Last month’s murder of Malleshappa Kalburgi, the 76-year-old academic who was shot dead in his home in Karnataka, after receiving death threats for criticisms of idol worship in Hinduism, sent shock waves around India.

The distinguished Indian writer, Nayantara Sahgal who will be speaking at the Dhaka Lit Fest in November, has been prominent among the over 40 Indian novelists, poets and playwrights who returned their awards to India’s premier literary institution, the Sahitya Akademi (National Academy of Letters), in protest.

After Uday Prakash, a renowned Hindi writer, became the first author to renounce his Sahitya Akademi to protest intolerance rising in India, he was followed by dozens more including Sahgal and Salman Rushdie.

The recent lynching of a Muslim man by a Hindu mob for killing a cow and assaults by right-wing Hindu activists on a Mumbai think tank leader, for agreeing to host an event for a book by a former Pakistani minister, have led to more writers joining the literary revolt.

It is perhaps no surprise that the subsequent media furore has given a platform for allies of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to launch vicious personal attacks on the writers involved and to smear them as “frustrated communist cadres” and out of touch “liberal elites’’ motivated by political sour grapes and opposition to the BJP ruling party’s Hindu nationalist agenda.

This has tragically drawn attention away from the basic constitutional rights and rule of law which the writers are seeking to defend. Fundamental rights are not about party politics. They are by definition immutable and key to upholding the values of diversity, pluralism and tolerance, enshrined in India’s constitution. India’s culture of diversity and debate is part and parcel of its democratic values and should transcend partisan political differences. It is only right then for writers like Nayantara Sahgal to question the relative silence of Mr Modi on recent events and to criticise the National Academy for its apparent acquiescence by acting as if it was “wise to be silent when writers are being killed.’’ Sadly, we live in an age where the fallacy of “you’re either with us, or against us, “has infected public discourse to such an extent that there is often little space left for the nuance and shades of grey which many issues need to be sensibly resolved. The opinions and views of most people are too often easily swamped by debates being hijacked by polarising opinions.

It is bad enough when resolution of complex global problems is stymied because debates about them generate more heat than light. It is inexcusable when the problem is a simple one with a clear right and wrong answer. Freedom of expression falls into this category. It is a basic component of the democratic values which have proven to be best means available for societies to enhance the rights and further the interests of all their people. When religious supremacists, of whatever ideology, in India and elsewhere, want to undermine such rights, they find it useful to smear democracy as an attack on people’s religious values and to present the public with an artificially created “you’re either with us, or against us,” option.

This deliberately obscures the fact that democracy and secularism enables societies to ensure respect between people of different or no faiths. Attacking liberal values only serves to push the agenda of forces which would encourage intolerance and bigotry and which would actually harm freedom of religion and communal harmony. Of course, Bangladesh is in no position to lecture India about the importance of protecting fundamental rights. While the two nation’s constitutions share similar principles and a commitment to democracy, Bangladesh’s track record in ensuring and enhancing democracy has been far weaker than that of India. It is also the case that Bangladesh has a poorer record in protecting freedom of expression than India, and this has been most visibly seen in the failure to prevent brutal targeted murders of secularist writers.

But both the rights and trends which the protesting Indian writers are talking about are universal in nature. Freedom of speech is threatened everywhere, whether from bureaucratic tendencies to enact authoritarian laws abrogating basic rights in the name of the public interest, or from groups that are openly hostile to the notion of democracy itself. In the context of the ongoing debate in India, Nayantara Saghal’s voice is an important one which deserves to be heard more widely. Throughout her career, the now 88-year-old writer has been consistent in speaking truth to power when defending democratic values and in upholding the ideals of India’s independence generation.

It is completely mistaken to dismiss her, as some critics are doing now, as standing for an old outdated India, which is being left behind politically by Mr Modi’s successful electoral alliance built on visions of economic development and globalisation. The values for which she stands are the same core principles that she has defended throughout her life. Although part of the Nehru family and a cousin of Indira Gandhi, Sahgal wrote widely and critically about autocratic tendencies during the latter’s time as India’s prime minister during the late 1960s and especially during the Emergency rule of the 1970s. Despite being victimised for her independent stance, Sahgal continued to publish scathing, insightful accounts of Indira Gandhi’s rise and rule during the latter’s years in power. Sahgal’s steadfastness in upholding liberal values is also reflected in her wide variety of other works, both fiction and non-fiction. Her forthcoming talks and keynote speech at Dhaka Lit Fest will doubtless be eagerly anticipated and provide much food for thought.

Niaz Alam has worked on ethical business issues since 1992 and is a former vice-chair of War on Want. He is Chief Editorial Writer at the Dhaka Tribune.

First appeared in Dhaka Tribune: http://www.dhakatribune.com/arts-letters/2015/oct/25/defence-liberalism