CNBC TV18 Article : The Rule of Mobs

AP18200463007104-768x517.jpgThis week brought the news that Carnatic Classical vocalist, and Magsaysay award winner, TM Krishna’s concert was cancelled after a motivated campaign by a driven cabal of self-proclaimed defenders of Indian tradition. They accused him of being anti national, anti-Hindu, and an urban naxal – all catch all terms used to describe people who oppose  their world views. Last week brought the news that noted historian and writer Ram Guha pulled out of teaching at Ahmedabad University, after an ABVP campaign against him for being against “Indian culture”. For the last three weeks, defence analyst Abhijit Iyer Mitra has been languishing in judicial custody in Odisha, for cracking a joke on the Konarak temple on his social media stream. When he applied to the Supreme Court for relief Iyer Mitra was told the safest place for him was jail. In each of these cases it was a belief that online threats will escalate to real world violence.

These three seemingly unrelated cases are just the tip of the iceberg. They have come to the fore because they are in the space that gets picked up by the highly influential English language media. There are many other stories of similar nature, from parts of India and people not on the radar of main stream media. These stories, and the people who are targeted are not even heard.  At the core it is not just about TM Krishna, or Ram Guha, or Abhijit Iyer Mitra’s freedoms and safety from violence – it is about all of us being able to enjoy the freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution.

In part these cases are possible because of the ability to call for violence and do violence with little or no penal consequence. The Karni Sena shot to prominence because it was able to successfully unleash violence against the film Padmavat, including threatening to kill, decapitate, and disfigure people associated with the film. Violent protests took part in multiple states, as mute state governments watched, and sometimes colluded with the Karni Sena.   A mute state, a hapless police force, and a political class that jumps on every bandwagon in the hope of scraping together a few votes has made it a dangerous place for freedom of speech, and dissent against prevailing norms.

As India evolves, and the Indian identity becomes the predominant identity for all of us who live here, there has been a back lash from various groups trying to assert their own  identity. Be it the Karni Sena that objects to a film; or a group of Brahmanical music lovers who see Carnatic music as their exclusive domain; or various Maratha groups that see Shivaji as their sole preserve – the tendency is not only to exclude any other view or interpretation, but to respond to it with violence, and claim that those who were attacked are against India, Indian culture, and therefore fair game.

One of the reasons why these mobs are emboldened is in the Indian Penal Code. Section 295a of the Indian penal code looks at “Deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs”; and Section 298 looks at Uttering, words, etc., with deliberate intent to wound the religious feelings of any person; have been used liberally to curtail the freedoms of people, and harass them. So not only does the person exercising free speech have to worry about mobs attacking them; they also have to worry about the state charging them with crimes under section 295a and 298. As long as these sections exist, the burden of proof is on those who assert their right to free speech, and not on the mobs. The mobs will simply claim they were provoked.

But another part of the problem is the lack of spine of organisations and institutions and even various government bodies. The wariness of standing up to mobs – be it online or off line – by standing their ground. Unfortunately, There is no instant cure for spinelessness. The only thing that can help is the knowledge that the Government will protect your Constitutional rights, and penalise those who are trying to violate those rights. Unfortunately, successive Governments at the state and  the Centre have proven to be rather pusillanimous themselves, when it comes to dealing with mobs. Because mobs are vote banks, and those votes are much needed.

Art and culture arise from society, and it is a mirror to the civilisation. Dissent is an integral part of who we are as a civilisation. In India it has been possible to disagree with people without being disagreeable. India is about synthesis. About various streams, strands, and opinions giving rise to something completely different.  What mobs don’t get is that in opposing certain expressions as un Indian, they are going against the ethos of Indian culture.

In the 1960’s the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) organised a musical concert for famine relief in Pune. The foremost Hindustani Classical vocalist of the era Pandit Bhimsen Joshi was invited to perform. During the concert he took a break and for close to 10 minutes, in chaste Marathi, gave a speech. He began by saying “I do this because I believe it is my duty to say this”, and in the course of the discourse he gently chided the Maharashtra Government headed by CM Deshmukh, took on traders for making inflated profits, and the RSS, telling them all they would find his words uncomfortable. He berated them, mocked all of them, dispassionately, as an artist holding a mirror to society provoking the audience to think about uncomfortable questions, and maybe even answers. And, after the speech, he continued with the concert. Maybe it was the dynamics of the era, or the belief that people could hold a view without being labelled ‘anti Hindu’ or anti Indian, that   nothing happened to Bhimsen Joshi. He got invited to even more concerts, honoured by the Government, respected by the Sangh, and loved by the audience. No one labelled him, no one threatened his concerts, and there was a certain respect for this giant who spoke his mind.

Today very few would take risks like that. Because speaking out freely is a risk- you don’t know who will get offended, and who will sue you or beat you up. The only thing that you know is that the State will do nothing. And, it is this muteness of the Indian state that is the single biggest problem in curtailing freedom of expression. Mobs are everywhere, mute states in fewer places.  This is not about more legislation, or regulating the online space, or even curtailing the liberty of those who want to protest against TM Krishna or Ram Guha or Abhijit Iyer Mitra. It is about creating an environment where an artist can sing, a professor can teach, a defence analyst can crack jokes without wondering who is out to get them, and when will they be hurt.

It is not just about these three people, these forms of curtailing expression has an impact on all of us. The more we give way to mobs and their demands, the more their demands will increase. Until we are left with a singularly humourless, colourless, and melody-less universe that reflects the world of the mob.

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