Right to Disagree

Suppression of speech : There is a sense of suffocation around us; it is becoming increasingly difficult to breathe and speak freely.

Recent attempts at the suppression of speech in all domains of activity are indicative of the disastrous dent we are making in the architecture of our democracy.

Irrespective of the songs we may sing of the United States, the United Kingdom or Europe, it is India that still holds a place of dignity and honour in the celebration of heterogeneity and in providing space to all kinds of opinions, ideologies, cultures and religions.

 The audios and videos celebrating the concept of a Hindu rashtra that are suddenly going viral on the social media may destroy that fabric; we may be inching towards Trumps and Hitlers.

Honest to good linguistic discourse is at the heart of all healthy democratic traditions and the moment you begin to suppress such discourse, there is a suffocation of all dissent and a foundation is laid for an absolute, unquestionable authority.

The purpose of such a discourse is not to create noise and disturbance but to contribute towards a better future. Dushyant Kumar (1933-1975) wrote a few decades ago: sirf hangaama khara karna mera maksad nahiin/ saari koshish hai ki ye surat badalni chaahiye (It is not my purpose to create a ruckus/ Total effort is aimed at changing the overall condition).

Beware of language; you may be able to silence voices of protest today but they would assert far more vigorously tomorrow. All revolutions including our own national movement point in that direction. Language is constitutive of being an individual and a member of a societal group. It is constitutive of us not only because it is a genetically given part of human mind but also in all its heterogeneity.

Its universality and fluidity are manifested not only in every child becoming a linguistic adult by the age of four but also in thousands of languages across India and abroad and in their constant interaction with each other resulting in a large number of new varieties and new languages.

It is a sacred space where all negotiations of exploration and creativity, construction of knowledge and dissent take place; it is a space that knows no boundaries. It is also a space that provides platforms simultaneously for all that is, for all that could subvert that is, and also articulate what potential shape future could take. Recent attempts at silencing voice in different forms are perhaps the most painful phenomenon of the last two-three years.

It is being done in our schools and colleges, universities and centres of academic excellence, streets, restaurants and places of worship and our art and films. There is a sense of suffocation around us; it is becoming increasingly difficult to breathe and speak freely.

It is the imposition of an overwhelming homogeneity that constitutes the foundation of this suffocation. It is assumed that there is only one community, one language, one dress colour, one patriotic song, one vision of patriotism and nationalism, and one version of history and geography that constitute the truth and must therefore be followed by all irrespective of their social, political, linguistic or religious identity.

If you do not constitute a part of this homogeneity, you are by definition an alien and must therefore be eliminated. Your choice: give in or disappear or you shall be eliminated.

Except for an unfortunate 21-month spell of Emergency during 1975-77, there has not been any significant break in public discourse in India; most regional languages and English have flourished in all their glory developing systems of discourse that have empowered both the people and the languages to a considerable extent.

Hindi and the Hindi heartland (whatever that is subsumed to be) have unfortunately remained behind in that trajectory because of the homogeneous equation calibrated in terms of Hindi-Sanskrit-Hindu-Bharat.

There is now a substantial mass of people who believe that it is only their version of nationalism and patriotism that must be acceptable; other versions are simply dismissed as alien, Pakistani, Maoist, unethical or intellectual (as if it is criminal to be an intellectual; also by implication, it’d suggest that those making such allegations are not doing any serious reading, reflection or writing).

Global harmony

Who will define ‘nationalism’ and ‘patriotism’ and what should these mean? Should any definition of these terms override the idea of being a human being in the true sense of the term and of global harmony and peace?

Shall we think in the long-run in terms of states, territories and armies or in terms of a seamless earth that needs no passports and visas and a multiplicity of religions, languages and ethnicities surviving together? What is wrong in at least imagining and voicing these?

Let’s not scuttle linguistic discourse; at the heart of subversive discourse is language, and without linguistic freedom, there will be no subversion and the road to fascism will become smoother. Irrespective of whose voice it is and where it comes from, we need to listen to it and respond to it patiently and peacefully. It may be a Shazia Ilmi, Gurmehar Kaur, Saibaba, Mohan Bhagwat, Sitaram Yechury, Kanhaiya Kumar, Irom Sharmila, Uma Bharti or Umar Khalid, or anybody else; let’s listen to them.

And again, irrespective of where it comes from – Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi University, Jamia Milia or Osmania University, let us listen to it. Let us not forget that history consists of dissenting voices coming from dissenting institutions.

If the essence of Hindutva, as the prime minister claims, is welcoming other religions and voices, let’s hope that in future, we will witness a flowering of dissent rather than its suppression.

(The writer, having retired from the University of Delhi as Professor of Linguistics, is Professor Emeritus at Vidya Bhawan Society, Udaipur)

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