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Anshul is a Political Science and Law graduate from the University of Delhi. He is interested in political, legal and policy developments and frequently writes on related themes. You can contact him on anshulkumarpandey [at] gmail [dot] com.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Another Assault on Free Speech: The AIB Controversy





In the past few days, I have read the reactions of many on the AIB controversy. I have seen how some have expressed their indignation, outrage and disappointment over the whole episode. I want to say only this: I share every moment of that indignation, all the passion of that outrage and the absolute helplessness of that disappointment.

Many in the mainstream media have taken to lecturing us about free speech and how it is a slippery slope. This 'advice' by 'professionals' who have long compromised the ideals of free speech at the altar of corporate convenience, political preference and pure profit, sounds incredibly hollow. I am not buying a word of it. You may have different opinions on the humor of AIB. Many have called it crass, uncouth and insulting. Many others have found it funny, rib-tickling and amusing. Opinions differ, they must be allowed to differ and they must make a difference.

The self proclaimed guardians of public morality are out in the streets again. They cry while wringing their hands that their religious sentiments have been hurt. I find it quite unbelievable how those religious sentiments flourish in the middle of extreme poverty and malnutrition that at least 30% of our population finds itself in. Are these same sentiments not hurt while perpetuating the barbaric traditions of caste, dowry, female infanticide, polygamy, purdah etc? The moment there is a bold attempt to make people have a laugh at the absurdity around them, all of a sudden, all these dormant sentiments flare up.

It must be emphasized that this is not an isolated incident. Writers, cartoonists, comedians and even innocent civilians have been banned, their videos taken down or jailed overnight for offending the sentiments of a particular group, class, religion or political party. Shaheen Dhada and her friend were arrested in 2012 for posting a status against Bal Thackarey. Shirin Dalvi, India's lone woman editor of an Urdu daily, has been hiding her face in public ever since six criminal complaints were filed against her for publishing a Charlie Hebdo cartoon. Perumal Murugan, a critically acclaimed Tamil writer, was forced to withdraw all his books because of the pressure from Hindutva outfits. He has said that the 'author Murugan' is now dead. The list goes on. Taking offence has become an industry in India and the Fundamental right to Free Speech increasingly looks only theoretical in our democracy.

Perumal Murugan, AIB, Shirin Dalvi etc. are the latest additions in the long list of martyrs of free speech in this country. Martyrs is a heavy word and I insist on using it because to have your voice clamped down in a 'democracy' is nothing short of intellectual death. We have written about it enough. We have demonstrated and have spoken out and have trended our hash tags. Yet, we must think, speak and write even more. This world depends on ideas and ideas are bulletproof.

Replug: The Republic of Hurt Sentiments, Daily News and Analysis, (Feb 1, '13)
In 1927, Katherine Mayo, an American writer and Social Historian, released a book called 'Mother India' in which she highlighted the various ills of the Indian Society including the treatment of women, the Dalits and the 'character' of nationalistic politicians and made a case against Indian self rule. The book created a furore in the country with Mahatma Gandhi labelling it as "report of a drain inspector sent out with the one purpose of opening and examining the drains of the country to be reported upon, or to give a graphic description of the stench exuded by the opened drains." The book prompted at least 50 other books and pamphlets in response which rebutted all the arguments put forward by Mayo against Indian Independence. However, the most famous rebuttal came fromMehboob Khan, who wrote and directed a film by the same name. Mother India the movie needs no introduction. It is known to all and sundry in this country as Independent India's one of the most famous contribution to the world cinema, which lost the Academy Award for the best Foreign Film by a whisker.
Amartya Sen would agree when I say that the response to the publication of 'Mother India' highlighted the best Argumentative Traditions of the country at the time. Not only did the book receive powerful rebuttals that contradicted its claims, but in the end, the very idea of Mother India was usurped and transformed to rid it of all the negative connotations. However, while the India of 1927, with a tiny educated population responded in such an intellectually charged manner, it is a shame that the India of 21st Century has behaved like illiterati supreme over works of arts and literature that dwarf in comparison to Mayo's book. The events of the past few weeks regarding Kamal Hasan's Vishwaroopam or Ashis Nandy's comments over corruption in the country are an unfortunate reminder of how as a society we have become ultra intolerant towards differing points of view.
The social acceptability of a ban has encouraged the fringe political groups to soothe their sensitive egos in the limelight by jumping at a moment's notice to demand the immediate curtailment of someone's work of art or literature in the name of hurt sentiments. In a civilized society, those with hurt sentiments would have been immediately referred to a competent psychiatrist. Yet it is only in our country that these fringe elements, which rarely represent more than 5% of any community, are repeatedly entertained in the name of preserving 'law and order'. It is difficult to imagine how 20 people protesting a film can create a law and order situation for the entire city that would force the government to halt all the screenings in the entire state.
It is a mark of growing intellectual bankruptcy in the society that has allowed the conservative groups to rub the nose of artistic freedom on the ground and has sapped the vitality of the public sphere which allows an individual to make a reasoned judgement him/her self. It would not be wrong to say that in the absence of better debate and adequate control over these fringe groups, the state has shed its responsibility of protecting the freedom of speech and expression and has instead let these contractors of religion to dictate what's offensive and what's not. This is a dangerous practice inherently inimical to the values of the democracy that we so greatly cherish. For any progressive minded individual it is clear that the Muslims in the country are in a dire need of education and jobs. Instead of being treated like a vote bank, a mindset cruelly responsible for the steeply deteriorating respect for the freedom of expression in the country, they would be much happier if the government can provide them with a semblance of self respect by opening avenues of progress instead of bending over backwards every time a fringe group that does not even represent 5% of the community starts kicking and crying in the name of hurt sentiments.  
One can only expect that the government recognizes the apotheosis of intolerance that the society has achieved and takes stringent remedial measures in order to restore an atmosphere of vibrant and level headed debate in the public sphere of the country where the power of brains instead of the power of lungs and numbers is recognized and heeded to.