We seem to be becoming ever more prickly as a nation, judging by recent crackdowns on books, movies, online content and more. The groups that love to take offence will not let context or time interfere with their quest to censor, ban and condemn.

Is this an endless season for touch-me-nots? Put pen to paper, stylus to touchpad or mouse-click on the forward icon and before you know it, you have offended someone, somewhere. Someone big, organised or networked enough to give you the kind of trouble you hadn’t bargained for.

In the seventh decade of our democratic practice when it should be stable and mature and well past teething trouble, second thoughts are floating up on its very kernel – free speech. The venerable re-thinkers owe their rise to the selfsame adversarial debate they want to hush. That’s not surprising. Some climbers have to kick the ladder.

The message is writ large: Give us your free vote but no free speech. This new self-limiting democracy is yet to find a public forum or legal sanction but is merrily being orchestrated by the street smart and the net savvy. A faceless academic clan on Facebook can take offence as readily as a pressure group in flesh and blood.

Which is all very well. Everyone has the right to protest, persuade and opinion-make. Where it hurts is how swiftly the one-sided exercise becomes actionable. A routinely censored film is blocked; a book is banned; an author is kept out as a security risk; a cartoonist is jailed; two school girls are traumatised for a casual chatty quip on the net. Such things happen in the best of democracies. But not all of the above happen in a matter of a year or less – across three quarters, to be exact. Can’t tell what the next quarter will bring. It could turn out to be even more eventful.

While on ‘quarter’, let us recall the worthies who brought the Q-word into our parlance: the late Narasimha Rao and Dr. Manmohan Singh. Between them, they opened up the economy and somewhere down the line India became a global brand and the Indian democracy a sub-brand. Until the 1990s, our Nehruvian democracy’s high points were at the foreign office whenever our spokesperson lectured Pakistan. Since then, however, our dusty noisy electoral system has found a new salience in plusher chambers of trade and commerce.

An Asian Democracy was finally beginning to perform in terms the global accountant could apprise. The boardroom appreciation came with quarterly pep talk which went like this: the shrinking planet’s scant resources would most likely converge in countries with transparent governance and a lawful system. These virtues curiously coexist with irreverence, defiance and humour. So, stay delightfully chaotic and business-friendly.

We felt good on all counts. Our globalising, growth-seeking state should then have gone out of its way to show off its free citizens. And the rising classes, on their part, should have projected a liberal image. Neither happened. Just as our democracy and demography began to pay dividends, we turned prickly. Is it because our economy isn’t doing as well as it once was? Is free speech a luxury we can indulge in when we are growing at 8% plus and not at the slippery 6%?

Nobody says so in so many words. But the state did choose to showcase our national intolerance with a vengeance and right where it mattered – in Parliament House. We became the only practicing democracy whose parliamentary records describe cartoons as ‘inappropriate material’. The HRD Minister summarily deleted from Class XI textbooks a selection of archival cartoons handpicked by experts. Barring two dissenters, Sharifuddin Sharif of the National Conference and Jaswant Singh of the BJP, the House thunderously approved. These inappropriate cartoon-makers did nothing new to fall from sarkari grace. These are archival cartoons targeting yesteryear newsmakers and not the ones who are now up in arms.

Contemporary groups are taking retrospective umbrage much the same way as governments levy retro taxes. The junked cartoons are the very ones on which stalwarts like Shankar, Kutty and Laxman built up their reputations day by day. Some have won Presidential awards for their work and what is the incumbent government doing about it? Reviewing and withdrawing the honours with alacrity. How can there be politically incorrect Padma Bhushans and Vibhushans?

Class XI students, among others, could get the wrong message. They are an impressionable lot. Keep them away from old cartoons and possibly from a bigger danger that is looming large. All of seventeen, they are eligible to vote in the next parliamentary election. Do you really think they are ready? If you aren’t sure, do legislate to raise the voting age to a mature 45.

Disclaimer: These 800 odd words have been run through an offence detector and cleared. But then the device is only calibrated for current levels of offence. There is always the risk of someone taking offence in the future – retrospectively.

E.P. Unny is the Chief Political Cartoonist at the Indian...