A peaceful freedom of expression is a constitutional right and, in real sense, essence of democracy. The test of democracy lies in providing equal opportunity and political space to your opponents and giving him the right to tell you do not want to hear. Voltaire’s classic remarks about freedom of (and after) speech holds true for all times to come: ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to death your right to say it’.
Any infringement of this right, apart from being unconstitutional and undemocratic, exposes the hollowness of argument and lack of temerity in facing the challenge politically. Recourse to choking dissent transits democracy to authoritarianism. True you cannot be in a valentine mood with your political or ideological rivals, but an obsession of seeing them crippled politically speaks of intolerance.
Was Syed Ali Shah Geelani spewing fire and brimstones at TRC Srinagar? Was he leading a public rally or addressing youth on a street at Sopore? (Though he or anyone else is certainly entitled to do that, of course peacefully). At his residence-cum office this frail bony structure in nineties has organized a seminar. By any standard it was a violence-free activity. He continues to be detained in his house and curtailment of his outside movement had, according to Geelani, ‘necessitated’ holding seminars in the lawn of his residence. But on both occasions, November 6 and November 10, state government foiled the seminar. Earlier, such exercises would not tell upon the health of the administration. The latest development suggests even deliberating issues in a violence-free atmosphere, at intellectual level, in a civilized manner is not acceptable. There is no harm in giving him the space, that will make things clearer than ever before.
Every year on Nonmember 6, seminars are held in commemorating the martyrs of Jammu and nothing untoward happens. No provocative slogans are raised against any community. This is in sharp contrast in how ‘Panun Kashmir’ (a communist outfit of migrant Pandiths) organizes what it loves to call ‘Holocaust Day’ (21 Jan) every year at Jantar Mantar Delhi and spews venom against Kashmiris and hurls threats. Demonstrations must be held peacefully, whosoever does it.
If participants would have been allowed in the seminar, could they have provided ‘wings’ to the Geelani to fly over? Would they have helped him break the siege? Would they have lifted him to Dargah to address people? And who were these participants? Slogan mongers? Stone pelters? Party-maniacs? Alas, for whom the gates were closed were members of Kashmir Civil Society, journalists, lawyers and social activists. Same people of Indian Civil Society and politicians ensure interaction to have a grasp of the situation. Hell would not have broken in allowing the participants to attend seminar. Though government action against those who disturb public order can’t always be criticized, but here the point is different. Granting political space to separatists will add to the credibility of the government itself.
We have not pawned our conscience to Geelani or to some other quarter. Discussion on an issue, in the aftermath of row between Geelani and government, would have at least helped an aam aadmi to know the reality and the illusion. Banning seminar, the government would find it difficult to defend its position. Rightly or wrongly, the message has gone that authorities have something to hide.
Denying political space to Geelani does the reverse. Instead of demoralizing him, it lionizes him in the eyes of public. The spin doctors of Omar Abdullah ought to know that the apartheid-smacking attitude of government towards Geelani gives more weight to Geelani and his assertions. The more selectively you deal with him and the more you are in hot pursuit of his party workers, the more credibility he earns and stronger and captivating his voice becomes. Fight him politically; jaw by jaw, breath by breath.
Tail Piece: – A friend of mine, a young intellect in politics has many advices in his kitty for people like Geelani. One is holding ‘peaceful dharnas’. Comparing with seminars, I am afraid, this is tough option. Let him show the path of “least resistance”. We too don’t like ‘agitational’ politics.
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