The gory murder of Avijit Roy in the streets of Dhaka sparked due anxiety about the persistent brutality against dissenting voices. Rickshaw, the students’ collective at South Asian University in New Delhi convened a public meeting in the aftermath of the incident. Teachers and students from various disciplinary backgrounds thronged to articulate their concerns and questions on the issue. It emerged that south Asia has become a region of fanatic muzzling of dissent. The act of killing one individual voice indeed amounts to stifling individual freedom. Ironically, the regressive politics of muzzling and killing is premised upon the progressive notion of development. We progress by wiping out critical minds, unsettling questions, and free thinking. Developmental aspirations and manifold fanaticism are hand in glove in the eclipse on freedom of individuals in south Asia.
The public meeting articulated the scandalous dark comedy of our time. In India, there has been state inclination to protect cows’ life over human life. It is not much different in Bangladesh where protecting religious fanaticism has been seemingly more important than critical voices. In the age of sacred developmentalism, it seems people vote for electricity and roads. But the road to freedom is nowhere in the popular imagination. Possession of a cell phone is more important than that of individual freedom to speak one’s mind. This is a widespread phenomenon within, as well as without South Asia. The level of intolerance to criticism may vary from Paris to Pehsawar, from Dhaka to Delhi, from Colombo to Melbourne. But it is the common human tendency found all over the world. We don’t want criticism unless it is about our immediate material benefits. Hence, we allow tyranny of fundamentalism to overpower our critical voices. They kill us, they threaten us, they vandalise our cinema, literary festivals, art exhibitions. And we merely talk about them for a while in dismay. What else do we do beyond that? Many youths raised their sincere concerns along with this question.
An important idea proposed by the students in the public meeting was that the popular logic behind the violent killing is that religious sentiment is offended. But does it give anybody a right to kill the offender? “Nobody ought to have the right to kill just because one’s questions and articulation offends.” Another important aspect is regarding the divide between the victims and victimisers. What motivates somebody to go to the extent of killing a dissenting voice? Some answers could refer to religious fundamentalism, lack of modern progressive education, and the rampancy of religious politics. But is it good enough to suggest that some of the populace remain vulnerable to incitement? Despite these tricky questions nothing could justify the acts of muzzling, hacking, and killing.
Roy’s killing is an attack on the very idea of freedom. The killing has to be contextualised in the political scenario of not only Bangladesh, but also on a larger level. Along with other political dimensions, at a normative level, it raises the age-old question of absolute freedom of expression versus freedom with restrictions. Absolute freedom of expression is desirable in all contexts but seems to be possible in absolute sense only in an ideal situation of social evenness. In a socially hierarchical system layered with different forms of discrimination and prejudices it seems inevitable to place certain restrictions on the freedom of speech and expression.
Acknowledging that there is an inevitability of restriction in a hierarchical system, the next question arises on how and who place these restrictions. Mostly it happens in the form of legally defined restrictions implemented by state. Thus we see state censorship on books, cinema, art et cetera. However, in most such cases of censorship, the result is a gag on dissent. The legal route to restrict freedom of expression therefore also runs into trouble of being partisan. It is allegedly guided by majoritarianism.
The other way of restricting is through physical prevention and physical elimination, which has happened in the case of Avijit Roy. This is downright beyond the pale of law and justice. Such incidents deserve outright condemnation while upholding the right of counter views being equally expressed. Incidents like Charlie Hebdo and Avijit Roy killings need to be contextualised in relation to the debates around Islam as a religion and its political implications. There has been a kind of essentialisation and demonisation happening around Islam. Thus it is imperative that we need to counter such vilification in the same vein as we denounce the incidents like Avijit Roy’s killing.
For, message of religion or Islam is not the problem. The problem is as to how people are using and interpreting them. Another important aspect is that these killers are not psychopaths. They are politically motivated and focused. Hence the necessity to understand the instances of killing and muzzling in broader context is important. This is not merely a Bangladeshi phenomenon, it is a form of global intolerance, which nevertheless has a profoundly obvious presence across South Asia.
In 2011, Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab Province in Pakistan was killed in Islamabad by one of his own bodyguards. His crime was his defense of a Christian woman who was sentenced to death in terms of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. Lasantha Wickrematunge, the editor of the Sunday Leader was killed in Colombo in January 2009, and his crime was his criticism of the government of the former president of Sri Lanka. Taunted by people who had issues with his novel, Madhorubhagan, Indian writer Perumal Murugan decided on his own to cease his passionate engagement with creative writing. He had posted on his Facebook account not too long ago, “Perumal Murugan, the writer is dead.”
The list of instances could be longer than the tunnels of dark nights. A public meeting in a university premises is not merely about counting the numbers of incidents and presenting intellectual ruminations. It is also about engendering a sentiment perhaps common to humanity: killing dissent is akin to killing emotions!
Collective opinion written by students’ collective at South Asian University, New Delhi.
(Dev Pathak, Ravi Kumar, Sasanka Perera, Anirvan Dasgupta, Srinivas Burra, Nouman Shahzad, Asif-Bin-Ali, Masi Ullah Khan, Sanjib Roy.)