The Price of Silence ……Who Will Bell the Cat?

Dr. N Sukumar

"Laws alone cannot secure freedom of expression; in order that every man presents his views without penalty there must be spirit of tolerance in the entire population". ~ Albert Einstein

A few months ago, the academia was intensely debating the Wendy Doniger issue. For the person on the street, it was much ado about nothing. We are used to films and books being banned, paintings being vandalized, performers being tried for sedition. Few tears were shed when M.F. Hussain died in exile. Our memory is short-lived and reactions knee-jerked. Whenever any transgression of our democratic right to free expression occurs, we fail to react if it is not in our backyard and if at all we react, it is episodic.

delhi university abvp

However, the denizens of Delhi University were in for a rude shock when a senior professor was humiliated and his face blackened by right wing student leaders on the pretext that he had passed derogatory remarks about their political 'idol'. The social media was abuzz with comments that this is an ominous portent of the future developments. The observations covered the entire gamut from being 'antithetic to Indian Culture which worships teachers' to downright abusive. Reading between the lines, one gets the impression that as the incident occurred beneath our nose, we are extremely perturbed and rightly so. However, what explains our silence when such censorship, more violent in nature is part of the lived experience of our fellow-citizens? Our pedagogies scarcely reflect the million mutinies of India.

Such incidents in academic institutions reflect a breach of trust, while exposing the fault lines of our societies. Freedom and tolerance are indeed lofty sentiments but need to be actively promoted and upheld by the authorities who head the institutions. Fear is created to induce obedience and subjectivity. Our self-esteem is so fragile; our ideological foundations are built on sand which can brook no dissent. Instead of creatively engaging with the 'other', we opt for the path of least resistance. Hence, ban or burn anything- a book, a film, an idea, even an individual if uncomfortable questions are raised. Many a time, the institutions themselves promote regressive attitudes and launch surveillance on people with dissident views. Such ideas would percolate and permeate the culture of the institution. Hence, this heinous incident is a wakeup call for all of us, cutting across ideological barriers.

Now that our nose has been bloodied, we should realize that one cannot pick and choose 'issues' to support and promote. Once the Pandora's Box is opened, we have to bend over backwards to accommodate all sorts of 'hurt sentiments', in the process narrowing the circle of freedom. Hailing from the teaching community, I feel that such incidents reproduce and reinforce a sense of failure in imbibing a democratic ethos among the students and the wider campus community.

A report by the media watch group, The Hoot1 hits the nail on the head about the state of free speech in India. It is an apt warning which we can ignore only at our peril.

free speech transgressors

Any society would want to nurture its members as thoughtful, caring human beings. In the process of imparting societal values we also tend to police ideas and thoughts deemed dangerous under the pretext of public morality. What is disturbing or dangerous for one segment of society may be very interesting or innovative for others. Power cannot be reduced to just the exercise of political authority but is also reflective of social sanctions and sanctities. The multiplicity of ideas and beliefs are critical for creating a vibrant and pluralistic society. Critical thinking implies questioning, the analysis and evaluation of those beliefs to come to a personal judgment that empowers people to take ownership of ideas and control of their own intellectual and moral lives. The education of the imagination is as important as the education of the intellect2.

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out--
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out--
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out--
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me--and there was no one left to speak for me.

~ Martin Niemoller

Shall we also remain mute witnesses?



[1]. The Hindu, Friday April 11, 2014, p 18.

[2]. Censorship, the Internet, Intellectual Freedom and Youth, Kay. E. Vandergrift, May 2nd, 1997, the State University of New York.



Dr. N Sukumar teaches Political Science at Delhi University.

Cartoon by Unnamati Syama Sundar.

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