I am what I am; I will be what I will be.

Friday, March 6, 2015

The Sound of Silence

Photograph by Joyashree Sarma, Mphil/PhD Program in Sociology
Avijit Roy, a writer and an acclaimed champion of ‘secularism’ and freedom of expression was killed in a Dhaka street on 26th February 2015. Very clearly, to deserve this terrible public execution, he had committed two crimes: One was that he had an opinion which was not shared by some others in Bangladesh. The second was that much of what he believed in was expressed openly in the public domain, and often through Mukta-Mona (free mind), a Bengali blogging platform which he had established after migrating to the US in 2007. Roy was not the first to be hounded or killed in Bangladesh for his opinions. He will not be the last.

But this is not merely a Bangladeshi phenomenon, it is a form of global intolerance, which nevertheless has a profoundly obvious presence across South Asia. In 2011, Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab Province in Pakistan was killed in Islamabad by one of his own bodyguards. His crime was his defense of a Christian woman who was sentenced to death in terms of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. Lasantha Wickrematunge, the editor of the Sunday Leader was killed in Colombo in January 2009, and his crime was his criticism of the government of the former president of Sri Lanka. Taunted by people who had issues with his novel, Madhorubhagan, Indian writer Perumal Murugan decided on his own to cease his passionate engagement with creative writing. He had posted on his Facebook account not too long ago, “Perumal Murugan, the writer is dead. As he is no God, he is not going to resurrect himself. He also has no faith in rebirth. An ordinary teacher, he will live as P. Murugan. Leave him alone.”[1] Though his corporeal body was not harmed, his emotions and his will to write and express were shattered, and the end result was not too different from the fate of the others referred to earlier. 

In all of our countries, books and films have been banned for very similar reasons under similar circumstances. In these different places, these people were all silenced and their ideas erased by our own people who believed that only one kind of truth and reality should exist. That is, one kind of powerful truth is expected to prevail, be it political, religious or both, within a larger domain of silence and acceptance. Many more have been killed in South Asia under similar circumstances since these killings and muzzling of voices. And by all indicators, going by the nature of relative state (in)action in theses contexts in South Asia and the relative lackluster public opinion, these kinds of actions will continue. 

Whenever I am confronted with this discomforting expansion of silence and the accompanying expansion if a single claim for ‘truth’ that must necessarily hold sway in our countries, I am always reminded of an encounter attributed to a group of people known as the Kalamas who lived in Kesaputta and the Buddha nearly three thousand years ago. These were our ancestors living, thinking and debating very much within the borders we call South Asia today. But they also had encountered the spectre of a singular truth and its rhetoric for superiority in their time. The Kalamas’ question to the Buddha was to figure out how to ‘know’ what is ‘right’. According to the narrative, they asked the Buddha: “Lord, some teachers come to Kesaputta, expounding and glorifying their own doctrines. But as for the doctrine of others, they abuse them, disparage them, deprecate them, and pull them to pieces. Other teachers, on coming to Kesaputta, do the same thing. When we listen to them, we feel doubt and uncertainty as to which of these teachers are speaking truth and which are lying."[2] What is expressed here all those years ago have an uncanny similarity with what we see in our region at present. 

The Buddha gave the following response to the Kalamas: “Come, Kalamas. Don't go by reports, by legend, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by consistency with your own laws, by probability, or by the thought, 'This contemplative is our teacher.' When you know for yourselves that 'these mental qualities are unskillful; these mental qualities are blameworthy; these mental qualities are criticized by the wise; these mental qualities when acted on lead to harm and suffering' then abandon them. When you know for yourselves that 'these mental qualities are skillful; these mental qualities are blameless; these mental qualities are praised by the wise; these mental qualities when acted on lead to well-being and happiness' then keep following them."[3] Surely, this encounter, in terms of the circumstances, the question posed and the response given is not about religion. Instead, we can see this has much to do with the freedom to think and freedom to express, and more importantly, to have the choice and the right to do these things. 

This is a state of logic and commonsense that prevailed in the minds of thinking people in our region all these years ago. I find it very sad, when we talk of our past with much rhetoric and virulence these days, we often forget what was truly unique in our past and remember and recall only what might best be left in the haziness of the past and myth.

What the killings of today and the anticipated silence through these acts clearly show is a very radical shrinking of our public sphere and a relentless encroachment of our collective conscience and a dismantling of our collective intellectual traditions. What we see is an emergent fear of the plurality of ideas and an intolerance of engaged and reflective dissent. 
Photograph by Joyashree Sarma, Mphil/PhD Program in Sociology
In these grim circumstances, when students of the Department of Sociology at South Asian University associated with the departmental students’ blog, ‘Rickshaw’ organized a ‘public meeting’ on the theme, ‘Muzzling Freedom, Killing Dissent: South Asian Scene’, taking the killing of Avijit Roy as its point of departure on 5th March 2015, I wondered what it means for the university, and by extension South Asian citizenship. I also wondered if it would mean anything at all going by the large regional realities all of us are very familiar with. A handful of students and faculty members constituting a panel expressed what the incident and the larger issues it entails, mean to them. Some other students also took part in the discussion. 

But obviously going by the student and faculty population in the university, most people clearly had other things to do, going by their absence. I have no doubt, for each individual whatever else they had to do, must have been important. But then, this is precisely what the larger South Asian polity’s inactivity in the context of the regions’ larger crises including the intolerance of ideas and dissent has also indicated. If issues such as the shrinking public sphere in our time do not touch our house, salary, scholarship, our right to buy a car and so on, it appears that killings and dismantling of collective conscience that is necessary to expand the singular truth in our time could be tolerated. We can, as we have seen in many parts of the region, be contended with gleaming highways, chandelier-hugging five star hotels, urban beatification and other manifestations of ‘development.’
Photograph by Joyashree Sarma, Mphil/PhD Program in Sociology
It seems to me this is the kind of reality my friend and poet, Rudramurti Cheran wrote in another context as “the irresponsibility of distance”. If so, this also means that the people perpetuating the intolerance of the plurality of ideas that has become endemic in our region are not merely religious and political extremists as often claimed. The silence of ordinary and often reasonable people is as culpable. So the small ‘public meeting’ at South Asian University is not going to change the direction of South Asia’s future or the way its citizens think for sure. But it indicates that our collective conscience still flickers on and off and sometimes can be seen above the glitter of irrationality and disinterest.



[1]. http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/tamil-nadu/perumal-murugan-gives-up-writing/article6784745.ece
[2]. http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/rosenberg/righttoask.html
[3]. http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/rosenberg/righttoask.html

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