Expression of dissent or intolerance?
The Shiv Sena is back in the news for the wrong reasons, again. Prime time news on television was awash with news of how a group of people allegedly belonging to the Sena attacked Sudheendra Kulkarni, head of the Observer Research Foundation, throwing ink on him as he left his home in Mumbai’s Matunga neighbourhood. This incident, according to the Sena, was seen as a warning to the Foundation against going ahead with its event planned for Monday evening to launch a book written by a former Pakistan Foreign Minister Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri. Last week, it was noted Pakistani Ghazal maestro Ghulam Ali’s scheduled concert in Mumbai that got cancelled due to the Sena’s shenanigans. Kulkarni, a former Bharatiya Janata Party ideologue, had reportedly met Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray at his home on Monday night and asked him to allow the book launch to proceed. However, Thackeray refused to back down. “This attack doesn’t bother me, but it is an insult to the tricolour and democracy,” Kulkarni had said after the alleged attack. In response, Shiv Sena’s Sanjay Raut said that the ink throwing incident was a “mild” form of protest. “Ink attack on Kulkarni is a mild reaction from Sena; this is not ink but the blood of our soldiers,” he said. The alleged attack on Kulkarni and the Sena’s unfortunate display of misplaced patriotism has achieved two things. On the one hand, it has elevated a mere book launch by a former Pakistani minister to a discourse on nationalism and given the event undue importance. And once again, Mumbai, probably one of the most cosmopolitan cities in India, has been shown in a poor light. One of the defining features of a cosmopolitan city is its liberal values. A core element of these liberal values is the right to exercise your freedom of speech and expression, without the threat of violence or coercion. Of course, these rights are not absolute in the Indian context. Nonetheless, one does have to ask, where do you draw the line between what is permissible and what is not. The debate on this subject should be left for another day and a column.
In the above context, however, it is clear that the State government has given its permission to the Foundation for the event. Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis has assured complete security for the event. The same had been promised for the Ghulam Ali concert. The difference, though, is that for the Ghulam Ali concert the organizers had cowed down by the threat of violence. Kulkarni, meanwhile, has stood his ground. What is unfortunate about the entire episode is that the Sena could have gone about their protest in a peaceful manner, instead of creating unnecessary and damaging headlines for not only themselves but also for the city of Mumbai. By all means, the Sena should express their dissent. However, if the Sena does not like Kasuri or his book, there are other means of expressing dissent. They could boycott the event, come to the event and engage in a fiery debate or wear a black band as a mark of protest. But to physically attack and intimidate the organisers of an event or force the government to call off a concert is something that cannot be condoned.
The peaceful expression of differing views on sensitive subjects is what many would consider a cornerstone of democracy, liberal or not. What’s worse, the Sena is an alliance partner in the ruling government. It should have shown greater responsibility before condoning such acts.
Coming back to the situation on the ground, one should not <g data-gr-id="42">surprised</g> by the tactics adopted by the Sena. The politics of hate usually revolves around a familiar enemy (Pakistan). Time and again, they have intimidated the state into submission by raising the hoodoo of the familiar enemy. In 1991, Sena workers had dug up the pitch in Wankhede stadium ahead of an India-Pakistan series, based on the very same rationale. The Congress government at the time submitted itself to such thuggish behavior. Unlike in 1991, when Mumbai’s cricket crazy fans remained silent, music fans and political commentators today have raised their voice across vast sections of the country. But sadly, the damage has already been done. Moreover, is throwing black ink and running away an act of patriotism to be proud of, or one of cowardice?