Is there any less freedom of expression today than there was, say, a year ago? Is there more pressure to conform to a cultural “norm” dictated by some ? Is there greater danger attached to speaking one’s mind regardless of whether or not what one says is acceptable to the “monitors”?
My own reluctant but honest answer to these questions is a resounding Yes. I, at least, am much more circumspect today in what I say in the public realm. I will not say that I have completely crumbled, but without a shadow of doubt, I am not as careless of the consequences as I once was. It happens often that I begin writing a Facebook status, and then delete it —-lurking somewhere is the apprehension that I or my family may have to pay a heavy price for my forthrightness. I am ashamed to confess that I have begun to moderate what I write, and it is something that fills me with self abnegation.
When I first began to write blogposts and Facebook status critical of the government policy or laws or programs or particular Ministers or the bureaucracy, I was warned by many well wishers that I could run afoul of the Conduct Rules and could face disciplinary action for such outspokenness. Let the government try, was my quick response. I write in my capacity as a citizen of India, not as a government employee. The government cannot snatch the fundamental right of freedom of expression, guaranteed by the Constitution, by citing the Conduct Rules which apply only when I express an opinion in my capacity as a government employee. Any other interpretation of the Conduct Rules would mean that effectively speaking, crores of government employees do not enjoy a very basic fundamental right. I was convinced that my interpretation of the Conduct Rules was right and determined that I would go to the court, if I needed to, and seek clarification. I still am confident that the Conduct Rules are not intended to deprive government employees of their fundamental right of freedom of expression , but I am far less certain today whether the only consequence of outspokenness I will face is initiation of disciplinary proceedings. Could it be a mob outside my home? Could it be someone who decides that I ought to be punished by waylaying my son? I live in a secure, upscale neighbourhood —–and yet, I confess that I am a little scared.
My thoughts then turn to those who do NOT live in the midst of such security. How can they possibly have the courage to speak out? Would they not fear for their homes and families? Would they not decide that discretion is the better part of valour? Would such involuntary surrender to the cultural police not make them seethe inside and erode their capacity to be good citizens?
Why should I speak of a mob alone, as if the illiterate, or the impoverished, or the dis empowered alone are snatching at the opportunity to assert superiority and crush dissent ? Even my educated friends and colleagues have decided in large numbers that we must re discover and re live the past and if in order to do so, certain communities must face suppression then so they must. Humanity as a notion, brotherhood, universal peace, tolerance —– these seem to be fast becoming out dated notions, to be replaced by an aggressive and strident tone: we WERE the best culture there ever was, we ARE the best culture there is, so fall in line or else. It is discomfiting, to say the least —–but still, a far cry from the actual threat to one’s life and property that many in this nation are today facing if they disagree with this line of thinking.
In the nearly two months that I have been back in office, I am growing more and more convinced that my calling lies elsewhere and that I cannot waste the remaining productive years of my life pushing files and attending futile meetings. It seems almost certain that I will seek voluntary retirement and devote my time and resources to actual nation building. That near-decision has made me even more circumspect in my speech because the procedure of quitting the government can be painless or long drawn out and infinitely painful, as the government pleases —– and so I must , I sub consciously feel, please the government till the procedural requirements are wrapped up. I had not entertained that anxiety a couple of years ago when the government’s obduracy in not processing my application for leave had made me seriously consider the option of voluntary retirement.
Upon careful reflection, therefore, I conclude that there IS something in the air which is vitiating an a common Indian’s fundamental right of freedom of expression. It is not a figment of the imagination of the 50 or so writers who have returned their honours and awards.