The right to free speech and expression is one of the most basic rights that a human being is entitled to. But in the past few years people have been facing persecution and even death for exercising their rights.
The killing of Bangladesh’s bloggers, one after another, is a gaping example. Be it the bloggers hacked to death in Bangladesh, individuals like Govind Pansare and Narendra Dabholkar in India, or rights activists — all have faced intolerance. Death threats have been common in cases of Taslima Nasrin and late MF Hussain.
After the recent murder of MM Kalburgi, a liberal scholar, another writer has been intimidated into halting his work using the same strong-arm tactics. Well known literary critic, MM Basheer had to halt his series of six columns on the Ramayana at five because of repetitive abusive and threatening calls.
Last year, Basheer wrote on the Adhyatma Ramayana, which depicts Rama as a god. But this time he faced the ire of fringe groups and fanatics because of attributing human qualities to Rama, which was part of the Valmiki Ramayana that Basheer was commenting on.
Most of the callers abused Basheer, ignorant on the nature of the Valmiki Ramayana and refusing to be educated. But there were few who were ready to understand the writer’s perspective. The main issue was that how can Basheer, a Muslim, dare to criticise Lord Rama?
Every year in the Malayalam month of Karkkidakam, the local press runs columns about the Ramayana, as the period between July-August is called the Ramayana month. Basheer who has also written such columns before, was focusing more on Valmiki’s brilliant depiction of the human condition, rather than Rama as an individual.
Like other Indian languages, Malayalam too has a rich Ramayana legacy, and this is the first time, that a writer of the language faced such hatred along religious lines. In the past others like Thomas Mathew, late Yusuf Ali and Veerankutty, have worked on such columns too.
The decision by the critic to put down his pen, comes from the disappointment that after all these years and contribution, he has been reduced to “just a Muslim”. The Hanuman Sena, which went on a rampage against the Kiss of Love campaign, has installed posters, making allegations public. In the past, sections of the Church and Islamist groups have also raised such objections.
Recently a historian Babasaheb Purandare faced a similar hate campaign by some Maratha groups in Maharashtra, for expressing his views on Chhatrapati Shivaji’s family.
This also reflects the utter failure of the state to protect those expressing their ideas, and how even a simple Facebook threat or phone call can prove fatal.