Specks of thought that yearn for freedom
15 Apr 2020, Salil Tripathi
- What should one do with stubborn ideas which seem fragile, but which may disturb the contrived symmetry being imposed?
In November 1939, with World War II already underway, Robert Frost wrote a poem called A Considerable Speck. The witty poem is outwardly trivial. As he sits at his desk to write, Frost notices a speck sitting stubbornly, as his pen is poised in the air. It is not a speck of his own breathing; the mite has inclinations of its own. The poet knows he can sweep it away, but he chooses not to—doing so would mean acting in conformity with those who want their slates clean. Frost listens to his own voice.
Frost opposed collectivism, which requires obedience. His imaginative leap came a few years after a man, believed to be August Landmesser, refused to perform the Nazi salute with every other worker at a Hamburg shipyard in 1936. Landmesser was heroic. He would die later, serving penal sentence in the Nazi military.
What should one do with stubborn ideas which seem fragile, but which may disturb the contrived symmetry being imposed? Snuff them out, or let them float freely? The authoritarian response is to chop off the bamboo shoot that rises too high. Such leaders like the norm, not the deviation. They expect applause, not questions. But some remain seated when asked to stand. They challenge the order when they are expected to comply with it. They are the canaries in the coal mine, foretelling disaster. Silencing them by shouting them down enfeebles the society.
What, then, are we to make of the approach of the Uttar Pradesh government in charging Siddharth Varadarajan, editor of the news portal Wire? Varadarajan had posted a tweet on the internet about an article in Wire that showed that while there had been considerable controversy over the Tablighi Jamaat event in mid-March in New Delhi, where many participants got infected with the coronavirus, at the same time the UP chief minister had said that Ram Navami celebrations in Ayodhya would go ahead. The event was subsequently postponed, but a day after Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared the national lockdown, the chief minister reportedly attended a religious gathering in Ayodhya. Varadarajan misattributed a remark to the chief minister that someone else had made. Soon, as per good journalistic practice, he corrected the mistake.
But one reader felt what Wire did was disrespectful, and another felt ‘anguish’, and they complained to state authorities, who charged Varadarajan with spreading rumours with the intent to cause a riot or panic, using a computer to impersonate someone, transmitting obscene material online, and disobeying a public official in a time of epidemic.
Faced with a persistent speck, the state came down heavily. Varadarajan would violate the lockdown if he were to travel to Ayodhya from Delhi during this epidemic, which would be an episode straight out of Joseph Heller’s novel, Catch 22, an irony probably lost on the officer who drafted the charge of ‘disobeying a public official in a time of epidemic.’
Some have argued that the law should take its course. But in India, the process is the punishment. This case can drag for years, and even if Varadarajan gets bail, he would be tied down, required to attend courts multiple times, the matter may get adjourned, and each ruling could get appealed to higher courts. It takes peculiar genius to claim that this is good use of the state’s resources. Varadarajan has since been told he won’t need to be present this week—a small mercy.
Equally serious is the case of two intellectuals, Anand Teltumbde and Gautam Navlakha, who have exhausted legal appeals, and are turning themselves in to the police. They are accused of inciting violence and other grave charges following the Elgar Parishad/Bhima Koregaon incidents in Maharashtra on 31 December 2017 and the following day. Anyone accused should be investigated and their right to fair trial be respected. But to send anyone to jail in the time of covid-19, given the state of jails, needs a compelling reason, which is difficult to fathom, considering that the two men are not fugitives, haven’t advocated violence, and have health conditions making them vulnerable to the coronavirus.
Both have written on matters that would annoy any Indian government. Teltumbde has written on Dalit issues, challenging left and right orthodoxies, and Navlakha has been critical of successive governments over Kashmir. Other human rights defenders accused with him—Sudha Bharadwaj, Arun Ferreira, Vernon Gonsalves, Varavara Rao, Sudhir Dhawale, Surendra Gadling, Mahesh Raut, Shoma Sen, and Rona Wilson—have been in jail for more than a year, as their bail applications have been rejected. What links them is that they speak for Adivasis, Dalits, and other minorities who administrations tend to ignore in drawing up development plans which often benefit some at the cost of many.
They are the specks that disrupt synchronised harmony.
In Albert Camus’s 1947 novel, The Plague, the real disease is not the scourge that killed people in the city of Oran, but an insidious virus of attitudes consuming society. Like the rest of the world, India is battling coronavirus. Modern science will vanquish it. Taming the other virus, one that criminalizes dissent, is another matter.