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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 34, August 10, 2013

Ominous Portent of Lurking Fascism

Monday 12 August 2013, by Vijay Kumar

The fulmination of Chandan Mitra, the spokes-man of the BJP and editor of Pioneer, against Prof Amartya Sen by urging that the latter be stripped of the Bharat Ratna, conferred on him by the BJP Government itself, has fateful impli-cations for freedom of speech and expression and for democracy. The retraction in the form of regret expressed by him will not detract from the seriousness of the issue and deserves strongest condemnation by all right-thinking persons. The diatribe of Mitra reveals the intolerance in political discourse and unless interrogated with a sense of urgency and seriousness, will have a chilling effect on academic and intellectual freedom.

If an eminent person is honoured with the Padma Award, he/she does not forfeit his/her right to criticise the policy of any party. This will result in subversion of democracy as it would mean that the government would confer honorific only on its drum-beater. But the most serious and lasting damage would be the loss of intellectual and academic freedom.

The attack on Prof Sen by Mitra is reminiscent of the infamous exhortation by Bush after 9/11 that either you are with me or against me. The reckless utterance on the part of Mitra is a mere pattern of the larger Sangh view of politics and agenda and thus should not be seen in isolation as an utterance of one individual. The BJP and its mentor, the RSS, views everything from the Left and Right paradigm. There will always be political and intellectual space for liberals between the extremes of the Left and Right. Prof Sen represents the classic liberal stream and he is deservedly regarded as a most authoritative liberal voice in the world. Merely because he refused to endorse the Prime Ministership of Modi, he does not cease to be a liberal. In fact, his opposition to Modi emanated only because of his liberal commitment. He is, indeed, on very strong ground when he projects, as one of the most enlightened members of the majority community, the fear and concern of the minorities and further feels that the same would be compounded in the event of Modi becoming the Prime Minister. This is a highly responsible and principled stand that Sen has taken. However, the issue is not about the correctness or incorrectness of the same but about his right and duty to speak out his mind.

And it is this right to speak out one’s mind which is under attack and this bodes ill for the future of democracy. The collective good could only be secured through the free exchange of ideas and the production of ‘public reason’ through it in a sense conceptualised by late John Rawl and entrenched later on by Sen. It is this ‘public reasoning’, produced through enligh-tened discourse and healthy debate, that will become the first casualty due to the intolerance shown by Mitra as a spokesman of the BJP. The paradox of an editor of a newspaper under-mining the ‘public reason’ through liberating discourse and free exchange of ideas is too obvious to need any elaboration.

The author is an advocate, Supreme Court of India.

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