In the past couple of weeks, in Asia, two incidents have made us think where the world is going to.
One is of the Rohingiya fleeing Myanmar and the second is of the killing of Gauri Lankesh, a senior journalist from Bangalore, by extremists.
Considered by the United Nations as the “most persecuted minority group in the world”, the Rohingyas are a stateless group of people concentrated in western Myanmar, and facing brutal assaults from the Burmese state and military. Since October, frequent reports have come in of the Burmese army burning down Rohingya villages, rapes and murders of the nature of ‘ethnic cleansing’. Faced with the savagery, about 10,000 Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar have rushed into Bangladesh for refuge. This is not the first time that this group has been seeking shelter from the Bangladeshi government on account of being brutally persecuted at home. Last time a mass exodus of the Rohingyas happened was in 2012 when communal clashes erupted between them and the Rakhine Buddhists who were later represented by the Burmese Army.
While Bangladesh remains their favourite destination for decades now, they have been seeking out refuge in other neighbouring countries as well. While Human Rights Watch has called the military crackdown on Myanmar a case of ‘ethnic cleansing,’ the UN’s office of Human Rights has declared that the crisis in the South East Asian country be ‘tantamount to crimes against humanity’. State counsellor, Aung San Su Kyi, who was awarded Nobel Peace Prize 1991 for her non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights has not taken the side of this oppressed; rather she has claimed that those attacked were Jihadists and that the military lock down is a means to ensure state security against extremist organisations in the region.
His Holiness Pope Francis said that he is following the “sad news of the religious persecution of Rohingya community and has asked that the members of the ethnic group be given full rights.” The Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu has called on Aung San Suu Kyi to end military-led operations against Myanmar’s Rohingya minority, which have driven 270,000 refugees from the country in the past fortnight. The 85-year old archbishop said the “unfolding horror” and “ethnic cleansing” in the country’s Rahkine region had forced him to speak out against the woman he admired and considered “a dearly beloved sister”. In an open letter posted on social media, he said that “the images we are seeing of the suffering of Rohingiya fill us with pain and dread” and has urged Suu Kyi to intervene. However, as of now, she has not taken heed of his words.
The plight of the Rohingiya continues to worsen – in India, the government has decided to deport the Rohingiya citing security reasons, as they are vulnerable to recruitment by ISIS and other extremist groups.
In Karnataka, Gauri’s killers and those who planned her assassination may never get unmasked, but the objective is evident create the fear of retaliation among those who dissent and question majoritarianism. They succeeded, at least momentarily. And this is not the first time it is happening. On August 30, 2015, M M Kalburgi, a rationalist and free thinker from Karnataka was shot dead at his residence. Two years later, Gauri was killed, once again within the confines of her home, spaces they would have thought were safe.
Any democracy will stand strong only when it is built on the foundation of free speech, and holds onto the essence of it. Debates and disagreements are a part of democracy, and for India, a country which prides itself on being the world’s largest, the acid test for its democratic ideals lies in how it treats those who dissent. Today, however, the space for dissent is shrinking in India. An influential echo chamber of self-proclaimed nationalists and protectors of religion nudged along by a despotic leadership are trying to silence every independent voice which chooses to disagree with them. How many more deaths are we going to witness? How many voices are going to be silenced?
In Kerala too, there have been multiple examples in the past where rationalists, free thinkers and journalists have been threatened. The threats caused outrage, but never fear. With Gauri Lankesh’s murder, fear has become much more tangible.
As Dhanya Rajendran says “the collusion between political parties in enabling political violence needs a strong response from us, as citizens. When young women in a pub are attacked, when people belonging to two faiths are assaulted for being in a relationship, or even for travelling together, the condemnation needs to be unequivocal and unanimous. It is when the society gets divided into Gauris and Kalburgis on one side and the bigots and their supporters on the other, that many among us become wanton enough to justify a murder. We cannot be divided into left-wing and right-wing when we are faced with violence for just having an opinion.”
The murder of Gauri Lankesh should not frighten us in having an opinion or take away our freedom of speech or expression. It is a democratic right. Democracy lies in the hands of the people and the right to freedom of expressions plays a vital key role in the proper smooth functioning of the state. If the state does not function properly and is distracted from what it is obliged to do, it is the duty of the common people to make them remember. Freedom of speech is a medium given to us to live with dignity than merely existence. “Democracy is no democracy without free speech and expression”.
Many times this freedom of expression and speech has been used by the corrupted people to lure the poor people and bring communal tensions. Freedom of speech is the expression where one conveys other what their views on a topic are. These views are sometimes revolutionary as in the case of the Great Martin Luther King where his famous speech ‘I have a Dream’ had a huge impact on the whole community, whereas on the other side the Nazi Party of Hitler had a different side. Hitler’s speeches provoked the people of the Nazi party to kill Jews, and rest is the history. As George Washington said “If freedom of speech is taken away, then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.” Therefore, it is our moral duty to defend our freedom of speech for fullness of life and this is the prophetic mission of the church.
These two incidents speak of the hate that is growing beyond boundaries. Hate is tearing societies along racial, ethnic, gender, and religious lines. For all their “patriotic” rhetoric, hate groups and their imitators are really trying to divide us; their views are fundamentally anti-democratic. True patriots fight hate. They counter hate with acts of goodness.
Sitting home with our virtue does no good. In the face of hate, silence is deadly. Apathy will be interpreted as acceptance — by the perpetrators, the public, and — worse — the victims. If left unchallenged, hate persists and grows.
All over the world people are fighting hate, standing up to promote tolerance and inclusion. Let us join them and bear witness to our Christian calling of peace and reconciliation.
Director, India Peace Centre