“Perumal Murugan, the writer is dead.” This was the brief and blunt post in Facebook by the Tamil writer two years ago. Hounded by Hindutva brigade for his book Madhorubhagan (One Part Woman), he was forced to give up writing. Caste chauvinists succeeded in silencing a writer. Two weeks back, it was the turn of the official machinery in Tamil Nadu to muzzle free expression when it arrested a cartoonist, G. Bala, for lampooning several functionaries in the government. It was the immolation of a farmer’s family of four in Tirunelveli that formed the canvas for the cartoonist. The cartoon depicted the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, the District Collector and the Police Commissioner covering their nakedness with a wad of currency notes; it was meant to shed light on the failure of the State in saving the poor family from the stranglehold of loan sharks. A few weeks back, Dalit writer and academic, Kancha Ilaiah was placed under house arrest in Hyderabad for his acerbic utterances against some of the castes and atrocities on Dalits.
The above instances are just a few of such occurrences in the recent past. Free expression of ideas, in whichever form, unless it goes against the provisions of the Constitution, is no crime; rather it is a fundamental right and a proof of vibrant democracy. Constructive criticism is no wrong-doing; silencing it merely because it goes against the interests of the government and certain sections is tantamount to despotism. Bringing out the rot in the system is no offence; but, bidding to sweep it under the carpet is illegal. Singing paeans to powers-that-be is not the duty of writers and journalists; holding a mirror to them is the task of responsible journalism. The irony in the recent developments is that it is the attackers of media and writers who get kid glove treatment from the government.
The inimical approach of certain sections of the society towards writers and journalists is a reflection of the hostile attitude of the government to them. Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke patronizingly at the 75th anniversary of a newspaper in Chennai recently, observing that the Press should serve the public interest. But the question is who decides the interest of the common people. Can it be left only to those who hold the reins of power and fringe elements in the society? Or should the voice of the fourth estate, writers, academic and experts be heard by the governments and the parties in power?
By acting against media and writers whose voice differ with that of the government and the ruling party, the administration is insulating it from the benefit of constructive suggestions. The catastrophic failure of demonetization and GST is the latest tell-tale examples of ignoring valuable and well-informed advice. Any government or party which tries to create a ‘free speech-mukt Bharat’ will be sowing the seeds of dictatorship; it is akin to laying the axe to the very root of democracy. In his last Constituent Assembly speech, Dr. B. R. Ambedkar said: “In politics, Bhakti or hero-worship is sure road to degradation and to eventual dictatorship.” Proving Ambedkar right, we have travelled half way on that road.
(Published on 13th November 2017, Volume XXIX, Issue 46)