Tolerance of dissenting opinions and the right to express them freely are defining traits of a modern, liberal democracy. But sadly, a culture of intolerance has been gaining ground in India, the world’s largest democracy, over the past few years. The cold-blooded murder of renowned Kannada scholar M.M Kalburgi, known for speaking out against Hindu religious orthodoxy, has sparked outrage in India, putting the spotlight on the state of intellectual freedom in the country. Now, another rationalist free-thinker and writer K.S Bhagwan from India’s southern state Karnataka, has received a threat letter. Bhagwan, an Indian rationalist, writer, translator and a retired professor, writes in Kannada and he has translated works of William Shakespeare, including Julius Caesar and Hamlet. He is a recipient of many awards, including the Rajyotsava Award, Kuvempu Award and the Lokayuta Award.
In this interview with India Writes Network, Bhagwan speaks about increasing intimidation and threats faced by writers, thinkers and scholars not just in India, but also across the world. Against this backdrop, he argued for the need for the UN to create a set of global guidelines to protect intellectuals, writers and thinkers who are targeted by fanatics of all stripes.
Edited excerpts from the interview:
Q) Do you agree that over the past few years there is a surge in intolerance for social thinkers, intellectual and academic class?
A) Yes, I do agree. Over the past few years, the level of threats are rising (to the intellectual class). To some extent, it is due to the fact that religious bodies and political outfits have started supporting each other to ensure that the vote bank remains intact. This is the reason that this kind of threats and impression of fearful atmosphere has been created.
Q) Globally, writers, thinkers and journalists have been killed and threatened. Do you think there should be some global guidelines to ensure their security and freedom?
A) Of course. It is high time that representatives of all countries involving the UN could create a set of guidelines. Guidelines to encourage free and fair expression of opinion. The guidelines would come as a support and encouragement for every independent thinker who believes other than what a set of people want someone to believe.
Q) Do you believe that writers, thinkers and journalists have a social responsibility?
A) Yes, they have social responsibilities. They can form opinions by sharing the truth. They have a greater responsibility than anyone else. This is the class that talks to students, activists and people from all walks of life. They peep into the world of every class and that helps them to understand the society as a whole. They can share it in correct prospective and work towards creating the right kind of atmosphere.
Q) Do you agree that security is an issue for this class?
A) Security is a very big issue for them because they do not understand the thin lines between expressing freely and expressing themselves with keeping the political interests in mind. Most of the time, they cross it and differ. That put them into a very risky situation. Therefore, they should be given a security cover in terms of guidelines. Police protection and some legal cover to live in a free and fair society.
Q) What do you think of the state of intellectual freedom in developed countries like the US?
A) America is one of the countries that has given a lot of freedom to people who are thinkers, journalists and academicians. They should be the first as far as freedom is concerned. They have taken this issue very seriously that if the independent thinkers are protected, then the society will also be protected in terms of values and believes.
Q) Do you think the level of tolerance for dissenting views has declined the world over? Which countries would you single out where intellectual freedom is seriously endangered?
A) Of course India, Pakistan, Bangladesh where every day independent thinkers are getting killed. The voice of dissent has been silenced by people and no one pursue the cases till the end. And in the current scenario the threat perception has increased and covered the European countries too. Like the murder of journalist Charlie Hebdo. This is the reason the guidelines and a universal unity is needed on the issue.
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