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Mihir S Sharma: On the murder of rationalists

When rationalists are murdered and we stand idly by, we stunt our nation's growth

Mihir S Sharma 

Mihir S Sharma

Just over two years ago, the doctor and rationalist Narendra Dabholkar, out for his morning walk near Pune's Omkareshwara Bridge, was shot by two men, who escaped on a motorcycle. Dabholkar died. The case is unsolved.

In February this year, the outspoken secularist and anti-caste activist Govind Pansare, out on a morning walk with his wife in Kolhapur, was shot by two men. He died four days later. The case is unsolved.

Earlier this month, the writer and rationalist M M Kalburgi was visited at breakfast-time by two men in Dharwad. He was shot in the chest and head, and died on the way to hospital. The case is unsolved.

There may be no link between these murders. Each one of them may be completely unrelated to the stands that these men took in their writing. But if you don't think that there is a pattern here that is disturbing, that warrants investigation and alarm, then you are wilfully blind.

Rationalism is not a comfortable position. That is the point. It exists in order to interrogate even, interrogate especially, the beliefs that "should not" be exposed to interrogation. Rationalists are not well-liked people. They are, at the heart of things, rude. They do not participate in the comfortable conspiracies of consensus that many believe are essential to civilisation.

Indian secularism has no place for rationalists. They are outside the pale. Tony Blair, that most religious of recent British leaders, used to have a formulation when he talked about the people of his country: "those of all faiths and none". In Indian secularism, those without a faith have no place. Indian secularism is a different beast altogether: every faith matters, as long as it is a faith. You have no right to comment on, or to legislate for, another faith. You have no right to question its precepts, attack its organisation, or mock its deluded version of history. You are not just being impolite; you are approaching treason. It is almost seditious to suggest that an Indian citizen has the right to say that the unprovable beliefs held by another Indian citizen are almost certainly wrong.

Those few who bravely defy this basic prohibition are more than unpopular; they are dangerous. Religion is increasingly unquestioned in our public life. One of the world's great cities, Mumbai, can be forced into vegetarianism - even if temporary - when a religion asks for it. The prime minister of the country can hand out religious books as state gifts and mock rationalist Indian citizens on foreign soil while doing so. Various religions use colonial-era laws to restrict other citizens from saying or writing things that disturb their equilibrium; they drive them into exile, bully their publishers, force them into public apologies and recantations. No political party - except perhaps the DMK in Tamil Nadu and some small parts of the Communist left - will stand in defence of such thoughts. You can criticise the Indian Constitution, insist Gandhi deserved to be shot, insult anyone and anything - as long as you do not touch faith. Then left and right and centre will turn on you. If two men shoot you down in the morning, the case will remain unsolved.

I, and many others, have written already about the criminally backward laws and the dysfunctional politics that perpetuate this state of affairs. Today I want to ask you something else. I want you to ask yourself: can any country be truly great if it silences its brilliant and brave? Can any culture be admirable that does not contain within it a vein of self-mockery, a desire to bring the divine low? Can any literature be complete that does not have its fair complement of books that provoke, infuriate, and perhaps inspire?

It is sometimes said of the New Atheists of the West - Richard Dawkins and his unloved colleagues - that they are a disgrace to their "side". Their uncompromising, stark argumentation is naïve, we are told. It talks down to the religious. It is unforgivably uncomfortable in that it draws attention to the incoherence and contradictions that underlie that comfortable silence about faith. It is not subtle, hiding its unfaith behind a screen of poetry and dissimulation. I disagree; if enough people object to you pointing out the obvious, then that is not a reason to make your argument more subtle. It is a reminder that the obvious needs to be stated more often, and more unmistakably.

It is at times when stating the obvious has not been an option for intelligent rationalists that they have taken refuge in roundabout expressions of unbelief. True, through that they pushed forward the boundaries of what could be thought and said, and created great literature in the process. But such writing, such expression, was always forced by circumstance. Who knows what Ghalib, what Galileo, what Giordano Bruno would have written were they truly free?

When rationalists are murdered and we stand idly by, we do not just help coarsen our public culture. We stunt our nation's growth. We force our literature into canals lined with the iron of intimidation and the steel of savagery. We stunt our minds and halve our souls. We deny ourselves greatness.

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First Published: Tue, September 08 2015. 21:42 IST