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About Amit Varma

Amit Varma is a writer based in Mumbai. He worked in journalism for over a decade, and won the Bastiat Prize for Journalism in 2007. His bestselling novel, My Friend Sancho, was published in 2009. He is best known for his blog, India Uncut. His current project is a non-fiction book about the lack of personal and economic freedoms in post-Independence India.




Bastiat Prize 2007 Winner

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19 March, 2007

“Ban jokes on the internet?”

I have often written about how giving offence in India is treated as a crime, but it’s being taken to a ridiculous extreme now. The Times of India reports:

Buoyed by a successful campaign against a publisher of joke books, members of the Sikh community have now approached the Mumbai police to block any form of humour on the net targeting them.

The cyber cell department of the crime branch has received a plea asking it to “ban jokes on the internet” which portray Sardars as objects of ridicule.

The article goes on to tell us that a gentleman named Ranjit Parande has been arrested under Section 295-A of the India Penal Code for publishing The Santa and Banta joke book. I have written before (1, 2) that, like so many much of the antiquated Indian Penal Code, Section 295-A should not exist. Let me reproduce it here in full:

Section 295A. Deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings or any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs

Whoever, with deliberate and malicious intention of outraging the religious feelings of any class of [citizens of India], [by words, either spoken or written, or by signs or by visible representations or otherwise], insults or attempts to insult the religion or the religious beliefs of that class, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to [three years], or with fine, or with both.

Note that this is a non-bailable offence, and I suppose I should be glad to be a free man given that I am an equal-opportunity religion basher. Isn’t it ironic how those who show the most hubris about their Gods are most insecure about the damage that mere words can do to those Gods? Tsk tsk.

Or perhaps I should look at this as an opportunity and demand that The Flying Spaghetti Monster be incorporated as an official protected deity by the Indian government. Pastafarianism is no less worthy of protection than any other religion. No?

(Link via breakfast conversation with Manish Vij.

Comments are open, but if you insult the FSM, I shall make sure you pay for your words!)

Posted by Amit Varma in Freedom | India

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Comments

Does this mean an end to sick Sikh jokes

#1   Posted by Toe Knee on Mon, March 19, 2007 at 3:28:56

“ban jokes on the internet”


yeahrite.

do they even have any clue how dark and deep the interweb is?

btw, has the comment bubble burst, or is it just “trial period”?

#2   Posted by you.knw.who on Mon, March 19, 2007 at 3:49:54

Ew. Toe Knee, watch it, they’ll be banning puns next because Punjabis are offended.

#3   Posted by Amit Varma on Mon, March 19, 2007 at 3:50:56

you.knw.who, just trying out comments for a while on the urging of readers. If it starts to eat into my blogging time, I’ll discontinue it. If it adds value, I’ll leave it open.

#4   Posted by Amit Varma on Mon, March 19, 2007 at 3:56:09

Someone is being generous with comments, eh? The joy:)

Hmm. While I genuinely support ‘Free speech’ and ‘Freedom of expression’ I feel that having no checks and balances in place is something utterly unpragmatic. Even NYC banned “Nigger” a few weeks ago. You think that’s gonna make people stop using the word? No. But it gives out the message that it isn’t quite alright to use it.

Also, Sikhs are rallying together not to defend their “Gods” per se. They are monotheistic! I believe it is not so much about religion but the insult to their collective identity which is making them protest. And the fact that they have the power to do so.

The issue here is the constant ridicule the stereotypical Sikh identity faces in the majority of India. 12 O’clock jokes and the like can be heard from Kashmir to Kanyakumari, pardon the cliché. The intentions may not be malicious, but the outcome can be pretty humiliating, depending on an individual’s sensitivity.

Not only Santa-Banta, but all ethnic jokes can be potentially hurtful. All you to have to do is ask a ‘Madrasi’ living in the North or a ‘Tam-Bram’ living in TN. Or a ‘Bhaiyya’ in Mumbai. Or a ‘North-East’ guy in Delhi. Sikhs, however, have also faced persecution for long. I don’t need to remind you of 1984 and the Punjab problem. Khushwant Singh said he felt like a Jew in Nazi Germany during the 1984 riots. Thus, it is understandable that they feel marginalized by Santa-Banta joke books. Not because they can’t take a joke. I grew up as a Hindu-Brahmin in Punjab and most Sikhs have a really good sense of humor. I have even cracked a sardar ji joke when I was barely 10 (and was not aware of political correctedness) at a family friend’s (who’s a Sikh)wedding reception. Everyone in the party laughed. But when you are a minority, let’s say Sikhs in Mumbai, you tend to be more protective of your identity. And rightfully so. Because if you don’t grow up with a certain group of people, the stereotypes you have regarding them persist through life.

