The intimidatory power of the mob made itself felt once again when the Ajmer Literature Festival abruptly cancelled veteran actor Naseeruddin Shah’s keynote address. This followed the torrent of abuse heaped on Mr. Shah by a loose coalition of persons, ranging from anonymous trolls on social media to functionaries of the Bharatiya Janata Party, after he spoke about the dangerous amount of power that mobs wield in India. In a reference to the violence over allegations of cow carcasses found in Uttar Pradesh’s Bulandshahr district this month that led to the killing of a police officer and another person, he spoke of the growing insecurity over being targeted by vigilante groups. “There is complete impunity for those who take law into their own hands,” said Mr. Shah. “I feel anxious thinking about my children.” Unfortunately, in this climate of hyper-nationalism, even an expression of anxiety is twisted out of context and portrayed as disloyalty to the nation.
As Mr. Shah has explained, he was only speaking as a worried Indian about a country he loves. But amid the acrimonious outburst against him, no one cares to listen. A fringe group in Uttar Pradesh has offered him a one-way ticket to Karachi. And State BJP chief Mahendranath Pandey suggested, outrageously, that Mr. Shah was growing into the character of the Pakistani agent he had played in a film. That a mere expression of anxiety about lawlessness and vigilantism could be fraught with such repercussions is deplorable in a democracy. Three years ago, another actor, Aamir Khan, was hounded for expressing alarm about growing intolerance; pressure was even applied on a private company to dismiss him as its brand ambassador.
With each such reaction, the message is sent out to the next celebrity to hush his or her intervention in the public sphere. Governments have often given in to the mob’s diktats, either as the easy way out or for political signalling. In this case, the Rajasthan Chief Minister did the right thing by tweeting his regret over the fact that Mr. Shah couldn’t participate in the Ajmer event, saying his “administration was fully prepared to hold [the] festival peacefully”; some arrests of those who attempted to vandalise the festival venue have also been carried out.
But his own record of standing up for free expression, like that of many other politicians, is marred by inconsistency and underwritten by expediency. In his previous stint as CM, Mr. Gehlot and his party were of a piece with those who pressured Salman Rushdie into pulling out of the Jaipur Literature Festival in 2012. Ultimately, it is the responsibility of those in power to support those who feel threatened for their views and to come down hard on those who attempt to silence them with intimidation and threats.