Wednesday’s attack on Supreme Court lawyer Prashant Bhushan – in his chambers, no less – marked another low in the conduct of public life in India. Bhushan’s crime was to suggest that he supported holding a plebiscite in Kashmir, and that Kashmiris be given the right to self determination. To say that Kashmir is a controversial subject in this country would be an understatement, but the reaction of the men who responded by breaking into Bhushan’s office and whacking him around for expressing an opinion was beyond the pale. More troublingly, this incident highlights the degradation in the standard of civil discourse in India, where violence is increasingly becoming an acceptable reaction to disagreement.
Sure, the behavior of these goons has been categorically condemned across the political spectrum. Still, the fact remains that not only do these men have links with the political establishment – which finds it useful to employ such methods to drum up electoral support -- but that their tactics are often conferred legitimacy by the pusillanimous punishment meted out. The lack of any real consequence allows such behavior to continue unchecked; in some cases, the media attention garnered by such actions even encourages subsequent thuggery. But such conduct has no place in a civilized society, especially in a purported democracy that guarantees its citizens the right to free speech.
A combo TV Grab shows Supreme Court lawyer-activist PrashantBhushan (L) after being roughed up at his chambers and Inder Verma, president of Sri Ram Sene who attacked Bhushan.(PTI)
Rajendra Prasad pointed out in his closing speech at the Constituent Assembly on 26 November 1949 that “successful working of democratic institutions requires…willingness to respect the viewpoints of others, capacity for compromise and accommodation”. Unfortunately, it seems that the capacity to agree to disagree, to air grievances in an appropriate context, is being eroded by political parties who fail to demonstrate leadership through the manner in which they conduct their politics and by the citizens who appear to abide by the Constitution only to enjoy the rights it grants them, without a second thought to the duties that accompany those rights.
Intolerance of this kind has no place in a democracy. There are several outlets available for people to disagree with each other in a civilized way, without resorting to violence. Only strict action against such behavior can send the message that it is unacceptable to use violence as a way to be heard. However, even if the police proceed against those responsible for this latest episode, the tendency of various governments – at the state and at the centre - to give in to the demands made by groups employing such tactics (for example, when MF Husain’s paintings were vandalized, only for his work to be banned on account of obscenity and hurting religious sentiments) means that violence remains a productive strategy. Until governments cease to find such behavior expedient, it is unlikely that we will see a turnaround in the way public discourse is conducted in this country.