Nevertheless, I agree that Sec 295-A is outdated. Much like most of Indian Penal Code. It should be updated to include ethnic groups as well, along with religions:) Till the Indian society has matured enough to utilize the freedom extended to them in a positive manner.

#5   Posted by Abhinav on Mon, March 19, 2007 at 4:11:37

I’m continually offended by the sight, sound & words of our politicos. Are they going to be banned from speaking & writing as well?

#6   Posted by Just Mohit on Mon, March 19, 2007 at 4:12:38

@Amit:

Punjabis != Sikhs :)

In fact, the majority of Punjabis are Muslims and Hindus.

Also, comments don’t have to eat into your blogging time:) Pretty please?

@Toe Knee:

Sick Sikh jokes! Lol..The joy of alliteration. Reminds me of the first episode of Mind your Language.

Now that comedy show is definitely a definitive guide on how to pull off ethnic jokes tastefully. Too bad it got banned:(

But you can watch it over here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6wfCBoKekPk

#7   Posted by Abhinav on Mon, March 19, 2007 at 4:23:03

Abhinav, you want the scope of 295-a expanded? You write, “Till the Indian society has matured enough to utilize the freedom extended to them in a positive manner.” And you want bureaucrats passing judgement on what kind of speech is mature enough and not?  Horrors.

And my Pun on Punjabi has nothing to do with Sikhs, that’s a separate reaction to Toe-Knee. I’m half Punjabi myself, so I’d know, no?

#8   Posted by Amit Varma on Mon, March 19, 2007 at 5:04:54

I find it hard to believe that you continue to read TOI despite finding the appalling number of writing mishaps, as you care to point out. Finding something worthwhile to read in that ‘news-daily’ is an exercise in futility.

#9   Posted by Kunal Talgeri on Mon, March 19, 2007 at 5:27:45

Just Mohit, great point.

Kunal, I agree. It’s inertia. It comes everyday to the house, one picks it up…

#10   Posted by Amit Varma on Mon, March 19, 2007 at 5:39:58

@Amit

-I was merely jesting about 295-A’s scope being extended…I think you didn’t notice the smiley!!! But still I feel that such a law should be toned down and not revoked.

Btw if you think 295-A’s tough, and if you don’t already know, in Singapore they actually jailed a blogger because he had a anti-Islam blog called the Second Holocaust.And another one for posting disrespectful Jesus pics on his blog…Now that’s tough..Haha..

-Ok that was my bad ...I felt you were replying to the Sick/Sikh pun but the Pun/Punjabi one escaped my senses. Was trying to pay attention to the lecturer instead!

#11   Posted by Abhinav on Mon, March 19, 2007 at 8:20:45

Good article.  FSM may take off in India.  But lets make the monster vegetarian - Jalebi Devta.  The Jalebi Devta must be a fear inducing god - like the rest of them. A false reference to it can be made in the Ramayana.  Then assign a day of the week for fasting for the Jalebi Devta.  I am sure all the Halwais would become ardent followers.  I am not kidding - its possible!!

#12   Posted by Siddharth Chhikara on Mon, March 19, 2007 at 11:17:45

Abhinav, I should have noticed the smiley. But really, oppression in other countries doesn’t justify oppression in ours!

Siddharth, that is a stunning idea. I will be a devout follower of this new religion of yours, and any weight problems I then have shall have a sanctity no gym shall be allowed to defile. Immense joy slurps.

#13   Posted by Amit Varma on Mon, March 19, 2007 at 11:28:37

Your idea of oppression amuses me. Immense joy slurps indeed:)

#14   Posted by Abhinav on Tue, March 20, 2007 at 2:25:20

Mirriam-Webster defines ‘oppression’ as “unjust or cruel exercise of authority or power”.

Perhaps you believe that a publisher getting arrested for publishing a jokebook is not an unjust exercise of authority. Perhaps you believe that Section 295(A) is itself not unjust, and thereby oppressive. And clearly you have no issues with free speech being suppressed. Joy!

#15   Posted by Amit Varma on Tue, March 20, 2007 at 3:28:42

It is indeed pathetic that such blatant curbing of the freedom of expression is prevalent in India.I see that you like humor Amit..you should check this out…

http://saddamshangover.blogspot.com

i tht th book was funny

#16   Posted by John on Tue, March 20, 2007 at 3:43:33

Comments don’t have to eat into your time.
:)

It could be interesting seeing this from a slightly different sense of perspective ...

There are a billion deluded idiots living in this country, maybe more. You get this one instance of someone filing a suit under said archaic law. To start talking about threat to freedom of speech in, to put it mildly, gathering opinions and second opinions on immediate corrective surgery because you happen to have discovered a pimple on your otherwise flawless butt. No?

