Throttling Free Speech :: Indian currents – Editorial

This editorial written by Dr Suresh Mathew is an eye opener which hits hard at the prevailing social attitude seen in power politics. Is Delhi growing intollerant to citizens' right to free speech?  The post published here is certainly an important text on changing Indian political trends.  Joseph Mattappally (Associate Editor – CCV)

“I do not agree with what you have to say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” said French philosopher Voltaire. Right to free speech is the bedrock of democracy; it differentiates democracy from dictatorship. Whenever authorities try to abrogate or curtail this right, democracy and its institutions meet with slow death. The de-recognition of the Ambedkar-Periyar Study Circle at the Indian Institute of Technology-Madras (IITM) is yet another instance of chocking democratic institutions by the new dispensation in Delhi. It shows the growing intolerance of the new breed of rulers occupying the seat of power at the Centre. What is the ‘crime’ committed by the Study Circle, named after two icons of India, that invited this harsh punishment? The group was seen distributing ‘controversial’ pamphlets and posters on the campus. The action by the IITM has more to it than meets the eye.

Babasaheb Ambedkar and Periyar E.V. Ramasamy were two of the tallest social reformers of the last century. They challenged the existing social system based on caste. They defied status quoists who wanted to retain supremacy of high castes. They opposed tooth and nail the caste system of Hinduism. Ambedkar converted to Buddhism as a mark of protest to the oppression perpetuated by caste Hindus. It is no wonder that the government led by the BJP, which is supported by Hindutva forces, sees a students’ study circle that strives to propagate the ideology of the two leaders an eyesore.

Available accounts show that the Study Circle conducted debates and discussions on the prevailing socio-economic-political issues in the country. It was a platform for igniting free thinking on the impact of government’s policies on agricultural sector and labour reforms. It initiated debates on the over-enthusiasm of the Hindutva forces in promoting Sanskritised Hindi. It focussed on issues like beef ban and antagonism to non-vegetarian food. In short, the Study Circle encouraged free thinking among the student community. If an atmosphere of scientific temper is prohibited in one of the top institutions of higher learning, the whole talk of taking the country on the path to superpower is hollow and devoid of sincerity. Without the freedom to criticise, no country can claim to be a true democracy.  

One can see contradiction between the ban on Ambedkar-Periyar Study Circle and the Central Government’s eagerness to adopt some of the Dalit icons to shore up the image of the ruling party. On the one hand the government is trying to rein in students who want to be torchbearers of Ambedkar and Periyar, but on the other it is planning grand programmes to celebrate the 125th birth anniversary of Ambedkar. The paths of the right wing party and the social reformers do not meet at any point. Those who profess faith in Chaturvarna, Manusmriti, astrology and so on cannot walk the talk of equality propagated by the Dalit and backward class icons. The government is indulging in a futile effort of hunting with the hound and running with the hare.

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