One of the stupidest laws in our statute books is Article 153A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). It says that a book, film or work of art can be banned if it provokes “enmity between groups”. All one has to do to get a book, film or an art work banned is to hold out the threat of communal violence. The Supreme Court recently banned the book, The Concept of World Political Invasion by Muslims, by one R.N. Bhasin, on this ground. In its observations, the court said that a work of scholarly criticism is allowed, but not a work of a vituperative nature. To the best of my knowledge, Article 19, which grants us the right to free speech and expression, does not lay down the kinds of speech and expression that are permissible. Free speech is not meant only for the learned and the intelligent; it is also meant for the stupid and the ignorant.
What this means is that the Thackerays in Mumbai are free to spew venom against “outsiders”, that Ashok Singhal and Praveen Togadia are free to spew venom against Muslims, that the Jamaat-e-Islami and the Students Islamic Movement of India (Simi) are free to carry on their proselytising activities, that the last bigot in the street is free to express what he feels like. Article 153A treats our citizens as little children who need to be protected from the big, bad wolves who occupy our political space.
People are not stupid. They know right from wrong. In all the years that Bal Thackeray has been writing editorials for Saamna, there has not been a riot based solely on his editorials. Riots are not spontaneous upsurges of violence. They are meticulously planned and executed. In Gujarat in 2002, for example, the rioters had precise knowledge of Muslim homes and shops and systematically attacked them. Also, there was very little popular participation in the riots. Most of the rioters belonged to the Sangh parivar. So the enmity among groups is not an automatic result of a speech but is artificially stoked and brought to fruition.
In this country, there is something called the Doctrine of Automatic Respect. What this doctrine says is that any value-system or belief-system supported by millions of people should be automatically respected. Religion is foremost among these systems and should be automatically respected. There can be a critique of religion from the viewpoint of progress. For instance, a religion that condones the action of a woman who throws herself on the burning pyre of her husband, or a religion that enjoins every woman to hide herself from head to toe, can be critiqued. But only in a respectful manner.
But in a true democracy, free speech is meant not only for the objective, the reasonable and the progressive. It is also meant for the biased, the retrograde and the violently vituperative. What free speech means, in a true democracy, is that every idea, no matter how ludicrously and violently expressed, has the right to enter the public space and be debated in a spirit that does not exclude scorn and sarcasm being poured on the idea in question.
An idea cannot be dismissed out of hand simply because it sounds crazy and outrageous. It may be ahead of its time. Take, for instance, the case of Sigmund Freud. When he first started expounding his theory of the sexual origins of mental illness, many respectable and decent people scoffed at his ideas. And yet, a hundred years later, psychoanalysis is a well-established medical discipline. What the Doctrine of Automatic Respect does is exclude the possibility of an intellectual breakthrough of the ‘Freudian kind’. Therefore, to suppress a voice, no matter how crazy it may sound, is not only profoundly undemocratic, but also intellectually murderous.
Soumitro Das is a Kolkata-based writer
The views expressed by the author are personal