Words Matter: Do They, Really?

Ikshula Arora

Ikshula Arora.jpegThe reviewer is a Research Scholar at the Department of Political Science, University of Delhi.

Words Matter: Writings Against Silence;
by K. Satchidanandan
Publisher: Penguin Books India; 2016;
Ppages 260 (Hardcover);
Price: Rs. 399.
ISBN 9780670088935

In brave times, societies explore the margins of their freedoms, pushing against restraints and restrictions. In our times, sadly, we are doing our best to defend the so far accepted and tolerated space for ‘Freedom of speech’.” While freedom of speech was never absolute in India, attempts to curb this freedom have been more blatant and brazen for past some years, and the perpetrators, with some amount of rightly placed confidence in State power, assume that not only will they go scot free but may also be suitably rewarded for their acts. Ironically, we find the same set of people observing the 25th June as the Black-Day with full gusto as internal Emergency was proclaimed on this day over 40 years back. These are the times when people like Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare, and Malleshappa Kalburgi who dared to think, write and practice with an independent mind and challenged what they think was obscurantism, are brutally murdered. These are also the times when lies are spread with impunity and in many such cases, media becomes the willing ally either directly spreading unsubstantiated utterances of hatred-mongers or by not exposing them despite clear evidence to expose them being available. The lies about ‘exodus’ of Hindus from a U.P. town was one such instance which got totally exposed by a small section of media but a large number of media organizations gave lot of publicity to those who were spreading this lie. No one was actually surprised when recently on a popular News Channel, a Muslim student activist was implicitly called a ‘terrorist’ for having a point of view different from the news anchor and almost no one protested except the usual ‘suspects’.

words-against-silence-bookIt is not only about politics that is decaying – even institutions are getting impacted in a strange negative manner. The Registrars of Universities seem to be acting on behalf of some ‘Big Brother’. Instead of encouraging the atmosphere of debate and inquiry on campus, they now seem to be keen on restricting the scope of debate in the name of discipline. While we talk of Universities and lament their negative attitude towards free speech and inquiry, we should also not forget that even the Supreme Court’s judgment in Subramanian Swamy v. Union of India, upholding the constitutionality of criminal defamation has been termed as ‘atrocious blow against freedom of expression’.

During such times comes this compilation of Essays – “Words Matter: Writings against Silence”, edited and introduced by eminent poet and scholar K. Satchidanandan and published by Penguin. The compilation includes excerpts of essays by three slain scholars – Dabholkar, Pansare, and Kalburgi besides others like Pankaj Mishra, Nayantara Sahgal, Ananya Vajpeyi, Githa Hariharan, Gopal Guru, Manash Bhattachrjee, Meera Nanda, Ram Puniyani, Salil Tripathi and others. There is also an essay by Romila Thapar which is based on a lecture she delivered at a University.

The idea of this book, as mentioned in its introduction by K. Satchidanandan, emerged from the critical moment when several Indian writers, followed by artists, scholars and scientists, arose in spontaneous protests in late 2015 and retuned their awards or resigned from their government held positions. “The purpose of this book, then, was to collect sober, democratic voices that wished to speak out against these silences (of government and its bodies over frequent instances of silencing or intimidating writers and intellectuals) but did not necessarily subscribe to any one outlook or ideology”, the introduction adds. Filled with (at times) disturbing but valuable references to the likes of Jacques Ranciere, Umberto Eco, George Orwell and Rosa Luxemberg, the introduction is a compelling read.

The compilation of these essays is divided into three parts. The first part, “Farewell to Reason”, features the writers and activists who were silenced forever. This part opens with Dilip Chavan introducing the reader to Narendra Dabholkar’s life and ideas. Chavan’s essay is followed by excerpt from Dabholkar’s essays ‘What is Faith’ and ‘An Endless Journey’. In the former, he discusses various meanings of ‘faith’ and lays down four of its criteria. According to them, faith should not restrain one from questioning things, it should be based on the idea of non-violence, it should be dynamic and lastly, it should ‘sublimate one’s value judgment.’ As Chavan mentions in his obituary, Dabholkar’s “innumerable public speeches and articles speak volumes about his patience, perseverance and genuine respect for the sentiments of his opponents.” It is something his killers could have learnt from him.

Uday Narkar helps the reader comprehend the life of lawyer, trade unionist and communist leader Govind Pansare, who too, like Dabholkar, was murdered in cold blood. The octogenerian was convinced that “economic liberation would not be complete without intellectual and cultural liberation.” In his essay ‘Mahatma Gandhi and His Legacy’, while discussing Gandhi’s murder, Pansare denounces the extremist ideas of the RSS and BJP’s attempt of appropriating Gandhi. Perhaps it was such questions being raised that made his opponents uncomfortable.

