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Rising Intolerance In Sub-continent: DEMOCRACY UNDER SERIOUS THREAT, By Amrita Banerjee, 15 Sept, 15 Print E-mail

Round The World

New Delhi, 15 September 2015

Rising Intolerance In Sub-continent


By Amrita Banerjee

School of International Studies, JNU, New Delhi


The recent killing of two journalists in Pakistan, the assertion of living in constant fear by Bangladesh’s 22-year-old blogger Shammi Haque after four of her colleagues were hacked to death by suspected Islamists and the brutal murder of renowned scholar MM Kalbargi herein have sent shock waves across the sub-continent and raised a question: Are we as nations becoming more and more intolerant day by day?

Remember, the essence of democracy was lucidly summed up by Voltaire, ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to death your right to say it.’ Arguably, free speech is too important to be restricted; however it might be used and abused. It is a test of any free society that we allow open debate and freedom of thought which we disagree with or even detest.

But today with increasing attack on writers, rationalists, free thinkers and secular bloggers, it seems as if the freedom to think what one likes and say what one thinks has become another empty ritual to which we just pay lip service.

Take Bangladesh. Constitutionally, a secular nation, it has witnessed a series of attacks on outspoken rationalist writers in the last two years. A blogger was hacked to death on 5 February 2013; only a week after the movement against Jamaat-e-Islami leaders and activists who were allegedly behind the genocide, rapes and arson attacks during the Independence conflict was launched.

In the first eight months this year, four more bloggers were killed in similar attacks while a female blogger continues to live in perennial dread after she received numerous threats of rape and death.

Unfortunately, all the four bloggers were associated with the Ganajagaran Mancho, which forced the Sheikh Hasina Government to crackdown on Jamaat-e-Islami by demanding capital punishment for 1971 war criminals.

In Dhaka, media freedom has always been under threat but surely the religious opposition to free-thinking remains the most serious challenge, leading many to leave the country forever. Writer Taslima Nasreen has been living in exile for decades and is scared of the radicals back home.

Pertinently, one needs to recall why Bangladesh was formed in the first place. Ironically, its liberation from Pakistan in 1971 was an act of defiance to preserve political and cultural rights which the so-called Islamic Republic of Pakistan was trying to suppress by imposing Urdu and not recognizing Bengali. Sadly, today in spite of a secular Constitution, the country seems to be following what it left behind in 1971: Pakistan.

Notably, the al-Qaeda had claimed responsibility, for the killing of secular bloggers in Bangladesh whom it described as 'blasphemers'. Equally worrisome, is that there are other softer versions of Islamism that are rising in Dhaka. For instance, the Tablighi Jamaat and another radical group Ansar Bangla Team have also found major traction in society.

Under pressure from these groups, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina even reacted by arresting some atheist bloggers to appease these extremist elements sending a chilling message that those who hold independent views are in grave danger. Since then, writers and bloggers with free thinking views have been harassed, threatened, and killed.

Significantly, the situation is no different in Pakistan. The shooting of two journalists in Karachi within 24 hours last week brings back bitter memories of last year’s incident in North Nazimabad area when two Express media groups were gunned down while sitting inside their news van. One of Geo TV’s leading anchor Hamid Mir was also attacked in Karachi last year.

The story of Malala Yousafzai, who was shot by the Taliban in Swat Pakistan for wanting to go to school, is famous world-wide. Indeed, it is tragic that Pakistani courts seldom punish attackers and the master-minds are never apprehended or brought to book. 

Undeniably, these brutal and cowardly murders are a reflection of embedded intolerance in many Muslim societies and are a reminder that it is not easy to profess atheism when you belong to a Muslim country. True, one can disagree with the approach some atheists take in matters of faith, but it is utterly disconcerting to note that the space for such ideas is shrinking in Islamic nations.

Today, systemic intolerance and human rights abuses against all minorities; Hindus, Christians, and Buddhists as well as secular Muslims and women are on the rise. Religious extremist groups in Bangladesh and Pakistan call for public killing of atheists and demand passing of blasphemy laws.

Also, the extremists in Bangladesh like their counterparts in Pakistan not only strongly principled but also willing to kill anyone who opposes their philosophy of a distorted view of Islam. Moreover, they are willing to die for their cause. Succinctly, their philosophy makes them powerful and dangerous.

India, like her neighbours in the East and West also seems to be in the throes of what Salman Rushdie rightly calls a ‘cultural emergency.’ Writers and artists are being harassed, sued and arrested for what they say, write or create. Be it famed painter late M.F. Hussain who was exiled, denying Salman Rushdie the right to travel to India after the publication of ‘The Satanic Verses’.

What to speak of the arrest of two young women after they questioned on Face book the shutdown of Mumbai following Shiv Sena’s Bal Thackeray’s death, Or the thrashing of women at a Mangalore pub and the murder of the three elderly rationalists --- Pune’s Narendra Dabholkar, Kohlapur’s Govind Pansare and Dharwad’s MM Kalburgi --- within  two years is alarming.

Besides, under the Indian Constitution freedom of speech is qualified, subject to what the Government deems ‘reasonable’ restrictions. Wherein, the State can silence its citizens for a number of reasons, including ‘public order,’ ‘decency or morality’ and ‘friendly relations with foreign nations.

Meanwhile, our courts do little to rein in Government authorities. Undeniably, India cannot hope to be a true cultural capital of the world, let alone a truly free society, until it firmly protects the right to speech. Indians must understand that free speech: The right to think and exchange ideas freely is at the core of democracy which we cherish. If the former is weak, the latter cannot help but be so as well.

Clearly, there is one common thread vis-à-vis these unfortunate incidents in the sub-continents three countries: Shockingly, neither of these outrageous attacks on freedom of expression has attracted much interest from the civil-liberties lobby in Dhaka, Islamabad or New Delhi.

Certainly, these cases are symptomatic of the way the struggle for free speech has changed in recent times. Whereby, there is an urgent need now to stand up for free speech as an indivisible right. Nowadays, the danger is not just that we might lose the free-speech wars, but that we risk surrendering our most precious liberty without a fight. ----- INFA

(Copyright, India News and  Feature Alliance)



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