Appropos the sentence that you start with - you can demand a right to give offence only when those that you wish to give offence to, reserve the natural right to take offence ( and we know what follows thereafter ). The point is that you cannot demand one sans the other. And anyone who has any little experience of public administration would know better than entertain such a thought.
:)
Its a bit more prosaic that you would like it to be, I’m afraid.

#17   Posted by KK on Tue, March 20, 2007 at 9:06:21

Comments policy: Disagreement and debate are welcome and expected, but please be civil. Anything remotely abusive will be deleted, as will off-topic or personal comments.

Interesting, would you not agree - in light of this law that you reproduce ...

Section 295A. Deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings or any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs

I would not like to dwell upon your rights to moderate the nature of interactions here. It is just that the above law ( its meaningfulness is a different matter all together which I am not debating ) could be construed as a ( duly ) scaled-up extension of your policy. No?

#18   Posted by KK on Tue, March 20, 2007 at 10:08:35

kk, 1, the law covers all billion people. It’s not a pimple, it’s the whole damn butt. And anyone who reads my blog regularly, or the earlier pieces I’ve written on the subject, would see that such instances are not an exception. Today’s papers are full of some jokers who want a ban on 300.

I have no issue with people taking offence. But you don’t ban free speech because of that. I am offended by a lot of things, but I don’t demand that they be banned.

#19   Posted by Amit Varma on Tue, March 20, 2007 at 10:10:48

KK, your analogy is completely off. This website is my private property, and I set the rules for interaction here, in the same way that I decide who enters my home in Andheri. I am not trying to monitor your speech in the public domain, or what you write on your own website. There is a huge difference there, the same way you have freedom of movement in public spaces, but cannot simply enter anyone’s house.

#20   Posted by Amit Varma on Tue, March 20, 2007 at 11:27:39

you can demand a right to give offence only when those that you wish to give offence to, reserve the natural right to take offence ( and we know what follows thereafter ).

People should have the right to both, yes. But expression should not be regulated just because someone finds something offensive. Because somebody is usually by offended by almost everything somebody could say.

#21   Posted by Hemant Kumar on Tue, March 20, 2007 at 3:50:35

<i>Today’s papers are full of some jokers.

#22   Posted by KK on Tue, March 20, 2007 at 5:21:59

Today’s papers are full of some jokers…

Precisely.
It might be pertinent if someone were to, somehow, dredge up the statistics on the number of lawsuits filed under this particular law, for example, over the years. And the number of times such an application has been held by the Courts. And if any growth has been witnessed w.r.t. growth and diversification of Indian media. It might also be interesting if such statistics were to be contrasted with the rates at with which lawsuits against, for the sake of analogy, celebrities ( in the US ) might have increased with growth and penetration of entertainment media in its diverse forms. The point that I make is that added visibility to such cases does not mean that they may have necessarily multiplied with time in this country. And therefore, it is not something that you take very seriously so much so that you start worrying about threat to free speech ( in the manner that you, or a select minority, feel inclined to define it ). If the law were indeed draconian in that regard, would you not concede that the prime amusement / occupation of people in this particular country at least would have been, as Hemant subsequently implies, filing such lawsuits against all and sundry.
:)

... your analogy is completely off.
I wondered if you would raise this issue. It gets a bit more involved than merely segregating off property and space as private.

Assuming, nevertheless, that you own your house / this blog and therefore set the rules for the entry / nature of interactions therein through your own administration mechanisms.

You may have missed the point I made about scaling-up of such an administrative policy, to the form of a ( not universally applauded ) law governing interactions amongst citizens in a country such as this.

Putting it coarsely, the people ( or the vast majority who are not, as yet, worried about lack of freedom of speech ) who own this country have set in such an administrative mechanism, which ( albeit not very effectively ) regulates their interactions to a minimum of friction amongst themselves.

I am sure you will agree that not everyone who lives ( or will live ) in your house does not have to agree with you about “your” particular set of ingress/egress rules. With kids ( for example, if you decide to have them ) - you may find that the rules might have to be bent to accommodate their requirements / disagreements as they grow up. And maybe the same for your wife / parents. Legally you may be the “man” of the house.
:)

The law is simply a bunch of people saying ( or having said ) that - we are all agreed that, in all public spaces, you are free to say anything to each other till such time you start getting at each other’s throats and creating unnecessary work for us ( other than whatever else that we have to do ) - which, also, we may not be equipped to handle. And so, on these particular matters, since they are the most troublesome, you shall kindly refrain from making your personal views public.

The type of punishment is merely publicly perceived deterrent - credible, if you take it seriously.

