Rupali Mehra | March 26, 2015
Something to cheer about was long overdue, but as the supreme court read out its landmark judgment, Jadavpur University Professor Ambikesh Mahapatra had the last laugh. Two years ago he forwarded a seemingly harmless caricature of Mamata Banerjee. But the West Bengal chief minister and her supporters were clearly not tickled. Within hours the professor was picked up outside his home, thrashed, jailed and slapped with the draconian Section 66A of the Information and Technology Act.
Today, the joke is on the West Bengal CM and the Professor has become a celebrity of sorts. So have a dozen others who unwittingly came under the spotlight through for voicing dissent or questioning our political leaders. "Common" men and women - like Shaheen Dhada who questioned the Mumbai shutdown after the demise of Shiv Sena leader Bal Thackeray and cartoonist Aseem Trivedi who was arrested for his political caricatures - are the new voices of the social media.
For the cameras, the political class is also hailing the supreme court judgment. It can't afford not to. But in reality it is sulking, upset that this powerful astra can no longer be deployed. And that attitude is the biggest danger. The SC struck down the draconian law calling it an 'invasion' on freedom of speech. But scrapping Section 66A is just half the battle won. Because the real war is of the mindsets. We call ourselves democratic, but we have become increasingly intolerant of debate and dissent. On the internet or during a television debate, through literature or at a public forum, fewer are willing to accept that there can be more than one point of view.
And so when Tamil channel Puthai Thalaimurai chooses to debate the relevance of the 'thaali' or 'mangalsutra' in the present context, it faces a sharp backlash. Crude bombs packed in tiffin boxes are hurled at its office, serving as a warning not just to the channel but the media as a whole that tradition cannot be questioned. Dissent then, is not even an option.
But the 'shut up or be damned' attitude doesn't stop there.
This rigidity presents itself in many forms. Last year scholar Wendy Doniger was the target. Under pressure from Hindu groups her publishers withdrew her book The Hindus: An Alternative History. Never mind that she has written over a dozen books on Hinduism since 1973. Leave alone foreigners, Indian authors, even artists, are being hounded for exercising their creative liberty and presenting an alternative point of view. This January, distressed by the backlash over his book Madhorubagan, one of our best known contemporary writers Perumal Murugan announced his own demise. 'Author Perumal Murugan is dead,' he wrote on his Facebook page telling his readers to burn his books if they please. The irony: The book was in circulation since 2010, but the protests took place four years later.
Ironically it was a young student, and not our representatives who to took the fight for our democratic right. We have Shreya Singhal to thank for her PIL against Section 66A. Her effort has ensured many, like the Palghar girls, the Puducherry businessman who criticized
Chimabaram's son, you and me, can express our opinion without being shown the stick.
Step one towards a more tolerant society has been taken. But on ground it is a long march ahead to cultivate an atmosphere of healthy debate and constructive criticism. It is said, 'creativity requires the courage to let go of certainties'. If we allow selfstyled protectors of tradition to run amok, we'll be a nation of a billion uniform robots without a creative soul.
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