The second part ‘Diagnosing the Malady’ contains insightful essays by Ananya Vajpeyi, A. R Venkatchalapathy, Ram Punyani, Gopal Guru among others. Essays in this section show how authoritarianism and the reign of any ideology or person give rise to aggressive intolerance towards dissent. Declaring the Perumal Murugan l’affaire a “watershed in the history of freedom of expression in India”, Venkatchalapathy raises serious questions about the ire that his writings provoked among Hindu fundamentalists. Ananya Vajpeyi’s piece ‘Hind Swaraj versus Hindu Rashtra’ is a crisp writing on the long drawn and continuing face-off between the Sangh Parivar and the secular-liberal parties. “Less than halfway into the new government’s term in office, we seem to be in the midst of what can only be called India’s ‘culture wars’”, she contends. Gopal Guru in his essay refers to the protests and counter-protests which very insensitively compare tragedies and harp upon the ‘bigness’ of one tragedy over the other. ‘Different kinds of tragedies… compete for public attention’, he proclaims. He points out that those who compare the ‘displacement’ of Kashmiri Pandits and privilege it over the persecution of Dalits all over the country since centuries, are guilty of the same partisanship they seem to find among those they are protesting against. He finds the displacement of Dalits not merely physical, but “a colossal moral loss of their human existence.” While Hindutva organizations try to appropriate Babasaheb Ambedkar, their intolerance towards the backward classes is out in the open. Pankaj Mishra’s is another remarkable essay in this part. His is a ruthless and crisp analysis of Modi’s politics and his voters. He unveils Modi’s method by examining his past record in Gujarat. Capable of manipulating the citizenry and managing to shift their focus on the wrong reasons for ‘uneven and unstable growth’, Modi, says Mishra, is a “symptom of capitalism’s periodic and inevitable dysfunction.” Salil Tripathi makes a valid point in his essay- “by calling tolerance a virtue, we make a virtue of necessity.” What Gandhi propagated was not mere tolerance but respect for one’s opponents. Keeping this in mind, the writers’ protest is important because “the writer is meant to provoke, to force us to look at reality in a way not yet seen.” Without this bit of tolerance, the society would be at “perpetual war with itself.”

The third part ‘Bearing Witness’ carries responses to incidents and statements highlighted in the media. It presents a variety of views to the reader. In ‘Silencing a Tradition’, Amrith Lal writes on Malyali writer M.M Basheer, who was forced by Hindutva activists to discontinue writing on the Ramayana, arguing that there could be no criticism of Lord Rama and that Basheer being a non-Hindu should not write on a Hindu text. Markandey Katju has come up with a warning of a horrific future if we allow India “to be governed by reaction and hate.” Meena Kandasamy in ‘He Has Left Us with Only His Words’ does an acute analysis of discrimination and prejudice prevalent in India against the Dalits taking research scholar Rohit Vemula’s unfortunate suicide as a central point. Nayantara Sahgal, Shyam Saran, Keki Daruwalla, Anish Ahluwalia and Maya Krishna Rao are other contributors in this part, talking about the diminishing ‘idea’ of India.
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With comprehensive introduction by a scholar like K. Satchidanandan and several insightful essays by noted academics and intellectuals, this compilation has come out to be a very useful and instructive document to keep us awake and alert. However, to address a long-standing grouse of right-wing intellectuals, there could have been a separate chapter to deal with the issue of ‘non-inclusion’ or rather deliberate sidelining of conservatives from the intellectual discourses. Notwithstanding the fact that conservatives are more likely to misuse the platforms made available to them to target particular groupings, in the best traditions of the liberalism, it would not be desirable to live with this charge that conservatives were denied their rightful space. So even at the risk of being hit below the belt, such Compilations as the one under review should make space for alternative view-point, because one cannot replicate the forms of silencing, on however small or big a scale, as it takes away from the larger struggles and demeans them.

The book raises an alarm – an alarm that should not go unheard. The words of “warning and wisdom”, lead the reader to think whether basic democratic ideals like freedom of speech and expression and right to dissent ‘guaranteed’ by the Indian Constitution in 1950 are mere aspirations. However, as Satchidanandan points out in the introduction, this hatred towards democracy and its ideals is not new and has not been confined to just one party or group. Nevertheless, the impending challenge is ‘political Hindutva’. The idea of India ought to be taken forward is that of a progressive, democratic and secular nation, where democracy is not simply adult franchise but embedded in everything, as a ‘way of life’, as envisioned by the Constitution Assembly 67 years ago. The idea of bringing out this compilation in these times is undoubtedly an act of wisdom and in a certain way, an act of defiance against forces of bigotry and intolerance. When ‘reason’ sounds defiant, one knows it is time to speak up. That this compilation is being considered by us to be defiant, is in itself a commentary on our times.