"A political system thrives and survives when dissent is freely allowed to be heard." -Harold Laski, the legendary British political analyst
The sedition charges slapped against 49 luminaries is indeed disturbing. At the outset, the very word 'sedition' (Raajdroh in Sanskrit, and is different from treason: Deshdroh) in the context of independent India is fallacious. The concept of sedition was prevalent during British Raj and became obsolete with its end on August 15, 1947. So, adherence to it even after more than seven decades is not just silly, it also underscores our collective constitutional ignorance and a propensity to perpetuate the outdated British legacy in all walks of life. Moreover, dissent has been the core of democracy. "Dissent is integral to India's spiritual and political dialectics," wrote Mexican ambassador to India Octavio Paz to his friend and PM of India Jawaharlal Nehru. He repeated the same line while writing separately to Dr Rajendra Prasad in 1960. Paz's praise of ancient and Vedic India's tolerance as well as munificence to dissent and dialectical differences may seem rather incongruous in the current scenario in which even a scintilla of dissent is being castigated and cauterized by the overzealous people and the Government of India.
Are the Indians aware of their tolerant past when difference of opinion was not looked down upon, but was accepted wholeheartedly? In Chandogya Upanishad, one comes across a very thought-stirring statement which is relevant in all eras and times: Jeevanasyam yatha jatilakshte, yapratim khalu prabhavektam (Life is so interestingly complex that even your enemy has full right and authority to become authentic and at times, far better and honest than you).
Tolerance was actually in the DNA of Indian spiritual and later political traditions. Analysing the Six Schools of Indian Philosophy, Dr Surendranath Dasgupta wrote, "Whether it was Vedic Hindu consciousness or later Hinduism, the ingrained non-absolutism and the sanctity and sanctuary of discordant voices paved the way for the blossoming of many a spiritual school which lived together amicably despite differences and dissensions."
In fact, those were dialectical differences, not rabid discrimination which we get to see today so widely and frequently. Adi Shankar may have thwarted the juggernaut of Buddhism and Jainism, but the opposition was never violent or vindictive. When Muslim mystics and Sufis were slowly spreading the tentacles of their respective faith (read Islam), our deep-rooted spiritual tolerance didn't oppose or cast aspersions on them. Mind you, it wasn't the inertia or timidity of ancient India but a distinct mark of its generous acceptance. British historian Sir Arnold Toynbee defined it emphatically, 'Spiritual India's ethical approach to myriad truths, tributaries and trajectories.'
Even Muhammad Iqbal, whose Sapru Brahmin ancestors embraced Islam and faced no ill-will from the other Brahmins, had to write, "Yahi agar vo maghrib mein hote/ Badalte agar vo mazhab apna/ Zameen khoon se rang gayee hoti/ Nestanabood hota insaniyat ka sapna" (Had they been in the West/ And would have changed their faith/ The soil would have turned red/ The humanity's escutcheon would have been soiled and sullied forever).
Hinduism, like all other religions, is at the crossroads of a transition and when the faithful erroneously assume that their faith is in danger just like the oft-repeated Islam in Danger, panic sets in and we try to suppress every voice, we assume and presume to be against us. This phenomenon is known in anthropological study of religions as 'Militant Preemptive Reaction of the Followers' (MPRF). This is happening in India at the moment. We're resorting to militant behaviour as a preemptive measure to throttle the voice/s of dissension. By strangling the voice of dissent, we're cutting the jugular vein of individual freedom, the very essence of a free and civilised society.
It's time to realize that the truth can't be monopolised by one specific group. Truth is a mosaic of fractions and fictions. Everyone has his/her say and that'll only enrich the spectrum and become more encompassing. In a civilised society, dissension has its own significance. A society draws inspiration from its history and heritage. When the history of this country has been of exemplary tolerance and acceptance, why on earth is there so much hullabaloo over dissenters and any alternative views?
Isn't it time to look inward and introspect deeply?
The writer is an advanced research scholar of Semitic languages, civilizations and cultures.