Until about 40 years ago, Indians took pride in the idea of “the power of the people”. This nation’s fabric stitched with the ideals of socialism, secularism and democracy could not be ripped apart by any ruler until one fine day the then PM Indira Gandhi imposed Internal Emergency and took away the democratic rights of the citizens. How the people fought the regime and snatched back their democratic rights is now a significant part of our history. Forty years later, with several untoward incidents in the country, we are once again facing a similar threat.
It could be argued that these incidents are the handiwork of a few anti-social elements. But, the cold-blooded murders of MM Kalburgi and Govind Pansare in broad daylight, for instance, tell us a different story. An ideology that is inimical to this country’s respect for plurality and freedom of expression is the obvious link between these incidents. And the same ideology was found rearing its head in a nondescript western UP village leading to the lynching of a 50-year-old Muslim man.
Unlike in the Emergency era, these threats are not facing any meaningful opposition from the major political organisations. But, where the political class has failed, it is heartening to see several members of the intelligentsia putting up a brave resistance. Author Nayantara Sahgal returned the Sahitya Akademi Award “in memory of the Indians who have been murdered”.
The author’s decision reflects the coming of age of the Indian intellectual who had largely been a passive spectator during the Emergency. But the times seem to have changed. Hindi writers Ashok Vajpeyi and Uday Prakash, too, returned their awards. Earlier, eight Kannada writers had returned the prestigious Aralu Sahitya Prashasti over the state government’s lackadaisical approach in arresting Kalburgi’s killers.
Around the globe, too, there are several examples of how intellectuals protested against anti-people regimes. Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe rejected the Nigerian national honour, ‘Commander of the Federal Republic’, protesting against the State’s “connivance with renegades who boast of their connection with high places”. Indeed, intellectuals have often played a big role in alerting the political class of the imminent danger that a society faces.
Edward Said once explained the intellectual’s mission as one of advancing freedom and knowledge, and disturbing the status quo. So, while the political class is obsessed only with politicking and looks away, the onus is on those like Sahgal who have the power to awaken them from their slumber. The future of the democracy and pluralism in India would depend on how the politicians respond.