“What is this country coming to?” The opening line of Girish Karnad’s compelling play Tughlaq has come back to haunt us. Karnad is among 25 Kannada writers and intellectuals who have been given police protection following the shocking murder of Gauri Lankesh. For thinkers are in danger. Writers, creative artists, teachers, journalists and people who think for themselves stand in the way of the slow destruction of the pluralistic democracy that defines our nation.

This is the age of hollow men, headpiece filled with straw, leaning together, with dried voices. We must not think for ourselves, or speak out. This is the age of submission, of silence.

Why else would writers need police protection? Traditionally writers were protected by readers, by a society that valued writers, artists, teachers, thinkers. But for years intolerance of inconvenient thought has been growing – now we have allowed it to escalate into the shameless murder of dissent.

After Gauri was killed in Karnataka, Hindu Aikya Vedi leader K.P. Sasikala warned secular writers in Kerala of a similar fate, and suggested they do a mrityunjaya homam – a puja to ward off death. A couple of months ago K.P. Ramanunni, the Malayalam writer who advocates Hindu-Muslim harmony, got a death threat. Earlier, Tamil  writer Perumal Murugan had decided to counter sustained threats and attacks by Hindu fundamentalists by announcing his own death as a writer. He would live, he announced, but wouldn’t ever write again.

These are just a few cases among many that made headlines recently. Away from the spotlight, the powerless idealists in lawless hinterlands, small towns and villages continue to get beaten up, maimed or killed for reporting facts or writing what they believe in. As Hindutva nationalists try to snip off the diverse threads that weave our vibrant, multi-textured culture together to create a single-dimensional upper-caste, male, Hindu narrative, ideas that stand in the way pose a threat to their manufactured reality.

Ideas have always been dangerous. They refuse to be cowed down by authority, or confined by geography.  They spread from mind to mind, skipping over hedges, leaping across rivers and seas, soaring to touch the sky and bring back the ardour of the sun or the calm of the moon, to scatter across this earth the stars that seem so out of reach.

Which is why purveyors of ideas are very dangerous people. They speak to a multi-religious, multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, multi-cultural India. And terrify those who want to squeeze our unwieldy,  untidy reality into a plastic, trishul-shaped mould. No wonder they are under attack.

And over the years, we have allowed the attacks to grow. From banning books to vandalising libraries and burning texts, from attacking art to hounding artists and chasing Husain out of India, to lynching people targeted as the other and brazenly harassing anybody who doesn’t conform to my idea of my country. From Salman Rushdie’s book banned to placate Muslims to Wendy Doniger’s book banned to placate Hindus, we have come a long way while staying rooted to the same spot.

Because we like to magnanimously grant wishes to interest groups for narrow political gain, often going against the basic principles that our nation was founded on. If we really believed in equality as guaranteed by the constitution, maybe none of this would have happened.

So now, instead of introspecting on what went wrong, we are either gloating over the ‘well-deserved’ murder of a gutsy journalist, or moving the dialogue towards who killed her. We know who killed her. We may not know who pulled the trigger, but we know who are celebrating her murder. And we know who were behind the murder. We all were.

We have all failed Gauri, my old colleague from Sunday magazine. The state failed her, by allowing and encouraging ‘non-state actors’ who wreak violence on critics and independent thinkers. The media failed her by either cowering before power or by supporting power beyond the call of duty, by being lured by profit, cosying up to the establishment, brushing aside basic journalistic ethics.

The new and more democratic media, social media, is the Wild West of curious comments and jubilant jibes, where unmoderated hostility and violence roll on, gathering support in a realm that defies logic, facts and decency. Right-wingers were always cheerfully vocal on these forums, and moderates and liberals found getting down to that crass level beneath their dignity. So the bigots ruled the net, creating an illiberal reality that was a lie and deeply problematic for a pluralistic culture.

The publishing industry failed her. By withdrawing and pulping books that ruffled feathers and refusing to publish books that could be problematic they stifled dialogue and paved the way for this majoritarian rule over thought and ideas. The other nurturing ground of thought, education, is being tailored for years to suit this make-believe reality. We allow it.

The industrial houses failed her. By keeping their hands clean and their eyes focused squarely on the bottomline, by caring only about their own profit and not the larger profit of their country and their future generations, they quietly supported injustice and the deliberate destruction of the constitutional guarantees that made India such a wonderfully free, pluralistic democracy.

The police failed her. They failed to stop the murderers as they weaved their way through everyday life and picked out their victims in cold blood – killing Dabholkar, Pansare, Kalburgi before they turned their guns on Gauri. They failed to stop, or nab, the killers of valiant reporters and editors in small towns and villages, fearless journalists silenced by corrupt politicians and powerful enemies.

Most importantly, the justice system failed her. Our old, smug, lugubrious, incredibly slow justice system takes decades to decide cases, and often palpably fails to deliver justice. It’s important that culprits are brought to book. It’s important that killers are punished. We need to see that criminals get no political protection.

On the contrary, we see most criminals with political links go scot free, and those who cannot dodge jail get new escape routes. D.G. Vanzara, Gujarat’s notorious encounter cop, is back in the news contemplating a political career. And Maya Kodnani, convicted of organising massacres during the 2002 Gujarat violence, promises to get BJP chief Amit Shah to court, to testify in her favour. Sajjan Kumar and Jagdish Tytler, accused of leading the 1984 Sikh massacre in Delhi, still roam free.

The 1993 Bombay blasts verdict has finally come. And following a curious verdict by the High Court that almost legitimised the 1992 demolition, the Babri Masjid case is now in the Supreme Court.

But would there be the Bombay blasts – masterminded by Muslims, as we love to say -- if there were no Bombay riots, masterminded by Hindus? Would there be the Bombay riots if the Babri Masjid had not been demolished by the Hindutva fundamentalists led by the BJP? Would the Babri Masjid be demolished if the Congress had not opened the gates to the Ram Janmabhoomi site in order to please the Hindus? Would the ‘secular’ Congress feel inclined to please the Hindus if it hadn’t tried to please the Muslims by supporting the Muslim clerics in the Shah Bano case? We could go on and on.

No, Gauri’s killing was not planned today. It was being hatched for decades. As we slowly moved away from constitutional guarantees and curbed our rights and freedoms as citizens. As we paved the way for the slow stifling of dissent. And the murder of diverse opinions.

We need to stop believing that it’s beneath our dignity to respond to the ‘fools’ who attack our culture hoping for a Hindurashtra. Our media needs to recognise the dangers it is leading our country into by selfish commercial interest, fear or greed for power. We need to realize that mischievous news and debates on TV can mislead and harm us.

We need to get our hands dirty, as citizens who care, to reclaim our identities as citizens who matter. We need to fight the factless, tactless, graceless, unethical trolls on social media and the deluded people in real life – friends, family, colleagues – who may be armed with false information and righteous indignation.

We wouldn’t be here if we hadn’t allowed our politicians to play with our sentiments, if we hadn’t tried to take short cuts in our battle for identity politics. Stop it now. They are at your door.

(A version of this article has earlier appeared in The Asian Age and The Deccan Chronicle.)

Antara Dev Sen

Antara Dev Sen is founder editor of The Little Magazine, the independent journal of ideas and letters focused on contemporary South Asian literature and society. Sen is also a literary critic and translator, a newspaper columnist and commentator on Indian society, politics, media, culture and development. Earlier, Sen has been Senior Editor of The Hindustan Times and of The Indian Express in Delhi and a Reuter Fellow at Oxford University. Sen is also associated with other media, literary, educational and voluntary organisations in India and overseas. She lives in Delhi.


The beliefs, views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints of Soi or official policies of Soi.