Voltaire defined tolerance as “the consequence of humanity” and described the individual who persecuted another person because of differing opinion as a “monster”. If we look around, we would find that India in the third decade of the 21st century looks woefully short on humanity. Although it is doubtful if Voltaire ever used these exact words— “I disapprove of what you say, but will defend to death your right to say it”—it is beyond doubt they faithfully express what he stood for, and truthfully encapsulates the spirit of liberty so essential to democracy. These words also resonate with Kant’s famous argument that Enlightenment stems from free and public use of critical reason, and from the liberty that allows such critical debate to take place without any restrictions. According to Kant, “Have courage to use your own reason” is the motto of the Enlightenment.
It’s a matter of concern that India, with its glorious tradition of rational thinking and reason-based public debates, finds itself in a situation where prejudice prevails and coercion is used to stifle dissent. Ideas are not countered by alternative and better ideas, but forcibly suppressed by coercive State apparatus or raw vigilante muscle power. Ideological hegemony is freely utilised to promote certain ideas and to suppress others. Free, fair and public debates and discussions of contentious issues have become almost impossible, naturally impinging on literary and artistic creativity. The recent incidents at Kannur University in Kerala are a case in point. They also bring to fore another important issue—autonomy of institutions of higher learning and research.