In Fear of Silence: A Conversation With Megha Pansare

A professor of Russian in the Department of Foreign Languages at Shivaji University in Kolhapur, Maharashtra, Megha Pansare ostensibly leads a quiet life. She is the President of the District Council of the National Federation of Indian Women (NFIW) in the state of Maharashtra. She is also a noted activist and the daughter-in-law of Comrade Govind Pansare. But most importantly, a year ago, she dared to question the Union Minister of State for Home, Kiren Rijiju, for denying the link between the murders of Dr. Narendra Dabholkar and Govind Pansare. It is clear that those purported to have killed these rationalists belong to the same right-wing organisation, the Sanathan Sanstha. During the three-day conference in Goa in November titled "Abhivyakti’" organised by the Dakshinayan Rashtriya Parishad, ICF had an opportunity to speak with Megha Pansare and ask her a few questions.

Yesterday in your speech (in the Public Meeting at Lohia Maidan in Madgaon for the Abhivyakti Conference of the Dakshinayan Rashtriya Parishad) you spoke of fear, not just of those who kill rationalists in broad daylight, but fear of the existing political order. Could you explain further what you meant?

Today, people across the country are being threatened or facing cases of defamation. In 2015, 8 people (rationalists and journalists) were killed, 30 attacked, 3 arrested, 27 threatened, 35 charged with sedition and 48 faced cases of defamation. In 2016, there has been an unprecedented rise in cases throttling free speech. These cases have spread the fear of attacks – big and small – on activists, journalists, academics, writers and intellectuals, leaving them with no room to criticise or even question. Only those who align with the state or belong to the right wing fundamentalist groups aligned with the state have space to raise their concerns. Those of us who wish to speak our minds are not permitted to do so. And if we do, we can’t do so in the way we should. To me, this is visible in the college staff room where we can no longer criticise or express ourselves freely. Earlier people used to debate without fear, agree to disagree, and at least hear each other fully. Now, silence is preferable for fear of unforeseen consequences. If this is the case within a university staff room, how will we speak freely in society? Fear has set in.

If we readily compare ourselves to a theological state like Pakistan while invoking the bogey of Islam, we need to remember that as per our Constitution we are a democratic one. We need to remember whose interest it serves to polarise people along communal lines. But if we dare to expose this link, we are immediately branded “anti-national”. This question is now being posed as one community against another, one religion against another, and one nation against another. It is building distrust, animosity and resentment among the people in the subcontinent. It effectively closes all scope for dialogue.

Secondly, the ruling party and organisations affiliated to it are effectively using moles and agents within the government machinery to sight voices of dissent. This surveillance builds a climate of fear. The government machinery is being used to attack the very people exposing the insidious networks between power and economic wealth. Over the years, RTI activists have systematically exposed the nexus between the corporate sector and politicians. But when RTI activists are attacked and killed and no one is held responsible, the terror within us is heightened. Moreover, Modi is using the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting to advertise himself and his policies, and the ruling government and its political agenda. Now there is no difference between the government and the ruling party. The difference has been wiped out. Leadership is in the hands of one person and his coterie. To me, this is clearly setting the stage for fascism.

The ruling establishment is using laws like defamation cases against people speaking out against those in power. In such a scenario, how can people resist?

Those spreading this climate of fear are well organised and coordinated. They may have different names but they hold a common ideological thread and the same divisive ideology. But the victims of their hate are those fighting at individual levels. That is why the fear has spread so widely. Platforms such as this (three-day Abhivyakti Conference of the Dakshinayan Rashtriya Parishad in Goa) bring people together. Not only that, it also helps us chart an action plan to fight the growing intolerance in the country. When a few people decide to talk, and more and more join, tens and hundreds find courage and come together in unity. This collective protest has strength when it is open and united. Only then can our purpose be achieved effectively. Only then can we fight this climate of fear.

How can we reach out to people in this worsening political climate? How can we uphold the sacrifices made by people like Comrade Pansare, Dr. Dabholkar and Prof. Kalburgi?

I belonged to the student organisation All India Students’ Federation (AISF) in Maharashtra and was in the State Committee. I was the Joint Secretary for 10 years. Now I am the President of the District Committee of the National Federation of Indian Women (NFIW) in Maharashtra. The new generation needs to change the form in which it engages with people. It needs to explore social media and work on programmes that create awareness about superstition and discrimination. Young people need to fully understand and uphold the democratic ideals of the Constitution. New forms to reach out to the younger generations need to be creative and appeal to a wide range of people. Our clarity and astute understanding of the political climate will also help our views reach people. Making films – short ones – that can go viral is one such way. Films, documentation, collection of data and such efforts make people aware, politicise and unite. This needs to be followed by cultural performances and plays. But all this finally needs to come together in the form of mass protests and mark the assertion of our dissent. Many of us don’t know the history of struggles led by people who have come before us. If we do, we have forgotten a lot of it. Such efforts help remind us of that history, understand the condition today, and ultimately help us decide our path for the future.