In 1999, the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance honoured the scholar, economist, and philosopher Amartya Sen with India’s highest honour, the Bharat Ratna, a year after his Nobel Prize. One of Sen’s more interesting books is The Argumentative Indian (2006), celebrating our propensity to challenge views we disagree with. Indians argue with one another, he says, and from those dynamic encounters new ideas synthesising different viewpoints emerge, making unity in diversity possible in this complicated nation.
In July this year, in response to a question from a journalist, Sen said he would not support Narendra Modi, Gujarat’s chief minister, to be India’s Prime Minister; he believes Modi fails the secularism test, which he sees as a necessary precondition to govern a country as diverse as India.
Insults came thick and fast from some of Modi’s supporters, some saying Sen had no right to express views on Indian politics (he remains an Indian citizen, although he has spent the bulk of his life abroad). Photographs emerged on the internet of a partly-clad young woman, purportedly Sen’s daughter Nandana, an actress. Sen was admonished to control his daughter before telling India who should govern the country. The photograph went viral, appearing on websites supporting the BJP. The BJP distanced itself somewhat from the insults, but one of its parliamentarians, Chandan Mitra (who edits the newspaper The Pioneer) said on Twitter: “Next NDA Government must strip him of Bharat Ratna.” Sen agreed to return the honour if Atal Bihari Vajpayee, under whose tenure Sen was honoured, were to demand its return. A day later, Mitra, who has a PhD from Oxford, expressed his regrets, particularly after the intellectual class turned against him.
From Mitra’s perspective, once you are honoured by the state, you cannot question its politics. The intolerance that lies at the heart of Mitra’s intervention is actually as much of a fundamental Indian trait as is our argumentativeness. And it is depressing.
Online anonymity allows many to take potshots at people whose views they disagree with. I happen to agree with Sen on his view regarding Modi, and as a result I’ve received occasionally creative and amusing, but often annoying, abusive and personal insults on Twitter. I don’t block them—that would give them the standing they don’t deserve—but I use fresh ones to embellish my Twitter bio (@saliltripathi), because their invective reveals more about their poor upbringing, and the kind of company they keep, than it says anything about me. But other journalists have felt offended: I understand Rajdeep Sardesai withdrew briefly from Twitter, and Sagarika Ghose wrote an op-ed criticising those she felt had insulted her. There is a point to Ghose’s complaint: There is definitely some misogyny involved in such insults, but that is a broader problem with the internet, where anonymity emboldens uncivil men to make the kind of remarks they would not make had their identities been known. (But being rude is not the monopoly of men.)
We like an argument, provided we get the last word and we are winning. But those who challenge or question us: Well, they shouldn’t be allowed to. Not argumentative then, but aggressive, assertive, intolerant, abusive. Instead of vaad-vivaad or tark-vitark, the spirit of debate based on reason, India has become the land of jiski lathi, uski bhains (the one who owns the stick, owns the buffalo). We drive the opponent away by shouting louder and vitiating the atmosphere.
This affects every sphere. Take politics: The Hindu nationalist right has many scalps to its credit, such as hounding the painter MF Husain out of India, to die abroad in exile; marching against the publication of the works of BR Ambedkar, who drafted India’s constitution; attacking art galleries; and banning books, most recently Joseph Lelyveld’s biography of Gandhi, and Jaswant Singh’s biography of Jinnah (both bans by the Modi administration).
But let not that lull you into thinking that the Congress champions free speech. That party earned for India the dubious honour of becoming the first country to take action against Salman Rushdie’s 1988 novel, The Satanic Verses; a Congress government banned its import, and a quarter century later, another pleaded helplessness when Rushdie could not attend the Jaipur Literature Festival after a fictitious death threat surfaced against him. Congress governments have banned books by Aubrey C Menen and Stanley Wolpert in the past, and the English translation of a Spanish novel about Sonia Gandhi has not been imported into India, because its publishers fear legal trouble. In late July, the Congress’s students’ wing forced a Mumbai restaurant called Aditi to close, because at the bottom of each bill the restaurant manager printed a message, condemning a new tax. The restaurant re-opened after the offending lines were removed from future bills. Kapil Sibal, Minister for Information and Technology, produces laughable lists of websites that he’d like banned, because they blaspheme religions or insult political leaders.
The Left does little better. In 2003, a Communist government in West Bengal banned Dwikhandito (Split in Two), Taslima Nasreen’s memoir, because of fears that it might stoke religious violence. And it isn’t only about Hindus and Muslims: Christian activists destroyed copies of The Da Vinci Code in a bookstore in Kolkata, and seven states initially banned the film.
(This story appears in the 23 August, 2013 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)