Speaking truth to power: silence of intellectuals

Human rights activist Gautam Navlakha at his residence after he was arrested by the Pune police in connection with the Bhima Koregaon violence, in New Delhi. PTI

“Speaking truth to power” has come to be a phrase identified with all those who speak up in the face of authoritarian establishments or power brokers who tolerate no dissidence. Though the phrase “speaking truth to power” has existed for quite a while, it gained relatively more currency through the efforts of the Quakers in the United States during the mid-1950s. It was a call for the United States of America to stand firm against fascism, and as a phrase it is expected to disturb the right wingers in a political system.

Some of those who were powerful proponents and practitioners of standing up and speaking truth to power are Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. In different parts of the world, at various stages of the evolution of humanity, and in various ways and to different degrees, voices have risen and spoken up against injustice, and for the protection and preservation of democratic values. India is a democratic nation and has its fair share of those who speak truth to power at various stages and levels in our society. 

In recent times, however, with the rise of Hindutva forces following the coming to power of the BJP in 2014, there has been some change. We have academic and intellectual voices that, at times, do speak truth to power and take a stand against oppression and exploitation of the deprived sections. But we also have witnessed in recent times how those who were on the margins of the Right, or were the so-called Centrists or Liberals, have acquiesced quietly in the State’s attempts to stifle voices not on its side. 

Every time our intellectuals sit quiet or choose not to speak, let alone protest, closet Hindutva-ites get a boost and they have been getting this boost post-2014. Thus, silence against the attacks on our democratic traditions has meant more attacks, and more voices in support of those attacks.

Ideally, there should have been an outcry, unrest, and an uprising of the intellectuals and civil society consequent to the arrest and incarceration (later converted to house arrest) of the five activists (Varavara Rao, Gautam Navlakha, Sudha Bharadwaj, Vernon Gonsalves and Arun Ferreira), courtesy the Maharashtra government’s law and order machinery. But for the bold action and petition filed by Prof. Romila Thapar (and four others) and some whimper in certain quarters, the event has just passed by the Indian intellectuals in the portals of our universities and academic institutions.

The five activists have been charged with sedition. We are not living in a period of Emergency nor are we subject to any restrictions as regards our speech or action. Yet, we have chosen to adopt an ostrich-like attitude. The battle in the courts goes on but in the battle of voices of democracy, we have seen low-key action and a lot of silence from our intellectuals, particularly our academics.  

The actor and Congress party social media leader Divya Spandana, too, has been charged with sedition for her tweet involving the prime minister. Granted, her tweet was in bad taste, but does it qualify as sedition? Does the Indian State understand what sedition means? Though a war is a bloody and no-holds-barred fight, yet there is some sanity via international law that holds what is known as disproportionate use of force. Use of sedition law in India is a classic case of disproportionate and incorrect use of the force of the law. 

It is indeed sad that speaking truth to power is not considered by many more today to be absolutely essential — the sine qua non — for civil society, in general, and for intellectuals, in particular, in what we still assume to be a democracy. Without speaking truth to power, power will lose sight of the truth. The casualty of this is not the government of the day but the nation as we know it.

Independent voices

Why this silence in the face of an overwhelming government? How can we support, nurture and encourage independent voices, who could stand on any side of the political spectrum but are unified in their support of our democratic traditions, our respect for diversity, inclusiveness and free speech?

After all, it was the curtailment of free speech and the enforcement of a police raj during the Emergency that gave rise to some of the leaders who went on to have their first taste of power in its aftermath and later went on to build the BJP and take power, Narendra Modi being only one of those who followed in those footsteps but did not build or fight during those early days.

The only way to guard against suppression of a free voice is to have educational institutions where the spirit of inquiry, challenge, debate and counter-questioning is encouraged. The place we are in today tells us that we are not doing enough of that in our institutions. If academic leaders don’t have a voice, what voice will the future generations have, and what voice will our nation then have in the world?

It should be okay to speak for or against Right or Left politics. But it should not be okay to allow the systematic killing of dissent. For that surely is anti-national activity of the worst kind because it will kill the soul of India and render this great nation a ‘me too’ version of a host of failed democracies.

(The writer is Dean–Administration and Regulatory Affairs, Krea University, Sri City, Andhra Pradesh)

(The Billion Press)

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Speaking truth to power: silence of intellectuals

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