November 15, 2015

‘Uphold the Law and Allow Free and Fearless Expression of Views’

Below we reproduce an open letter from historians and social scientists of India at academic institutions overseas to the president, the prime minister and central government, the governors and ministers of different state governments, and the chief justice and other justices of the Supreme Court and High Courts of India. The letter is dated November 8, 2015.

ON October 26, a group of distinguished Indian historians issued a statement of concern about the damage being done in the current political climate to the traditions of tolerance, and freedom of speech, belief and practices, for which India was long applauded. We – historians and social scientists engaged in researching and teaching about the richness of Indian history and society in different locations overseas – write to express our solidarity with their statement. We share the deep concern over recent happenings in India, which are affecting freedom of artistic expression and historical and social science inquiry, and serving to produce a dangerously pervasive atmosphere of narrowness, intolerance and bigotry.

Currently reigning political attitudes and actions have seriously harmed the tradition of critical inquiry into the condition of India’s past and present that undergirded the country’s reputation of tolerance and democracy. Irresponsible statements by political leaders, declaring that India is finally free from eight hundred or one thousand years of slavery, and that the glory of the Hindu nation will shine anew, are creating a sense of fear among millions of citizens now being defined as outsiders. What the present regime seems to be promoting, as our colleagues in India note, is a legislated account of the past, glorifying a homogenised and inflexible “Hindu” tradition. This denies the very inheritance that made the tradition exceptional: ongoing debate, a remarkable range of accepted beliefs and practices, and the necessity of change over time. Such a monolithic and flattened view of India’s history is not supported by the sources, or by any serious historical inquiry.

It is a sad commentary on proclaimed traditions of tolerance and democracy that a family or individual can be lynched or burnt alive for an alleged social transgression (whether this be the eating of particular kinds of meat, or the forging of social relations across certain caste barriers) – without any formal charges being brought, let alone a trial being held in court. And that well-known and respected scholars can be killed for their intellectual opinions, research and writing because these do not fit with a particular political group’s view of the “real” history or condition of India.

What makes the situation worse is that the prime minister and leaders of government have not felt it necessary to speak out promptly and strongly against these acts of criminal violence. With our colleagues in India, we urge the president, prime minister and central government, the governors and ministers of different state governments, and the chief justice and other justices of the Supreme Court and High Courts, to uphold the law and the constitution, allowing free and fearless expression of views, ensuring security for all sections of society, and safeguarding the values and traditions of plurality that India has long cherished.

Signatories to the statement include Akeel Bilgrami, Wendy Doniger, Sheldon Pollock, Sudhir Chandra, Gyan Pandey, Vijay Prashad, Chris Fuller, Partha Chatterjee and around two hundred others.