberrant incidents, fears of a culture of terror stalking institutions, university campuses, and civil society, would be easy to shrug off.

But such instances of political and ideological intolerance are occurring with a frightening regularity, making it increasingly difficult to put aside one’s apprehensions about the future of democracy in India.

Emboldened by the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) numerical strength in the Lok Sabha and its recent successes in assembly elections, majoritarian organisations close to the same ideological family seem determined to push through their agenda of cultural nationalism.

This agenda has been at the heart of the ideological mission of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) the ideological fountainhead of many of these groups, including the BJP.

The idea of nationalism is now in serious contention. In the guise of homogeneous nationalism, a culture of religious majoritarianism taking over.

The aggressive processes at work pose a range of critical questions that every citizen must ask herself: What kind of nation do we want to live in? Will India be a nation guided primarily by the will of Hindus, or will it enshrine principles of inclusivity and tolerance? These are crucial questions in the current battle around nationalism.

I deliberately use the word ‘battle’ and not ‘debate’ to suggest that the space for intellectual and sane debate is increasingly being ceded to violence and intimidation. There is an effort to muzzle contrary viewpoints, particularly those that contest the RSS’s narrow idea of nationalism.

We seem to be moving into an era where anything and everything that strays from this particular school of thought is criminalised as ‘seditious’. It can be argued that the process of whittling down cultures of dissent and debate has greatly accelerated since the Narendra Modi-led government took power.

This is not to say that dissenters thrived under previous regimes led by the Congress. On the contrary, the right to dissent in post-independent India has always been vulnerable and often held hostage to the caprices of the ruling party of the day. Sedition cases have also been slapped on dissident voices in the past.

But this vulnerability is now deepening to an alarming extent. Fresh attempts are being made every day to criminalise routine modes of protest like sloganeering, seminars, and plays.

The organisations that are calling the shots are also aggressively setting the agenda on university campuses, which in turn are becoming primary sites of resistance.

In such a precarious context, it’s important that institutions hold out against the politics of bullying. Of late, we have seen a spree of cancelled events, prompted by fears of vandalisation and physical attacks by activists of right-wing outfits.

But, by yielding to such intimidation tactic, event organisers and institutions are further emboldening the intolerant. They need to stand up to bullies instead of retreating.

The need of the hour is to call for police accountability, to get them to do their job and ensure protection for those gathered on such occasions.

If the other side crumbles at the mere possibility of violence or intolerant disruption, then democracy is already lost.


Published Date: Mar 09, 2017 12:07 pm | Updated Date: Mar 09, 2017 12:10 pm

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