The culture of intolerance

S Madhusudhana Rao

India is a secular country and its neighbour Bangladesh is supposed to be secular in nature as the predominantly Islamic nation embraces a secular government in its Constitution and bans religion-based politics. To give Muslims and Hindus the benefits of equal respect for the two major religious denominations, Bangladesh has combined state laws with individual personal codes. But such a bid to strike a balance between precept and perception has never worked. In fact, the situation has turned worse in recent times with Islamic fundamentalists striking at one of the pillars of secularism: freedom of expression.

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S Madhusudhana Rao

So far, four bloggers who had written against Islamic fundamentalism and frequently criticized extremism had been murdered in that country this year. The killers had the same agenda and followed the same pattern in slayings. They came on motor bikes with machetes or sharp-edged weapons and butchered the unsuspecting victims at home or nearby places.

Yesterday (September 1), Bangladesh police charged five suspects – all Islamic militants – with the murder of blogger Washiqur Rahman at his Dhaka home in March. A month earlier, Avajit Roy was killed and Anant Bijoy Das was hacked to death in May. As recently as last month, Niloy Neel was slain.

Out of the four killings, charges have been brought against suspects only in one case. That is, in the murder of Washiqur Rahman. Killers of other bloggers are yet to be traced. The slain bloggers, all secularists, were named in a 2013 hit list of 84 activists that the fundamentalists had targeted for being ‘atheists.’ With every blogger’s killing a warning had gone out to others that one of them was the next victim. Obviously, it was a blatant attempt to strike fear among liberals, votaries of freedom of expression and opponents of extremism and fundamentalism.

The extremist elements in Bangladesh would not have gone to that extent had the Sheikh Hasina government cracked down on fundamentalists and their training camps in the country. Despite US and UN expressing concern over bloggers’ deaths and threats to them, Dhaka has done little to allay the fears of activists in Bangladesh and elsewhere.

Nearer home, the killing of Professor MM Kalburgi, a noted Kannada scholar and former vice-chancellor of Kannada University, on Sunday in Dharwad, Karnataka, mirrors the prevailing culture of intolerance in Bangladesh. While academics had high regard for the 77-year-old professor for his exemplary scholarship, rationalists had admired his stand against superstition and myths and opposition to blind faith. But right-wing Hindu extremist groups had crossed swords with Kalburgi over his fearless writings on what he considered dogma and irrational thinking and behavior.

In fact, when he received a death threat from a fringe group, he had been provided with police security from June last year but it was withdrawn a few months later on his insistence. However, the tragedy was none of his family members or his associates and admirers had never expected he had to pay with his life for freely and bravely expressing his views.

Kalburgi was a Sahitya Akademi award winner and an authority on Vachana literature. If such a distinguished litterateur was done to death just because his views were perceived to be non-conformist by some elements, we, individually and collectively and the government, are making a mockery of freedom of expression.

Whoever is responsible for the professor’s murder or is behind the ghastly act should know that India has a long tradition of encouraging dissent and opposition and questioning the established norms. Duality is inherent in the nature of things. Our actions and thoughts have never been fitted into a straightjacket and any such ideological attempt to do it will have serious problems for society and the nation.

Sadly, and unfortunately, Kaliburgi became the latest victim in the hands of some zealots who think that by removing one person or two will change the scenario and will have a profound effect on the liberal thinking process. What they may be unaware of is thinkers may die and they may be bumped off but their opinions will never die. They can only be challenged.

What’s worrisome is killers of rationalists like Kaliburgi, rationalist writer Narendra Dabholkar (2013), CPI activist Govind Pansare (2015) and many more are rarely brought to book, let alone face exemplary punishment. The tardy progress in investigations and alleged bias in criminal probes involving Hindu fringe groups and extremist elements embolden them to enforce their ideological agenda by hook or by crook.

In the last few years, many violent incidents had been reported from several towns and cities across the country where youngsters were beaten up for not following the diktat of right-wingers while the authorities had turned a blind eye. The culture of intolerance in the physical world has percolated into the cyber world where reasoning and questioning have given way to blunt criticism and hatred on the social media. While personal vilification and religious bigotry can be checked in cyber space, extremist activities, irrespective of their ideological moorings, can be curbed only by the official machinery and government. If they don’t act promptly, the casualty will be one of our fundamental freedoms.

If the demonic forces that are trying to destroy the freedom of expression are not reined in, our country will be no different from Bangladesh and many other nations where fundamentalism rules the roost. If today’s victim is an acclaimed professor, a blogger may face the same fate tomorrow.

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