Shut up or they’ll kill you

Another Republic Day is at hand, and as India celebrates 61 years of democracy, every monkey with Internet access is putting up his two cents on the state of the union. These articles will invariably be a tale of how our netas and babus are royally screwing us over, with perhaps some tributes to our brave men and women in uniform thrown in, and perhaps some words of how we are on the right path and obstacles are to be expected and will be dealt with.

It’s our birthright, isn’t it? The Constitution guarantees us the right to speech and expression, and we do rightfully take pride in keeping India the idea alive in the form of the Indian Republic. Freedom of speech is one marker for democracy and for being a civilised society. But, do we really make the cut to be called one?

Over the past week, two instances of intolerance caught my eye. These are two small, and frankly irrelevant, issues, but they illustrate how mob power and officious stupidity stifle expression.

It turns out that a UP cop has filed a complaint against a Facebook group that hates Gandhiji. Meanwhile, dhobis in Calcutta are up in arms against Amir Khan’s new film named ‘Dhobhi Ghat’.

Now, corruption is a menace. It is frankly infuriating to see our political parties start off with their pot-and-kettle routine. Almost laughable, at least it would be if we still didn’t have such horrifyingly levels of poverty and low levels of human development. Mayawati’s memorials to her ego and the British Raj-era facilities provided to our overlords are indeed shameful and begin to border on the criminally insane when these ‘respected leaders’ of ours bizarrely justify their profligacy.

But all this can be dealt with in time. And we are still managing to survive, and even grow into what will hopefully one day be an equitable society. The biggest threat to us is not theft of public resources by our politicians, terrorism spread by Pakistan, or even China’s military build-up. It’s our intolerance.

I would assume that a cop in the noble state of UP – perhaps more lawless than Baghdad on a bad day – would have other issues to worry about that are far more critical than a bunch of kids spouting off on Facebook. And the dhobhis? Perhaps access to healthcare and education would help their community more. (Though one can understand the mental trauma of being associated with the cinematic equivalent of Valium.)

The past year has seen Arundhati Roy and others face violence for their opinions. Some years back a south Indian actress found herself under flak for her common sense view that pre-marital sex does happen and there’s nothing wrong with it. Of course, the BJP’s nutjobs thought that Roy’s comments would perhaps deal India a mortal blow and proceeded to shove her around, thereby keeping our motherland’s territorial integrity intact. Phew! While that poor actress was put in fear of her life by a bunch of idiots who assumed she was encouraging their ‘daughters’ to become strippers.

So, what’s with this lack of tolerance? At this rate, we’ll be like Saudi Arabia in a decade or so. Have our egos become so brittle that our self-worth gets destroyed the minute someone says something not-too-agreeable? What happened to live-and-let-live?

Are our gods, icons and leaders – Ram, Mohammed, Dr Ambedkar, Bose, Gandhiji, the Nehru clan, and others – so weak that a a few ill-thought comments can destroy their aura? Is that all the faith that their acolytes and followers possess?

Will any progress be possible if a bunch of hoodlums can intimidate any person who speaks his or her mind? How about our antiquated laws – enacted by the Brits with the express purpose of stifling any dissent – Do we, as a supposedly progressive democracy – have any need for them?

It is scary – The power of the thought police and their mad militias – that a young kid can succeed in having a book banned from a Bombay college, that any libellous comment is usually dealt with a mob armed with petrol bombs and hatchets.

Frankly, no amount of economic progress will make sense if we can’t keep our minds open. Because the ultimate test of a free society is whether its citizens have minds without fear, and it doesn’t seem that way in India.

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