The newest controversy to erupt over free speech is Tanmay Bhat’s tasteless spoof of two of India’s most famous icons, Lata Mangeshkar and Sachin Tendulkar.
Coincidentally, I became acquainted with the standup comic only the previous week when I watched a video of him raging against those who claim not to be feminists. At that time, Bhat emerged as a sort of hero for liberals. Since I count myself as one, I found myself nodding in agreement though I thought at some point the video began to drag — how long can you sustain a rant — and switched off.
This presumably is what all those self-professed grievously offended should have done when Bhat used Snapchat’s face-swap feature for an imaginary and derogatory conversation between the two Bharat Ratnas. Instead, we’ve had days of outrage and chest-thumping on social media and primetime television, police inquiries being ordered, and politicians blowing off steam.
Much of the reaction can be attributed to the compulsions of both the elections (hence the politicians’ rage) and TRPs (hence the media’s outrage). Somewhere along the way, the drama spilled over into farce, particularly after a Mumbai tabloid declared, mistakenly, that Bhat’s girlfriend was the daughter of Congress spokesman Sanjay Jha since, quite elementary, they share the same last name.
Despite the digressions, the Bhat controversy raises a larger issue, especially since it blew up just days after the Supreme Court on Friday, May 13 refused to decriminalise defamation, reigniting the debate on the rights of the individual to protect her reputation versus the rights of society to free expression. The judgment has been seen by most liberals as a disappointing blot on free speech particularly by a court that has seen a fair bit of activism.
“Cracking a bad joke is not against the law; it is bad taste at the most,” said Congressman Shashi Tharoor in a Facebook post. “Upholding freedom of speech includes defending the right of people to say things you don’t agree with or that you find obnoxious.”
The party was not so magnanimous when the Karnataka police registered a case against alleged BJP and Hindu Jagaran Vedike activists for bursting crackers to ‘celebrate’ the death of Jnanpith award winning writer UR Ananthamurthy in August 2014. But when has either side, Right or Left, been consistent in its stand?
The liberal equivocation on free speech has in large measure contributed to what we now calling the ‘chilling effect’, though rigor mortis might be the more accurate description, on free speech. It was the liberals who supported the ban on The Satanic Verses. And it was the liberal position that the publication by Charlie Hebdo of cartoons satirising the Prophet Mohammad was plain wrong.
The limits of free speech are under question even in the West where liberals have been implementing bans on campuses by speakers they consider to be unsavoury and where this past week it was revealed that wrestler Hulk Hogan’s legal battle against Gawker was secretly funded by Paypal co-founder Peter Thiel in an apparent revenge move for being outed for being gay.
The failure of the Supreme Court to recognise just how damaging criminal defamation is to free speech is only the latest in a series of assaults. Add to this our traditional liberal ambivalence, our own ‘cultural’ self-censorship norms in treating so-called icons with unflinching deference. Surely a national icon must be above someone’s silly spoof. And surely all this exhausting huffing and puffing only fans the flames of publicity.
The point about free speech that has been reiterated more than once is that it necessarily includes the right to cause offence. It’s ironic that we continue to be offended by films and spoofs and books, and in public discourse measure our response not in terms of absolute principle but on a case-by-case basis. Is it any wonder then that we have reached where we have? Perhaps it’s time to say: Offended? No matter. Ignore and move on. Or perhaps it’s already simply too late.
The views expressed are personal