Speaking Up in Times of Intolerance
Report from the Literary Meet for Tolerance organised by Dakshinayan and Gram Seva Sangh in Bangalore
September 12, 2018
The dominant culture of economic upheaval, destruction of livelihoods and the erosion of the rural economy poses a threat to modes of coexistence. Religious intolerance further endangers the idea of a tolerant, inclusive and pluralistic society. In this environment, literature must be deployed as a subversive tool to question and oppose undemocratic and unconstitutional actions. It is also a means by which dialogue can be initiated within communities on the importance of tolerance and pluralism. Various artists, activists, writers and theatre personalities were present at the ‘Literary Meet for Tolerance’ organised by Dakshinayan and Gram Seva Sangh which was held on the 2nd of September at the Central University of Bengaluru. Eminent historian Ramachandra Guha, theatre personality Girish Karnad, author Githa Hariharan and M.S. Sathyu, the film director were among those who were present at the event. Issues such as casteism, misogyny and human rights violations were also raised by the participants. Further, the speakers expressed concern over the recent arrest of activists, intellectuals and journalists for alleged ‘’Maoist links".
GN Devi, founder of Dakshinayana spoke about how "tolerance is the foundation of Indian civilization as we are a multi-cultural, mutli-religious, multi-ethnic country". The rise of fascism is therefore a threat to this idea of India. Further, the fascistic tendencies within the government are not only hurting the pluralistic ethos that characterises the Indian civilization but also betraying values laid down in the Indian Constitution. He added that at a time when the principles and values of the Indian Constitution are being attacked, "journalists should show spine and learn not to bend before those in power”. Devi also expressed his views on the role of literature by stating, “artists and writers should uphold the ideas of democracy, multiplicity, freedom and fearlessness through their work and creative expression”.
Vasu Dixit, composer of the band Swaraathma which performed at the event, believes that resistance and the principle of tolerance can be best expressed through music. One of the songs performed by Dixit was composed by Prasannna who is the main guide of the Gram Seva Sangh. The song ‘Hey Rama Yenonbanni’ which asserts the need to come together irrespective of religious differences. The song is melancholic but also expresses hope in the idea of standing under one roof. “Let’s spin the charkha and let’s bring the cattle back to the farms where they belong.” Music, according to Dixit, is a forum to spread love and peace in the country and in the world. Vasu Dixit also expressed concern over the growing intolerance towards forms of artistic expression that ask critical questions and hold those in power accountable. He concluded, “Freedom of expression is one of the basic rights of a citizen in any democratic country”.
Author, Githa Hariharan noted that it is the responsibilty of every citizen, young or old to become aware of the current social, cultural and political scenario in the country. "We are handing over a country, a world which is in a mess to the youth. People are lynched for what they eat and what they wear, people are arrested for what they speak, their lands are being taken away from them and their rights are not being given to them." In such an environment, Hariharan stresses on the importance of critical thinking and the ability to pose questions to those in power. She stated that one must therefore be weary of ‘’easy formula questions like, ‘do you love your country?’ ”
As an atheist, the well known film director, M.S. Sathyu, shed light on growing ‘religious fascism’ in India. He also spoke of a ‘fascistic tendency’ in various spheres of society. He also stated that although it was Indira Gandhi who laid the foundation, fascism is undoubtedly rooted in the political ideology of the Sangh. Mr. Sathyu emphasized on the importance of art, in various forms, in fighting the predominance of fascism and religious extremism in society. He also added that although this runs the risk of alienating some sections of society, it is a worthy pursuit as neutrality at this juncture is tantamount to being complicit.
On the activists, lawyers and intellectuals arrested for their alleged ‘anti national’ activities, actor and theatre personality, Girish Karnad said that the motives of the police must be examined. “An FIR should state what you have been arrested for. But here they invoke Kashmir, Bhima Koregaon, and a plan to assassinate the Prime Minsiter. What does this mean? It is not that the police are ignorant. They are merely acting accroding to the whims of ministers and elected representatives.” He concluded that it is therefore imperitive that resistance be built against the existing state machinery.
Acclaimed author and historian Ramachandra Guha reflected on the need for visionary leaders like Gandhi and Ambedkar in today’s political landscape. Guha pointed out that the Non-Cooperation Movement in the 1920s was the first time all Indians across barriers of caste, gender and religion were mobilized in a pan India movement. It was during this movement that Gandhi conceptualised the notion of 'Swaraj' as 'a bed with four sturdy posts'. These were Non-violence, Hindu-Muslim harmony, the abolition of untouchability and economic self reliance. Guha observes that the principle of non-violence is violated most in the contemporary context, through the misuse of words, 'abuse, innuendo and vituperation'. In today's polarized political climate, Gandhi's courteousness towards his strongest critics and political opponents needs to be recognized. This is seen through his relationship with one of his disciples, Gora who was an atheist. Guha expressed the need to go beyond Gandhi's own understanding of Swaraj and recognize caste and gender based discrimination as equally crucial. He also referred to Ambedkar’s last speech to the Constituent Assembly in November 1949. Ambedkar highlighted the importance of social and culutral democracy in addition to political democracy. "We will enter the era of one person, one vote but when will we enter the era of one person, one value?", Guha also points to the part of the speech where Ambedkar states in unequivocal terms that, ‘Bhakti in religion is a route to the salvation of the soul. Bhakti in politics is a route to dictatorship’. This observation is not only prophetic but ever more relevant in today’s times.
Meenakshi Bali, a poet and artist from North Karnataka spoke about the important role women have played in various movements in India throughout its history. However she also notes that this hasn’t been without them being regulalrly undermined not only by society at large but also by their own male comrades. She also stated that people who firmly believe in a ‘Manuvadi Vichardhara’ and an exclusionary, majoritarian society should be fiercely opposed. She concluded by saying,’’Humne yeh tay kiya hai ki ab desh ko mahilayein hi bachayengi (Only women can save this country)".
The meet emphasized the importance of a joint resistance. Figures like Gandhi and Ambedkar provided strong leadership and a vision for a counter movement; something that is still relevant in the contemporary context. The speakers expressed the need for resistance,irrespective of State pressure and the importance of a questioning society. These values as G.N. Devi pointed out, are enshrined not only in India’s civilizational ethos but also in the Constitution. The meet also shed light on the need for not only a multi-faceted approach but also diverse leadership including women and minorities. Art and literature therefore represents not just an opposing force but also presents an alternative worldview rooted in pluralism and equity.
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