A warning about the price of dissent

The FIR against 49 prominent intellectuals, who wrote an open letter to the PM about growing incidents of mob lynchings, recalls the hounding of the legendary painter Maqbool Fida Hussain by the right-wing

It is a wicked paradox as well as indicative of the selective co-option of Mahatma Gandhi by the current regime that the First Information Report for charges of sedition against several reputed members of the Indian intelligentsia was registered in Bihar's Muzaffarpur on October 2, 2019. It was the 150th birth anniversary of the man venerated as the Father of the Nation. The day was celebrated with additional gusto and fervour by every top politician, President Ram Nath Kovind and Prime Minister Narendra Modi onwards.

For the record, these 49 intellectuals have been accused of a clutch of offences including sedition, making assertions or publicising assumptions prejudicial to national integration, committing affray, committing public nuisance and breach of peace. There is, however, little absurdity in the coincidence of the formal notice being sent to this assorted group – comprising filmmakers, actors, historians, artists, sculptors, publishers and others engaged in intellectual pursuits – on Gandhi Jayanti.

After all, the memory of Gandhi which is being sought to be perpetuated by this regime is selective and does not contain the two most important and consistent pursuits of Gandhi: Instilling political courage among Indians and standing for inter-faith harmony. The Gandhi that we got to hear about was the campaigner-in-chief of a clean India, or other such vital but apolitical issues, which the Mahatma highlighted in the interregnum between the high-points of the freedom struggle he shepherded.

No one among the galaxy of political leaders who stood up to light a lamp in Bapu's memory recalled what he said a hundred years ago while incorporating the Khilafat Movement into the nationalist agenda: "It is the bounden duty of the Hindus and other religious denominations to associate themselves with their Mohammedan brethren" and that there can be no conditionality when it comes to extending support to any community because "duty seeks no reward".

The FIR against 49 eminent Indians is a throwback to a decade-and-a-half of long pursuit, by the legal squads attached to right-wingers, of the legendary artist, Maqbool Fida Hussain. It began in 1996 in India and ended with his death in exile in London in June 2011. The idea against the artist, successfully executed, was to harass him by filing innumerable cases against him in different nooks and corners of the country. This would force him to either spend his time flitting from one court to another, or attract non-bailable arrest warrants for defying court orders.

With neither option being agreeable, Hussain chose an as yet unexplored route although this caused immense pain – life in exile and taking up Qatar's offer of honorary citizenship. However the successful right wing hounding of Hussain, despite providing a template for future assaults against ideological adversaries, is different from the charges levelled against these 49 reputed Indians.

In 1996, the narrative of Hussain's tragic eviction began with publication of an article in a largely unknown Hindi laghu patrika or 'little magazine' which raised a shindig by 'discovering' a painting of Goddess Saraswati done by the artist two decades ago in 1976. Another painting of Goddess Durga too was 'traced' to establish his anti-Hindu stance and 'nuisance value'. Eight criminal case followed in different parts of India and it took several years before the Delhi High Court dismissed these charges.

In time, another series of accusations followed, this time over a depiction of Bharat Mata. By now, the emboldened right wing legal activists had filed cases in hundreds against Hussain. Having gone through a torrid phase and realising that this time the situation was more serious, Hussain reached the painful conclusion that this country had no space for him. The warrant for his arrest remained unserved, and although he desired to return to his homeland, the artist was disallowed to return by his family owing to fears of him being murdered.

The present case is different because it took no such length of time before action was taken. No sooner had these intellectuals written the letter to Modi in July 2019, did the Muzaffarpur advocate, a professional publicity-seeker, file a case in the local court. The lawyer who should remain unnamed because even shaming him would meet his objective, held that the scholars and artists had "tarnished the image of the country and undermined the impressive performance of the Prime Minister besides supporting secessionist tendencies."

The judiciary in India has been acting peculiarly when it comes to cases involving the ideological viewpoint of this regime. Close on the heels of the inexplicable decision of several Supreme Court judges to recuse themselves from the Gautam Navlakha case, comes this order of the Muzaffarpur court. The chief judicial magistrate who was moved by the city lawyer had directed the local police station to file an FIR and provide a compliance report in two months. For once the cops acted post-haste and filed charges more than a month before the deadline!

But more than the police, the court should have assessed the track record of the person levying the charges. If the magistrate had done even a cursory check – no rocket science involved in this for the records are at his disposal – he would have discovered that the lawyer is a serial accuser, who has made charges against one and sundry, covering the entire ideological spectrum from Sonia Gandhi to the Thackerays. So it is not that this person has a particular orientation which compels his choices – he acts for publicity, knowing political backing is not far away.

Aparna Sen's response to a reporter's question regarding the FIR being filed against her and others is possibly indicative of the fear which may grip many of her peers. She refused to comment saying that the matter is sub-judice. But there are the likes of Adoor Gopalakrishnan who don't get deterred by legal hauling. He termed the development "unbelievable" and that India is "still a democracy and every citizen has the right to write to those in power, up to the President".

The Delhi High Court judgement in the Hussain case, quashing cases against him, had quoted from Soli Sorabjee's lecture in memory of VM Tarkunde titled, 'Indian Democracy: Reality or Myth'. In his speech the jurist had said:

"A real democracy is one in which the exercise of the power of the many is conditional on respect for the rights of the few. The right to dissent is the hallmark of a democracy. In real democracy, the dissenter must feel at home and ought not to be nervously looking over his shoulder fearing captivity or bodily harm or economic and social sanctions for his unconventional or critical views. There should be freedom for the thought we hate. Freedom of speech has no meaning if there is no freedom after speech."

The jury need not be out to decide if people have already begun looking behind their shoulders to check if an intrusive machinery is keeping a close watch or not. People have been informed of the price of speaking as dictated by their conscience. The choice is being governed by the decision to minimise risks and play safe.

(Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay is a Delhi-based journalist and author. His latest book is RSS: Icons Of The Indian Right. He has also written Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times (2013))

The views expressed above are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.

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