Sometimes a controversy reveals more than it intends to. Last week in Britain, a BBC comedy show played a segment called The Real Housewives of ISIS — a parody of an American reality TV series where rich housewives talk about their lifestyles and complain about each other. Except, this segment featured imaginary Islamic State (or ISIS) housewives.
One wife says she can’t keep track of her husbands because they keep blowing themselves up. In another sketch two ISIS housewives get annoyed when they end up wearing the same style suicide vests. I admit I found it funny. The opinions of British Muslims on social media were more mixed: Many found it amusing but others thought it demeaned vulnerable women who were recruited by the terrorist group.
What the ISIS Housewives controversy illustrates, once again, is how intolerant we have become to being offended. Today, it is enough that someone is insulted, over their religion or country, in order to demand a ban. Sometimes worse, they demand the head of the offender too. The media loves such controversies so they hype them up. People love reading about them and they excite TV presenters. Everyone wins. Except, it is a hollow victory because our society loses out.
A few weeks ago, external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj publicly berated Amazon for selling a doormat with the Indian flag on it. An article in this paper asked why we get so hot and bothered about perceived insults to our national symbol. I would go even further.
A mature democracy isn’t just one where insults to national symbols are ignored, but one that protects them under the law. It is one where the freedom to insult religion is as fiercely guarded as the freedom to practice it. Yes, that’s right. The right to offend should be defended as much as the right to freedom because you cannot have one without the other.
It’s disappointing that more liberals and secularists, in India and outside, don’t make this argument. If a State does not protect people’s right to cause offence, then any meaningful debate or even criticism (sometimes as satire) dies. It is not enough to say in response that some take it too far or that debate can be had without causing offence. Who can really define what is offensive or not? I may find someone’s tattoo of the Indian flag a powerful statement, someone else may think it’s a desecration. Why should those who are offended get to decide what others can watch, read or see?
Look at Pakistan where over the last two weeks five activists have gone missing. Their friends suspect they have been abducted for their liberal views. On Facebook and elsewhere these five brave men criticised Pakistan’s religious extremists and ridiculed the State.
If a country like Pakistan wants to rid itself of religious extremism, it has to empower liberal voices to challenge them. This is why the more fundamental mullahs are so afraid of them — they recognise the threat better than anyone. Snuffing out Pakistan’s remaining liberal and secular voices would turn it into Taliban territory forever.
Indians may point a finger at Pakistan but people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. Hindu groups in India too have started copying the same tactics. FIRs against people who have allegedly insulted Hinduism or the country are now common. And if it isn’t the Hindus then Christians, Sikhs or Muslim groups are at it. People have the right to be offended. They should even have the right to protest. But they should not have the right to ban or imprison those who offend them.
The lessons for Pakistan and India aren’t that different: Without “offensive” liberal and secular voices India would rapidly degenerate into a Hindu autocracy. The victims of this would be the vast majority of Indians who want to live in a free, secular democracy the Independence movement envisaged.
The same applies to symbols like the national flag. The United States constitution protects the right of citizens to publicly burn the flag because it can be an expression of anger against the government. This was common in the 1960s when Americans opposed the Vietnam War. Why shouldn’t Indians have the right to protest against their government in the same way? Of course they can also protest in other ways, but that is besides the point. It is a political symbol. It embodies the Indian State. And the State is not a sacred institution — it can make mistakes.
Indians who think their government is acting wrongly shouldn’t just have the right to protest against the government, they have a duty to do so. Their duty to the truth is more important than their duty to the government. Satyamev Jayate. The right to disrespect the flag, therefore, is more important than preserving it as a sacred symbol.
Allowing people to debate, argue and criticise is the only way to renew and refresh our identities. That is in fact the great beauty of Hinduism: Its inbuilt culture of debate, disagreement and renewal. This is also India’s greatest strength. And this is why Swaraj has it so wrong.
It may sound unimportant and trivial, but the right to offend and insult goes to the heart of protecting our freedoms and our democracy. It doesn’t just liberate us, a readiness to tolerate offence makes us stronger.
Sunny Hundal is a writer and lecturer on digital journalism based in London
The views expressed are personal