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Creeping danger of intolerance

March 13, 2015 02:32 am | Updated December 04, 2021 11:34 pm IST

First it was the writers, now it is the turn of >television channels to be assaulted in Tamil Nadu. Freedom of speech and expression has seldom been under so much threat. The bomb attack on the office of Tamil TV channel Puthiya Thalaimurai in the early hours of Thursday takes the growing intolerance in our society to new heights. The channel showed trailers last week of a programme it intended to telecast on the relevance of the thali or mangalsutra in contemporary India. It began to receive threatening calls, with callers turning abusive when women answered the phone. The channel decided to call off the show. Even after this, parties such as the Hindu Makkal Katchi and the Hindu Munnani held protests outside its office. A cameraperson recording the protest was assaulted. The State BJP too issued unedifying statements justifying the protests. All this culminated in the bomb attack, which might not have injured anyone but has done great harm to the country’s liberal fabric. The fringe groups behind this have thrown a challenge to the secular and tolerant ethos, and sought to use violence to intimidate liberal sections of society from debating or questioning cultural mores. While the ideological challenge will have to be met politically, the full force of the law should be used to rein in elements out to intimidate media and society.

The thali is a neck ornament worn by Hindu women as a symbol of marriage and a living husband. The show, it appears, would have debated whether battered or abandoned wives still need to wear it. Whether women choose to wear a cultural symbol such as a thali — or, for that matter, a burqa, a veil or a wedding ring — is entirely a matter of personal choice. As a religion, Hinduism has always shown a philosophical indifference to forcing rituals and symbols on its adherents. This incident is one more in a growing list of attempts by fundamentalists to appropriate the personal into the political. Secondly, the targeted show was to be in the nature of a debate, which is by definition a platform for two opposing viewpoints to be aired. Debates that allow a topic to be robustly analysed are an essential part of the public discourse in a democracy. Some years ago, Tamil Nadu saw disgraceful attacks on the film star Khushboo for her remarks on premarital sex. Tamil writers Perumal Murugan and Puliyur Murugesan have been threatened, even as a BBC documentary on the Delhi rape victim was banned nationally. In all these cases, protesters claimed that India’s cultural fabric was under threat. What is really under threat is its millennia-long history of tolerance, broad-mindedness and acceptance of a diverse, multilayered ethos.

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