#23   Posted by KK on Tue, March 20, 2007 at 5:23:49

KK, a friend of mine almost went to jail under 295-a, so it is not that distant to me. In any case, restrictions on free speech go far beyond 295-a, and are all around us. For example, it is not legal for me to buy Satanic Verses or see the film Paanch in India. There is no western film I can see in India that hasn’t been chopped in some way. The very existence of a censor board reflects that.  Barriers to free speech are all around us, and increasing. Of course, we’re far better than China or Pakistan, but that is no reason to be smug.

And I object to your phrase “the people who own this country.” We are, thankfully, not a communist state. The government does not ‘own’ my blog, for example, and has no business regulating what I write on it. Or what a publisher publishes from his printing press. And so on.

In any free society, private property must be inviolable. If you don’t believe in that, well, that’s your point of view, and I’m not surprised you’re not too bothered about free speech!

#24   Posted by Amit Varma on Tue, March 20, 2007 at 5:46:14

Ok this is going far beyond it was intended to…So the winner is:

Amit 1 , KK 0!

Simply because the private domain has to remain inviolable and to think otherwise is really sad. Just think of the consequences of that first before supporting it.

As for 295-A, I seriously think it is oppressive to try and contain free speech, though not doing so can have its share of drawbacks as well. A balance needs to be struck and like always, it is really hard to decide where the fulcrum shall lie.

Under UN’s declaration of human rights, restrictions to free speech are allowed if the purpose is to respect of the rights/reputations of others and for the protection of national security among many other things.

If Sikhs feel that Sardar ji jokebooks are disrespectful and damaging to their reputation then perhaps free speech indeed needs to be restrained. If a law exits to do so, all the more better. But still that doesn’t mean it is quite alright to throw the jokebook’s publisher in jail, although he should have been more discerning as to what should he allow to be printed or not.

Free speech, and to the extent it must be curbed, is one of those pitless bottom kind of topics. Inconclusive. Much like any debate about ethics, the supernatural and UFOs, of course.

#25   Posted by Abhinav on Tue, March 20, 2007 at 8:45:55

Abhinav, I can only assume you’re joking.

#26   Posted by Amit Varma on Tue, March 20, 2007 at 8:56:26

I concede to Abhinav’s score-keeping.
:)

Having got that out of the way, we seem to be seeing things from directionally opposite views. You would like private property to be inviolable, the individual to be above all, and free speech to be the basis for public discourse / interaction. Correct me if I am wrong in assuming so ...

Why do I get the feeling that it is as utopian as the communist ideal?
:)

I would not wish to debate the worthiness of all these conditions. However, a few things present themselves ...

1. You seem to demand that these are conditions that you begin from. I may offer that these are where you arrive.

2. It is a rather interesting country. It is difficult to imagine any other where such people manage to live and, at least, hope to thrive under such conditions. I suppose there must be as many cultures as there are individuals.
:)
Regardless of lack of civic sense, almost each one of the citizens has some notions / dreams of how this big nation thing should be. It would be condescending to them if I were to believe that - if “free speech” ( as I may desire to define it ) were not amongst their present list of worries, it is indicative of how primitive the nation thing is and how blinkered / inegalitarian they might be. I would like to believe that, with all their beliefs and prejudices intact, they are worthy of regard, as any other citizen of any other country.

3. With the situation being as it is and has been, and with some experience of public administration, it is not difficult to appreciate the simple utility of such laws - as someone else indicated and in the context of an increasingly fractious society, they are effective if intelligently implemented.

So if it is not legal to buy a copy of Satanic Verses then don’t buy it. Would that be such a great deprivation for this life? And then again, there are a lot of us who have managed to acquire our own copies in whichever manner that we have and we are not particularly stressed by the lack of legal sanction for such acquisitions. I do not see any particularly bothersome inhibitor for my sense of freedom.

I mean, assuming that you have seen what you may have and read what you may have - have you been under any particular threat for having done so? I am not sure too many of us have.

The law might seem draconian, but the machinery allows for a great deal of Laissez Faire in its implementation.

Why do I get the feeling that you seem to be merely making such ( pardon me ) noise about free speech is because you would like in letter what already exists in spirit ( give or take the odd aberration, a billion plus is a big number )?
:)

#27   Posted by KK on Tue, March 20, 2007 at 10:02:53

KK, I’m not into scorekeeping!

You’re right about where I’m coming from. But that’s hardly utopian. The US, for example, has exactly the kind of protection of free speech that I’d want. I absolutely envy their first amendment. They’re not economically nearly as free as one would like, but free expression certainly is protected there, relative to India.

#28   Posted by Amit Varma on Tue, March 20, 2007 at 10:20:35

Assuming is a bad habit, Sir. Also, I have rested my case earlier itself.

Except one last thing. Just like there is no free lunch, there is no free speech as well. There’s always a catch (read 295-A). Whether the catch is good or bad is really a matter of opinion.

