Three parables from modern India. A man writes a book that offends some people enough to ban it and, for good measure, demand his head. Salman Rushdie goes underground, in time the fatwa is forgotten, he emerges from hiding and continues writing and travelling.
Then, a curious thing happens. He is invited, again, to attend the Jaipur Literature Festival. His name appears on the programme, again. Out pops seminary Darul Uloom Deoband demanding his visa be revoked (in fact, as Rushdie tweets, he does not require a visa). It is no coincidence that a state election where Muslims are a sizeable presence, is around the corner. It does not matter that most have not read the still-banned Satanic Verses. Yet, a Congress spokesman replies cautiously that the government is ‘considering’ the request; others hint at law and order problems and Rushdie cancels his visit.
The second parable: a man writes a column headlined ‘How to wipe out Islamic terror’. Subramanian Swamy says, “Muslims of India are being programmed by a slow reactive process to become radical and thus slide into suicide against Hindus.” The article causes a furore. Three months later, the Delhi Police’s Crime Branch charges the Janata Party president with spreading enmity between communities. Swamy, who has been leading the 2G charge against the UPA, gets anticipatory bail.
The third parable reached its end with the death of MF Husain, exiled from the land of his birth — and never allowed to return — allegedly for painting Hindu gods and goddesses that caused offence to some.
There is a common thread that runs through these: freedom of speech. Yet, if you were to go thro-ugh the chatter on social websites, newspaper columns and TV debates, the contradictions are apparent. Liberals who rush to Rushdie’s defence are squeamish about the rights of Swamy. Those who berate Husain for denigrating the Hindu pantheon are silent on cartoons that insult Islam. Creative freedom is not selective. The right to free expression, which includes the right to offend, applies equally to all. Moreover, laws function within a cultural context. American First Amendment principles, for instance, need not apply to India. We don’t uphold the right to pornography. We are mindful about inflaming communal passion and respecting religious sentiment. We even hold on to frequently archaic concepts of sedition under which people like Binayak Sen are arrested.
But the debate has become so vitiated that we are slipping down a dangerous slide, quietly allowing government to ban inconvenient books (Rohinton Mistry’s Such a Long Journey) or even just inconvenient movie scenes (Free Tibet banners in Rockstar). Contoured arguments are lost in the indignation of 140-character tweets as the banal replaces the complex. A suggestion that internet sites remove objectionable material is seen as censorship. But has anyone seen this material? Are we to let websites get away with content that includes images of pigs fornicating with religious figures?
Our Constitution grants freedom of expression but places restrictions on that freedom in the interests of public order. Our penal code prohibits hate speech. You can change laws, you can amend the Constitution. But as of now they exist and we need to follow them, or choose to break the law.
In most liberal societies, Britain for instance, free speech goes hand-in-hand with defamation. In India, apart from a recent judgement awarding Rs100 crore to Justice PB Sawant for an apparently honest mistake made by Times Now that led to cries of ‘censorship’ and ‘attempt to curtail media’, there is little real redressal.
If I am to have the freedom to offend, then you must equally have the freedom to rebut - either on a similar platform or in a court of law. Unfortunately what happens is that issues — Rushdie, Swamy, Husain — get hijacked by politics and politicians to pander to popular opinion. Instead of a reasoned debate, you end up with a ban. Instead of intellectual counterpoints, we frogmarch people into exile. Instead of accommodation, we ransack offices.
There’s another word for this and it’s not free speech. It’s anarchy.
Namita Bhandare is a Delhi-based writer
The views expressed by the author are personal