01/08/2016 10:22 AM IST | Updated 01/08/2016 6:41 PM IST

Manohar Parrikar's Call For Silencing Of Dissent Gets Nationalism Totally Wrong

"How does someone dare to talk ill of this country?"

Issei Kato / Reuters
India's Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar. March 31, 2015.

When the Defence Minister of a nation takes the podium to invoke a potential mob to teach recusants the "lesson of their lives", it is indeed a cause of worry. Hours after he mocked actor Aamir Khan without naming him, Manohar Parrikar tried to explain the reason behind his jingoistic speech at the launch of author Nitin Gokhale's book on Siachen.

"I am just saying that we should mount pressure, verbally condemn people who speak against nation," he said, adding that his comments were not directed at anyone particular.

Fine, let's hear his exact words then.

"How does someone dare to talk ill of this country? How does he have the courage to speak like this? I am not speaking about any university or organisation. If anyone speaks like this, he has to be taught the lesson of his life."

Now think about this part of his speech for a bit. What Parrikar is essentially doing is using his authority as a minister to give free reign to rabid ultra-nationalists, many of whom already operating as online trolls, to attack those they perceive as "anti-nationals". Parrikar does not need to be reminded of Article 19 of the Indian Constitution that grants every citizen the freedom of speech and expression. He is a politician and a former IITian and presumably well-versed with the Constitution.

Parrikar, along with many from his school of thought on what constitutes nationalism and allegiance, are perhaps missing the abject irony in the aggressive call for punishment of those who voice their fears on tolerance and acceptance. His jingoism defeats the purpose of India as a nation — the civil liberties that bind a diverse country like ours together as a cohesive whole.

His speech encourages conformity, crushes dissent, calls for making the brutalising of 'others' an industry, as is evident from the businesses flourishing in the name of cow protection in India's rural heartlands. Parrikar patiently explains to his applauding crowd why Khan's (again without naming the actor) perfectly logical statement — that he feels fear in an atmosphere of rising intolerance — is "arrogant".

"However poor my family, is, however small my house, I have to love my house... You can't feel ashamed..." Yes, Mr Parrikar, you can. This country in fact grants every citizen the unfettered right to criticize their homes in the bitterest of words. You don't HAVE to love your house. It would be fantastic if you could make your house a better place to live in, but if you can't, as the Constitution is your witness, you CAN lambaste it. What Parrikar perhaps fails to understand is, it is in fact the duty of every responsible citizen to question that which is wrong with their country.

The behemoth that the Indian democracy is, will not fall with a deafening thud because one man has voiced an opinion against his country. If the self-styled custodians of India's moral compass deliberately choose not to understand this truth, that is their problem.

Parrikar's comments set a dangerous precedent because of several reasons.

For one, his words will be reproduced by online vigilantes to pillory those who "dare" to "speak ill" of their nation. Since online harassment normally goes unchecked in India, the words will be perverted to direct vitriol towards anyone who then criticises the custodians of the nation, the incumbent government. Many believe the two are interchangeable, especially to bolster arguments.

If his colleague VK Singh's infamous "presstitute" remark is anything to go by, Parrikar has wittingly or unwittingly already emboldened trolls to target and silence liberal voices on social platforms — a fast-shrinking space.

Second, Parrikar's words serve as a warning to future dissenters of any social standing — you might be a multi-millionaire actor with a following around the world, but you are not greater than the nation you serve, and we are here to constantly remind you of that, forcefully.

This is also a good time to look back at what Khan had really said:

"When I sit at home and talk to Kiran, she says 'Should we move out of India?' That's a disastrous and big statement for Kiran to make. She fears for her child. She fears about what the atmosphere around us will be. She feels scared to open the newspapers every day. That does indicate that there is this sense of growing disquiet, there is growing despondency apart from alarm. You feel why this is happening, you feel low. That sense does exist in me."

Kiran Rao's comments as a worried mother can be better understood by looking at the context.

India saw a wave of protests against the killing of a poor Muslim man, Mohammad Akhlaq, by a lynch mob that suspected him of slaughtering and consuming a cow — its anger fuelled by rumours generated at a local temple. Unfortunately, the grave apprehension from which those words were spoken hasn't been addressed entirely.

Many months have passed since Akhlaq's grisly death, but in the village of Kadhali in Muzaffarnagar, only 100 kilometres from Akhlaq's Bisada village in Dadri tehsil, 58-year-old Jishan Qureshi narrowly escaped a similar end after a mob gathered outside, suspecting him of keeping cow meat in his house last weekend.

A wave of change, however, seems to be in the air.

While Parrikar's cozy narrative of "don't speak ill of your house" fits in snugly at a book launch, outside the air-conditioned hall, in the lanes and by-lanes of the country, a resistance to mob-led patriots who flog Dalits for skinning dead cows, force Muslim truckers to chant Bharat Mata Ki Jai and enforce nationalism by the whip is growing every day. Dalits are leaving animal carcasses strewn at government offices and free-thinkers are refusing to put up with calls for arrest of those who side with Kashmiri separatists.

Statements like Parrikar's will not only aggravate this situation of unrest but also make matters worse for the government at the Centre. In any case, as a Union minister, he has much to worry about already than people's right to speak freely.

With Chinese air sorties ahead of "transgressions" at Uttarakhand, it is perhaps time to remind Parrikar that his actual mandate is to uphold the territorial integrity of the country, not write the Crowdsourced Moral Guide To Teaching Anti-Nationals A Lesson.