NEW DELHI: Dissent and free speech, or rather the hidden curbs on free speech, are fast becoming synonyms for us. On August 30, this year we observed the death, or rather the murder anniversary of MM Kalburgi, who was a victim of a sinister organization which targeted people who spoke against superstition. A big rally was held in Dharwar in memory of the incident.

President Pranab Mukherjee in his convocation address at the Nalanda University this month stated that a “university must be the arena where diverse and conflicting schools of thought contend. There should be no room for intolerance, prejudice and hatred within the spaces of this institution.” The President has been speaking against intolerance for a year now.

Three free thinking intellectuals , starting with Prof. Narendra Dhabolkar have been murdered in the Maharashtra-Karnataka belt in the last three years.

Now we hear that in the Dabholkar murder case, a charge sheet has been submitted. The CBI has charged an E&T doctor Virendra Tawade, member of the Janajagruti Samiti (HJS), which is an off shoot of the radical Sanathan Sanstha, accusing him of being the arch conspirator behind the murder.

Two other activists of this organization, Sarang Akolkar and Vinay Pawar, are both on the run. Akolkar is reported to have been involved in a bomb blast case earlier.People who had been following these cases since the murder of Prof Narendra Dabholkar on August 20, 2013 suspected all along that this Sanstha was also involved in the murders of Govind Pansare and Kalburgi.

The Karnataka Forensic laboratory has stated that the same 7.65 pistol was used to commit all three murders. The same man and the same pistol did the damage. The CBI submitted the charge sheet within 87 days of taking up the investigation. The Maharashtra police has been slow as it always is when rightist radicals are involved, though as we know from the Malegaon experience, they step on the accelerator when it comes to rounding up innocent Muslim boys.

It turns out that the CBI has got hold of a hit list from hard drives of some of these worthies. More murders were to follow—obviously of the anti-superstition kind. How dare one disagree with these rightist sansthas!

One needs to probe the mind-set of these organizations. Janajagruti would mean waking up the people. So the wake up call, as perceived by this doctor and his ‘Sanstha’, would come from murdering intellectuals. This is a harrowing thought. A differing view entails a bullet from a 7.65 pistol!

Are we in South Asia, rather Asia itself, emotionally and intellectually equipped fully to engage with modern thought and belief? Modern ‘belief’ may amount to lack of belief, as well. The Muslim in Pakistan and Afghanistan and Yemen certainly has no truck with modernity. The back to Sharia cry, the wretched Blasphemy laws, honour killings, stoning for adultery, death for apostasy, something alien to every other religion—all this and much more speak of myopic atavism, which goes by the name of fundamentalism. And the word heresy is flung at the Bahai, Ahmediya and even at the Shia. Suicide bombers are prepared to die as long as they can kill a dozen Shias.

The Hindutva wave, or rather ripple, can never be compared to what is happening in Muslim countries. But the trend is raising eyebrows.

One after another slogans are launched—love jihad, ghar wapsi, the forcible singing of Saraswati Vandana at every school assembly, Bharat Mata ki jai to be shouted out by each school kid, all this doesn’t make for good reading. Didn’t Ramdev say that if were there no laws, he would have liked to cut of the heads of those who did not shout Bharat Mata ki jai?

How does all this harmonize with modernity? We made a laughing stock of ourselves by turning Christmas into ‘Good Governance Day’. Whoever bright spark thought this up deserves a medal.

We are compounding matters by accusing Mother, now St, Teresa of conversions. Mohan Bhagwat, the RSS chief, stated last year that Mother Teresa’s humanitarian work was motivated by her mission to convert. I don’t hold with conversions. If the majority community does not convert, why should the others? But proselytization is permitted specifically in the Constitution, although now all BJP states have an anti conversion law of their own.

The flip side is we are harking back to some very dubious and disputed glory in the distant past. So we have ‘Vedic science’ being tom tommed, and Shri Ganesh’s decapitated head being replaced by an elephant head, as evidence of plastic surgery in Vedic times. Can we boast of being rational and modern –they are the same thing—in our thinking?

Today there is also a whiff of contempt for both liberals and intellectuals, actively instigated by the far right. The Parivar has always scoffed at ‘pseudo’ intellectuals. The Culture Minister even said last year that if writers stop writing, let them not write.

There seems to be an aggressive no-holds-barred mentality in the air, unknown some years back. Slogan shouting? Charge them with sedition. Amnesty International is getting cheeky, is it? It has been condemning our Human Rights record? They face sedition charges in Congress-led Karnataka. Patidars want reservation in Gujarat, do they? Sedition again. Supreme Court had to point out with disapproval the number of criminal defemation cases registered in Tamil Nadu under the AIDMK.

Along with this comes the news that the United Nation’s next Universal Periodic Review mentions the ‘criminalization of Peaceful Expression in India’. The matter has, mysteriously been raised in the Dutch Parliament of all places.

We know that we live in an easy country and India has arguably the most tolerant and accommodating majority community in Asia. Barring a micro fringe. Yet we are getting poor marks on tolerance. Remember President Obama’s words at the National Prayer Breakfast (February 6, 2015) when he had just returned from India. He talked of acts of intolerance that ‘would have shocked Gandhiji, the person who helped to liberate that nation. ’ Obama did not know that he was talking to a party, to elements which had not been active at all in the freedom movement.

I end with another quote from another great President of the United States, Dwight D. Eisenhower: “Here in America we are descended in blood and spirit from revolutionists and rebels—men and women who dare to dissent from accepted doctrine. As their heirs, may we never confuse honest dissent with disloyal subversion.”

(Keki N.Daruwalla is a K Indian poet and short story writer in English language. He has written over 12 books and published his first novel For Pepper and Christ in 2009. He was amongst the first writers to return the Sahitya Akademi award in protest against growing intolerance in India in 2015)