JLF 2015: It's time India too discussed curbs on freedom of expression

  • Abhishek Saha, Hindustan Times, Jaipur
  • Updated: Jan 23, 2015 15:43 IST

Columnist and writer Aakar Patel was asked by a Mumbai-based newspaper - to which he contributes -- to not write any 'anti-Hindu' piece or on 'riots, Muslims or violence'. On a similar note, Pakistani poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz's daughter, artist Salima Hashmi, said that she often had people from the military intelligence sitting on the last bench of her class to keep an eye on what she was teaching. And, anti-Zionist journalist and activist from Israel, Gideon Levy is often called the 'most hated man in Israel'.

It gets interesting when four individuals who are known to be 'contrarians' by their peers sit down to discuss what makes them so. And add to it, two prominent speakers at the JLF - Shashi Tharoor and columnist Mihir Sharma--present in the audience.

Gideon Levy, Aakar Patel, Salima Hashmi and journalist Swapan Dasgupta took the stage for the session titled 'Against the Grain', which was moderated by editor-in-chief of literary publishing at Random House India, Meru Gokhale.

The four panelists shared their views on what it means to 'speak against the grain of society' and how for each one of them it means something different.

They said while journalists and authors in India have sternly condemned the killings of Charlie Hebdo cartoonists in France, it is high time that they discussed curbs on freedom of expression here in India too.

"In a nationalistic country like India it's difficult to tell people something about their flaws because the notion of 'forward-looking superpower is so much ingrained in us," said Patel.

The author added that as his writing questions the caste-based narrative in India, people feel he is a 'contrarian'.

"It is not fashionable to raise the caste question even when in many cases data suggests that there is a strong caste identity," he said referring to the high number of Patels convicted in the 2002 post-Godhra riots, and high rates of female-infanticide among Patels in Gujarat and Jats in Haryana.

He said he could not write on certain subjects in Gujarati and Urdu newspapers, which regularly feature his views: "They will not want me to tweak the column or dilute it a bit. They will just drop it," he said.

While Levy called the Israeli occupation the most 'brutal tyrannies' in the world, Hashmi narrated how she was hounded in her childhood by the fact that her father was declared a traitor and sent to jail.

Dasgupta, whose pro-BJP stand is quite well-known, expressed how certain positions taken by him were met with staunch opposition from his peers, because of differences in political stance.

He stressed that the only way forward was to 'let go of our closed minds' and debate and engage with our peers across political ideologies.

Sharing his experience from the 1990s on writing an editorial about the Babri Masjid demolition, which argued that it was one of the biggest mass movements in India, senior journalist and author Swapan Dasgupta said the piece had offended Delhi's academia.

"People from Delhi University and Jawaharlal Nehru University, whom we call eminent historians, were furious. They said, 'Why should this man be given a platform?" he said.

(With inputs from Danish Raza)

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