Good night + looking forward to a new post:)

#29   Posted by Abhinav on Tue, March 20, 2007 at 10:27:27

“Just like there is no free lunch, there is no free speech as well”????

Isnt there a big difference between these two? Putting these two on par is a really bad analogy.

A “free lunch” requires two participants, the beneficiary and a victim.

“Free speech” does not require the involuntary participation of any victim.
 
People are free to ignore the person who exercises his right to “free speech”. 

But no one can ignore a person who wants to exercise his supposed right to a “free lunch”. Such a person will demand that somebody give up his own lunch so that he can exercise his right.

#30   Posted by Sunil Joshi on Wed, March 21, 2007 at 2:36:19

:)

The word “secular” has interesting connotations in the US and in India.

One is neutrality towards and independence from religion. There is no space for religion(s) in their governance, or so I would assume, and equal disregard for as many varieties as there are. I also assume the underlying logic is that religion is their citizens’ private opiate, if addicted.

The men who drafted and framed our constitution were west-educated and spoke / wrote English with a felicity many of us now would have a hard time trying to muster. It is curious how and why they have redefined secularism in the Indian context - read that the State recognises religion, its social / cultural / historical significance in this country, and guarantees equal regard for any and all of them.

It would be patently immature and stupid of me to believe that they had no clue as to what they were doing. If there be any justifiable rationale behind their doing what they have done ( which seems to be evident to the majority of its citizens, give or take a few like us who like taking potshots at them ) then the debated law is a natural consequence thereof.

I would not wish to ask you to devote any more time to this commentary. Allow me to sum it up from the perspective of someone who is ( in the immortal words of Anthony Jay and Jonathan Lynn ) merely an instrument of state policy and law, that constrained order ( however tenuous it might seem ) is a preferred state of existence to untramelled free-for-alls. Needless to say, if you explicitly guarantee free speech with no sense of consequence, you are likely to spend the rest of your life in this country trying to combat the various musculatures that diverse forces shall bring to bear in asserting themselves in an arena devoid of regulation. And, yes, it is depressing if all that you did for a job is keep mopping up the bloodshed.

#31   Posted by KK on Wed, March 21, 2007 at 8:32:40

KK, so your argument basically is that our founders must have known they were doing, let us not question them. Appeal to authority and all that. I see. with this attitude of unquestioning compliance with authority, the slaves would never have gotten free in America, and women wouldn’t have had the right to vote, among so much else.

And what consequences does free speech have that the effective rule of law, which should be the government’s primary focus, cannot contain? Most of the violence I see around me results not from the free speech of people, but through the attempted suppression of it. Can you give me a single example of “the various musculatures that diverse forces shall bring to bear in asserting themselves in an arena devoid of regulation,” as you put it?

#32   Posted by Amit Varma on Wed, March 21, 2007 at 9:08:07

:)
The old dismissal of an argument?

It is not so much as Appeal to Authority and hence “Beyond Question”, as much as it questions ( and probably dismisses ) the notion of “It sure as hell beats Me and therefore, if it can be questioned, it must be dismissed”. Actually, it is just a perspective, painfully gleaned from experience, that you do not dismiss something merely because it has the stamp of authority over it. I suppose one is past that age of being a rebel sans c(l)ause.

You see, I would like to subscribe to the notion that it is a bit difficult to find the answers to questions that make you question the very basis from which you ask such questions, namely - that thought process / professed belief / prejudice which makes you dismiss something so easily in the first place. The really tough questions are - Is there some rationale behind that which I instinctually dismiss? Does it have some element of truth and/or experience behind that? Some perspective / Vision? What was it that made them define it thus ( apart from the rather simplistic and dismissive - they were blinkered / I do not believe in it )?

Simply put, the argument is - please question them ( founders / authorities ) and try and arrive at the answers that they arrived at with the possible justifications that they might have held valid. Then, re-examine the same in light of your own experience and assess its validity ( you don’t have to believe it it for it to be valid ) for yourself. If you still feel compelled to dismiss it, question that which makes you dismiss it so reflexively.
:)
That kind of thing ...

As for example, look at media space and the presence / prominence thereof, say, H-type voices. It is free speech and that which is guaranteed, so there is every likelihood that some of those voices shall decry M-type activities. Now, either the M-type voices shall be drowned in a demographically sizeable sea of H-type voices or, if some should emerge to be heard, shall be pilloried by the H-types. M-Types take it to the extent that they can and thereafter ...

I am sure you shall agree that without the umbrella of such a law as you seek to dismiss, in the specific context of this country as it was founded, you are likely to stay confounded with anything and all else that might follow from such developments ( I hope they are not too far-fetched ).

#33   Posted by KK on Wed, March 21, 2007 at 5:41:47

Entertaining thoughts / ideologies / beliefs contrary to personal instincts does not mean that you have to accept them as permanent members of your house.

