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Academics bat for freedom of expression

Is over-sensitivity about our national leaders compatible with the freedom of expression guaranteed by the Constitution? Vikas Pathak reports.

delhi Updated: Apr 01, 2011 00:43 IST
Vikas Pathak

Is over-sensitivity about our national leaders compatible with the freedom of expression guaranteed by the Constitution?

Gujarat’s ban on Joseph Lelyveld's book suggesting Mahatma Gandhi as bisexual is just the latest among a host of bans and criticisms of publications going against the popular image of our heroes and icons.

Law Minister Veerappa Moily reportedly went as far to suggest a legislation to make disrespect for the Mahatma punishable, but retracted on Thursday by saying that there was no need for a ban or a law.

“It is better for writers to self-regulate. I don’t think any changes to existing laws are required at the moment. It will not serve any purpose,” Moily said.

The larger question, however, remains: does public outcry prevent further knowledge production relating to our icons, which in the long run can prevent us from knowing them more intimately.

“The freedom to criticise on the basis of evidence must be there. The space available for such discussion must be maintained,” veteran historian KN Panikkar told HT.

Asked about the desirability of a law to make the Mahatma's ‘insult’ illegal, he added, “It is a highly deplorable idea. Even acceptance of such an idea is anti-intellectual and anti-freedom of expression.”

Badri Narayan, an Allahabad-based scholar of the Dalit movement, says, “Facts are always explored. If you stop doing that, writings will become hagiographical. There are legitimate Dalit critiques of Mahatma Gandhi. There must always be scope for intellectual inquiry.”

The idea: it is through critiques and counter-critiques that we get to know our heroes better, and also from fresh perspectives.

The Ambedkariite Dalit movement has looked at Gandhi critically, lambasting his fast unto death to prevent separate electorates for Dalits in 1932 and painting Gandhi's term for Dalits, Harijan, as patronizing. And this critique is central to its ideological framework.

Revolutionaries contemporary to him had been skeptical about Gandhi’s non-violence, and Marxists often painted him as an impediment to revolution by the masses. The Hindu Right painted him as ‘pro-Muslim’, and he has also been questioned from a feminist perspective. Last but not the least, Gandhi embarked on radical self-criticism in his promptness to lay open his personal life to public scrutiny.

Perhaps, it is this Gandhian legacy that is under threat.