A government that denies each its people the freedom to speak and communicate freely is essentially “violent” and India that way has been a “50-50 democracy”, according to thinker-historian Ramachandra Guha.
The country is democratic in certain respects, given that it conducts largely free and fair elections and facilitates unfettered movement of its citizens, but its criminal justice system is facing a near-collapse even as large-scale political corruption persists, he noted at a lecture organised as part of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale.
At the ‘Let’s Talk’ in the Biennale Pavilion this weekend, Guha said contemporary India was facing eight kinds of threats to freedom of expression. The first is the retention of archaic colonial laws, the second is constituted by imperfections in the country’s judicial system. A third threat is a steep rise of identity politics, while the fourth is the conduct of the police force.
The fifth threat is the pusillanimity or more often the mendacity of politicians. A sixth one is constituted by the dependence of the media on government advertisements. The seventh threat is constituted by the dependence of media on commercial advertisements. And finally, there is the threat constituted by careerists and ideologically-driven writers.
Guha, 60, further raised his concern on the safety of writers and journalists, more so after the killing of activists like Gauri Lankesh, M M Kalburgi, Govind Pansare and Narendra Dabholkar.
Amid the talk on violence, Guha referred to his 2018 work ‘Gandhi: The Years That Changed the World’, which is the second of a two-volume biography on the Mahatma. Questioning the limits of speech and expression in the country in the present scenario, Guha sought to redefine Gandhi’s words: “Every man has a right to hold any opinion he chooses, and to give effect to it also, so long as, in doing so, he does not use physical violence against anybody.”
Bangalore-based Guha started his talk recollecting the memories of attending the second edition of Kochi-Muziris Biennale with his wife. He felt “great” walking through its venues, taking in the atmosphere, the quality of works and the people who have come from different castes, genders and cultures. “The biennale gives me more a buzz than any art field — literary or music — I have attended in India,” he added.
Guha further spoke on a “complex interplay” of social forces, ideological biases and political choices” that “inhibit” freedom of expression. According to him, the first thinker to make a persuasive case for the moral and political importance of free speech was 17th-century Jewish-Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza. A question- answer session followed covering a range of topics.