You do not have to like them or believe in them. If they visit, you greet them well and treat them well too. It would be churlish of me to slam the door in their faces ( though I might reserve such rights ) just because I don’t like their features.

Getting to know them better necessarily allows for dealing with them just as effectively, if I may so submit ( and who knows, I might just be able to persuade them to undertake some plastic surgery for my benefit :).

#34   Posted by KK on Wed, March 21, 2007 at 6:03:08

Good one!

#35   Posted by My Himachal on Thu, March 22, 2007 at 7:05:14

@Sunil

Ah. Differences in opinion.

Hmm. I agree with you that Free Lunch requires two parties whereas Free Speech requires a single party.

I mean anyone can babble on about whatever they feel like. No one really cares. As long as it remains private. But to bring that in the public domain where it might have repurcussions is a different thing altogether. Thats where certain checks need to be put into place to prevent idiots from propagating their views.

Also, these checks can be used to curb positive free speech by evil oppressors which is unwanted by all means. Thus a balance needs to be attained and blah blah blah…

Why I used the free lunch/speech analogy was to emphasize that just like the word ‘free’ in free lunch is merely a dummy term which masks the hidden intentions of the one extending the offer, the same way is the ‘free’ in free speech merely a term to appease chest thumping, democratic free souls who believe they have the right to absolute freedom of speech. (Whoa. That was one hell of a long sentence.) But there is no such thing as an absolutely free speech because there are always some restrictions present. So the very notion of a ‘free’ speech is idealistic to the max.

And I also believe that India as a nation suffers from much bigger problems than the issue of oppressive free speech regulating laws.

@KK & Amit…

I guess the slugfest has finally stopped! Haha…

#36   Posted by Abhinav on Thu, March 22, 2007 at 11:29:24

Thats where certain checks need to be put into place to prevent idiots from propagating their views.

Heh. And what would the consequences of that be for you, Abhinav? :)

And KK, I’m afraid I find your last two comments staggeringly incoherent, and note that you’ve avoided answering the question I asked you in my last comment. We can do general blah-blah for hundreds of words, but give me a specific example of the harm that free speech can do. Especially that a jokebook can do.

#37   Posted by Amit Varma on Thu, March 22, 2007 at 11:46:23

Abhinav,

Blaming free speech for the subsequent violence/problems is a bit like blaming the provocatively dressed girl for her rape.

Just like you argue that a person should be careful about what he says in public, a similar argument could be made about a woman being careful in the public and not sending “wrong” signals by dressing provocatively! I am sure that you dont subscribe to this view.

Also, do remember that a law prohibiting something is always doing so at the point of a gun. Once you empower someone to make such subjective calls as “what should be allowed to be said in public sphere?”, then you can rest assured that this power will be used for all the wrong reasons.
 
This is a slippery slope and can quickly end up in more and more such “checks” being added just because someone doesnt like a particular opinion/view.

#38   Posted by Sunil Joshi on Fri, March 23, 2007 at 9:34:26

Staggering Incoherence? I’m afraid I must have been drunk….
:)

Before I respond to your comments, allow me to respond to Sunil ...

Just like you argue that a person should be careful about what he says in public, a similar argument could be made about a woman being careful in the public and not sending “wrong” signals by dressing provocatively! I am sure that you dont subscribe to this view.

I have been led to believe that females like to gather up advice from each other about how to dress under certain circumstances and where. That takes care of caution etc.
I am not too sure of “wrong” signals etc, but I guess the point that is made is that dressing provocatively is equated more with “risk” of “unwelcome advances”. You do not have to look for someone / something to “blame” all the time.

Also, do remember that a law prohibiting something is always doing so at the point of a gun. Once you empower someone to make such subjective calls as “what should be allowed to be said in public sphere?”, then you can rest assured that this power will be used for all the wrong reasons.

With the existence of such a law, people have still not been afraid of stretching the notion of free speech to specifically target and marginalise less-represented classes of society ( they exist, regardless of your and my disbelief in them ). If and when free speech were to be guaranteed, as Mr Varma desires, would you not contend that such forces shall continue to do and with greater impunity?

To invert the example that Mr Varma proposed, treat Mr Varma’s residence ( or its interiors ) as the domain of public free speech. If Mr Varma were not to be standing there as door-keeper, all and sundry shall enter and, sooner rather than later, you shall have battlelines drawn for ownership / squatting rights for his TV room, kitchen, master bedroom and so on. You cannot evict any of them, only investigate / proceed against instances when entry has been denied to someone ( again as Mr Varma proposes ).

The only employment for the state machinery in that kind of a domain shall be that of an overseer who makes sure that no one is turned away from the door and is required to send in housekeeping teams to clean up after every instance of violence therein.

Does it seem too far-fetched?

