In the past several years, one has witnessed increasing intolerance to divergent views. Be it the protests against Ashis Nandy's remarks at the Jaipur Literature Festival this year or the more recent cancellation of the keynote speech by the Gujarat Chief Minister, Narendra Modi at the Wharton India Economic Forum (WIEF). In an interview with Avantika Bhuyan, Sanjoy Roy, founder of Teamwork Productions that organises the Jaipur Literary Festival, talks about the perils of thought policing in India
As a society, are we becoming more and more intolerant?
Wharton inviting or dis-inviting Modi and protests against Ashis Nandy's comments are somewhat different. Having said that, I do feel that we are becoming intolerant. And by we, I mean, groups of people with special interests who feel that they need to be heard. Let's look at it from a historical perspective. Maybe these people belong to communities or groups that had been denied platforms in the past and today they are finding avenues to be heard. Some may be from marginalised or disenfranchised communities and have a right to be heard. But can a handful of people really represent a community? You had 20 people vandalising an exhibition of MF Husain paintings, organised by SAHMAT in 2008, or a dozen people protesting the shooting of Deepa Mehta's Water in Varanasi. And the administration instead of securing the site, considering they had given permission to shoot, decided to side with the goonda element. This is a question we must debate.
On one hand we live in a police state, in some sense, where even a Facebook post can get you thrown into jail, and on the other hand we live in a soft state where the minute a small group threatens violence of some kind, everyone buckles and gives in. At this year's Jaipur Literature Festival, five groups, of ten to fifteen people each, protested various issues, and while they had a right to do so, how can you disregard the right of the other 180,000-odd people who attended the festival to listen and debate all that was being said.
Coming back to Narendra Modi's keynote speech, do you think Wharton is justified to cancel it, after having extended an invitation in the first place?
As far as Narendra Modi goes, one will have to qualify the incident. Even today, there is a judicial review about Modi's role in the riots that followed the Godhra incident. However, if a group has decided that it doesn't want him to speak at an event, it has a right to say so. Just like the parties in the South such as MDMK recently protested the visit of the Sri Lankan president, because of the war crimes committed there. Everyone has a right to protest, but peacefully.
But, shouldn't a university like Wharton be a place where divergent views should be aired freely?
Well, every institution has a right to invite or dis-invite someone. Do we really need to debate it here just because it is Wharton? One group says invite Narendra Modi and the other group says don't invite; so in a sense, they have debated the issue in their own way and have arrived at a conclusion. Recently, when the EU ambassadors met with Modi, the Indian press implied as to how Modi had been given a chit of acceptability. This is a man who has been elected thrice by the people of his state, that is a sign of acceptability. It is irrelevant whether you or I or anyone from Wharton or the EU agrees with this.
Should thinkers and leaders now shy away from intellectual platforms out of fear of the thought police?
Thought policing is a complex issue. Since we are a complex country with various fractures and diversities we need to be extra careful. India is an unfinished story and each one of us has a duty to ensure that we collectively take the country to a more inclusive and productive space. Anything that amounts to thought policing needs to be fought. Because thought policing essentially means to stop having a qualitative discussion. If Raja Ram Mohan Roy had not been allowed to talk about Sati, then the practice would have been prevalent till this day. If people hadn't been allowed to debate dowry deaths then the numbers would have been high even today. Without forums to debate issues, our very right to exist in a democracy and work to improve ourselves is at risk.