The debris of intolerance is all around us. Not protests nor black flags, just a suit filed in a Delhi court is all that it took for Penguin India to capitulate and withdraw Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History.
In Delhi, students from the Northeast continue to be assaulted for looking different: Four cases this past week alone.
In Parliament, pepper spray and broken mikes replace debate and discussion on the contentious issue of Telangana.
On social media, lines harden between right wing and left liberal. Women in particular say they are routinely targeted with threats that include rape. Right-wing supporters respond that they have been demonised for years and will retaliate against further attacks. To ignore the grievances of either side is to tell only half the story.
Within media, rumours are rife that editors are being coerced out of jobs or forced to toe a politically acceptable line. What is this line? Where is this pressure coming from? In the absence of clarity, we lap up speculative stories and reach our own conclusions.
Writing in The Indian Express, Pratap Bhanu Mehta (the subject of a liberal attack last year for writing a column that was deemed to be ‘pro-BJP’) talks of the silencing of the liberal voice. But it is not silence — I would argue that we are becoming an increasingly strident society — so much as selective outrage that is of concern.
I have written earlier about this selective outrage that cuts across both sides. Those who found MF Husain’s paintings of Hindu deities offensive remained silent on the cartoons that denigrated Islam. Those who rushed to Salman Rushdie’s defence looked the other way when Subramanian Swamy sought anticipatory bail for an article he wrote on Islamic terror.
To speak up is an act of courage. To speak up for a larger principle unmindful of the burden of our isms, is even more courageous. Freedom of expression, including the freedom to offend, is absolute. But when we pick and choose our battles, we do two things. First, we reduce a fight for free speech into a competitive slanging match (why did you defend Rushdie? Why didn’t you stand up for Taslima Nasreen? And so on). Instead of speaking up for a principle, we end up defending our positions.
Second, we empower governments, hardly the beacons of free speech, to clamp down further. Section 66A, being challenged in the Supreme Court, was introduced by the UPA on such vague terms as ‘grossly offensive’. In practice it is used to arrest cartoonists and teenage girls for Facebook posts. In Tamil Nadu, the government could say with a straight face that it could not protect cinemagoers if Kamal Haasan’s Vishwaroopam did not submit to cuts.
Fanaa was never officially banned in Gujarat but no theatre would show it. And an all-girls band in Kashmir quietly dissolved after extreme Islamist groups objected while the state government watched. Things have reached such a sorry state that the government-appointed Thorat committee blithely removes cartoons in school textbooks because it believes they offend someone.
Is there a way out? We can challenge laws that place unreasonable strictures on free speech; all those delightfully ambiguous sections that talk of ‘acts prejudicial to maintenance of harmony’. We need also to strengthen defamation and redress mechanisms. We can ask for more laws, as Northeast activists have done, asking for a hate law that will impose stringent punishment on racial attacks.
But there is a simpler way. And it is to reclaim the decency of discourse. A free exchange of ideas is the staple of any civilised society. In India, we have traditionally given space even to those we don’t agree with.
Today, we attack students because they look a certain way, we hound out Africans from neighbourhoods because ‘they are not like us’, we tie up books in lengthy litigation because we find their ideas unpalatable. This has become our national sport.
It is a sport where the trophy is not a victory for Left or Right but a defeat for the fundamental freedoms of every Indian.
Twitter:@namitabhandare The views expressed by the author are personal