Mr Varma, I hope this places your need for an example and response to your question, to rest.

To be very succinct, allow me to state that the notion of “free speech” as you desire it to be, acquires meaning only when two conditions are satisfied :-

I. When the domain itself is uniformly bland and featureless ( no specific area / sub-domain offering particular advantage against any other ).

II. When there are no egalitarian anomalies in respect of the various people who enter the doorway i.e classless society.

Till such time that you satisfy these two conditions, it is not gubernatorially prudent to remove the gatekeeper from his post.

You could always argue that such conditions would be speedily met by removal of the gatekeeper than otherwise. I submit that some element of protectionism must exist, maybe just to prevent the house from being damaged. Treat the law in question as just that means of keeping the interactions within the house from escalating into name-calling, communalisation and free-for-alls for dominance, not to talk of bloodshed.

It is just a scaled-up version of the niceties that you observe across your favourite coffee-table ( with the people you have allowed in ). If someone offends you / some others, I have no doubt that you shall either kick him/her out or debar future entries. No?

#39   Posted by KK on Fri, March 23, 2007 at 6:08:12

KK, private property and the public domain are two entirely different things. If you do not understand that basic principle, there is no point in arguing with you.

Sunil, your point is well made.

#40   Posted by Amit Varma on Fri, March 23, 2007 at 6:32:27

Be that as it may ( maybe another subject for another debate? ) - assuming the two things are very different, the inversion of the example still retains its validity, if I may say so. ( Your dismissal of the same on the grounds that you have, leads me to think that its import may have escaped you - please rest assured, I have no intentions of taking your dwelling away from you and handing over to the goons . Incidentally, if your house be your castle, then you ought to be able to defend it yourself without demanding that the state bother to do so, if under threat. No? Never mind ).

Mr Varma’s House / Apartment is the public domain ( for the sake of an easy to visualise analogy and for definition
of a space ). Ownership of such space is not of much consequence ( taking note of Mr Varma’s fear of communism, we shall not dwell on this aspect ) - assume it belongs to all and none.

The apartment house with its unique type of geometry provides for stretching to accommodate as many voices ( and musculatures ) that choose to enter ( some of whom may reside therein without claiming ownership ).

The gatekeeper is the Law. Treat it as an embodiment of the principles of civilisation - one of which, now under
debate, is that you shall not insult or offend another’s religion / class etc while within. One reason for such a
law is that it is common knowledge that these people would prefer slavery to giving up their divinities / class
distinctions. The second is that such matters naturally escalate into violence and bloodshed ( we have history on our side ). It is also common knowledge that I can probably get away with abusing another man’s mother on the road within his earshot but not his religion / class / caste / tribe / state. ( Hence no law against abusing mothers and sisters etc but one against you know what ).

I am sure you are capable of fleshing out the analogy further and see where you arrive, in the interests of maintenance of law and order. ( Or civilised / witty / intelligent coffee-table conversations for that matter - Are they possible if people were to feel free to offend each other ignoring social niceties ? )

This particular law provides some breathing space for the offended. At least they can afford to find a vent for their sense of being wronged ( no matter if they may be wrong ). If you allow for offense while taking away the right of people to feel offended and appealing to the state for intervention - you shall, willy-nilly, have them taking matters into their own hands ( which seems to happen anyway - but it could only be much worse ).

Mr Varma, the freedom of speech that you talk of of, at the moment, does not exist anywhere ( it is all subject to
some local regulations ) - it is as much a figment of your imagination as the communist ideal for others ( as I said earlier ).

And that, my dear man, is the gist of the whole argument. This time, allow me to note, that you have no answer for
the problem of order. As some idiot philosopher noted not some time ago - you cannot have freedom without
responsibility for its consequences.

The kind of freedom of speech that you speak of, is possible only with Anarchy, which, worthy as it might be in its own right, is most certainly not our present context ( though it tries very hard and not very well :).

#41   Posted by KK on Sat, March 24, 2007 at 8:22:26

Mr Varma, the freedom of speech that you talk of of, at the moment, does not exist anywhere.

As I mentioned on this thread, I’m quite happy with the freedom of speech the First Amendment of the US Constitution provides.  They’re doing pretty well with it…

The US also has a decent rule of law, which takes care of offended people taking matters into their own hands, which you ludicrously seem worried about. You don’t need to ban free speech for that.

#42   Posted by Amit Varma on Sat, March 24, 2007 at 9:14:51

I knew the US would, once again, be brought in to the picture. It seems our very existence must be defined with that reference.

If you were to have paid attention to my comments, you would find two distinct characteristics that set the two nations apart - one, is their respective histories and society / demography as they have evolved; two, the very definition of “secularism” in either constitution.

And therefore, I have made sure that I use the term “context” when speaking of law and/or people.

Ludicrously worried? You bet, it’s part of my(!) job to do the mopping up - unlike yours to create the mess in the first place.
;)

And, may I submit, given the considerations that WE do enjoy a relatively free sense of speech and activity in this context, that it is your fear ( that such freedom is being increasingly threatened ) that could be construed ludicrous? May I also suggest that your blogging on this subject tends to raise the ( reasonable? ) doubt that you may be tending to be alarmist than merely alarmed.
:)

Apropos “offended people taking matters into their own hands”, do you realise what you are asking for? You would like for some people to offend anyone and anything that they please without the fear of facing retribution. ( Any idea how many and of what shapes and sizes of people shall jump into the fray here? The mind boggles at the thought ). And then you also would, concomitantly, take away the right of people to feel offended and seek legal recourse to that? And finally, you propose to institute a law that purports to prevent them ( the offended ) from taking matters into their own hands?

And, you would have us believe that people will come to terms with something like that and keep quiet and go about their businesses? In this context? I’m sorry - but someone needs to explain the meaning of “ludicrous” to me, as understood by you.

Incidentally, Mr Varma, have you ever tried to control a mob / militants which has / have been baying for your blood, with or without the use of force? It is interesting what happens to notions of law and freedom under such situations.

I wish you a nice and long blogging career, secure in your apartment, away from dealing with such realities. If perchance you were to contemplate a change of context to your residence, do let me know. I shall endeavour to reach through my professional contacts to assure you of acceptance as a US citizen, no questions asked.
( I hated putting this last line in, avoiding it through the entire thread of comments, but this time it was difficult to resist )

#43   Posted by KK on Sat, March 24, 2007 at 10:27:01

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Free_speech

Not that I am vouching for its accuracy or impartiality, but merely as something that lends credence to the statement that you refuted in your last comment.

The joke book case above is probably an aberration. Or maybe this was the particular case when some of the Sardars felt that it was too much.

The point that escapes a lot of us individualistic libertarian bloggers is that most ( I use the qualifier guardedly :) of the people this part of the world, tend ( are free? ) to cultivate and juggle a multiplicity of identities and selves, some with local consequences, some otherwise; not like us with our simple triad of I, Me and Myself { Pardon me, but even if some of us were to be thinking of Others, it would be more like what do I think of others. Yes, such a construct has its advantages and its own disadvantages and I shall neither debate it nor take a position on it ). Whether you like it or not, whether you believe in it or not, that is what it is and you would be well-advised to make space for it and effectively interface with, if you are to live with it.

You see, if you were to argue that they are free to ignore what you do in your sense of your personal space, they could just as well argue that you are free to ignore what they do in their sense of their personal space, not launch, what might be construed, assaults on them in the public domain. It is probably easy to define what your sense of personal space is, but not theirs. And so it gets tricky. And so, while you resolve these issues, you recognise that the most significant identity that is likely to come into conflict is that of the religious, probably seconded by that of caste. And hence the placeholder law.
You are free to offend each other any other way that you like - its all cool.

And then, if you still need to exercise that particular aspect of your freedom, there is nothing that stops you from getting creative about it, in a way that ensures the continuance of such freedom.
I notice that you aren’t doing so badly yourself.
:)
Is someone threatening you?

There is a reason why I asked for progressive statistics on the number of cases booked under the law and the number disposed off summarily without injury to the defendant.

#44   Posted by KK on Sat, March 24, 2007 at 12:02:14

KK, my last reply on this thread. You write:

And, may I submit, given the considerations that WE do enjoy a relatively free sense of speech and activity in this context, that it is your fear ( that such freedom is being increasingly threatened ) that could be construed ludicrous?

This jokebook case is not an isolated incident, and I’ve written about other such recent instances in my WSJ Op-Ed, Fighting Against Censorship.” You’re free to be in denial about it, of course!

You write:

You would like for some people to offend anyone and anything that they please without the fear of facing retribution.

Yes. Indeed, every single thing you say is potentially offensive to someone, and to stop the possibility of offence is to stop speech altogether.

You write:

And finally, you propose to institute a law that purports to prevent them ( the offended ) from taking matters into their own hands?

Laws against violence already exist.  Do you need a special law to stop a mob? And you also ask, “have you ever tried to control a mob / militants which has / have been baying for your blood, with or without the use of force?” Well, who’s asking you not to use force against a mob? That is precisely where you should use force, not against writers and film-makers and people who tell jokes.

Also, the example you gave earlier was not an example at all, but a thought experiment that conflated private property with the public domain. Unless you don’t care about the sanctity of private property, it serves no purpose, and illustrates nothing.

Comments are now closed for this space.

#45   Posted by Amit Varma on Sun, March 25, 2007 at 1:49:34

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