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.
A friend of mine, Mint contributor Salil Tripathi, recently drew my attention to a wonderful poem by Amit Chaudhuri. The poem, called The Writers, was based around “constantly mishearing ‘rioting’ as ‘writing’ on the BBC”. It began: “There has been writing for 10 days now/unabated. People are anxious, fed up.” And so on. You get the drift.
Chaudhuri’s poem felt especially apt given the events of the last couple of weeks. In this time, our cops and politicians have forgotten the difference between rioters and writers. Rioters came out in Kolkata to protest a writer’s words. It was the writer who then had to run around, evading accusing eyes and fingers. Eventually, it was the writer who apologized for her words—the rioters haven’t yet apologized for their actions. Indeed, it could be argued that the rioters have won—as they do every time.
This isn’t just about Taslima Nasreen and Islam. Three states in India banned the recent film, Aaja Nachle, because members of a particular community felt insulted by a line in one of its songs. (“Bole mochi bhi khud ko sonar hai.” Go figure.) On Tuesday, BBC reported that “a local Sikh leader” in “northern UP” filed a case against Anil Ambani because sardarji jokes were circulated on mobile phones using the Reliance network. The report didn’t mention the law involved, but I’m guessing it was Section 295(a) of the Indian Penal Code, which makes it a crime to “outrage religious feelings or any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs”.
A few months ago, a gentleman filed a case using Section 295(a) against Ravi Shastri because his religious sentiments were offended by Shastri’s statement that he enjoyed eating beef. In March this year, the Mumbai Police arrested the publisher of The Santa and Banta Jokebook for hurting Sikh sentiments. In April, a case was filed against Liz Hurley and Arun Nayar for having a Hindu wedding that allegedly “malign(ed) the spiritual sanctity of Hinduism and Indian mythology”.
In May, some BJP goons barged into the Fine Arts Faculty at Vadodara because some paintings displayed there by a student had offended them. They manhandled the artist, abused faculty members and other students, and then the police came in to restore normalcy. They arrested the artist.
Ironically, it is the BJP, whose protest at M.F. Husain’s work forced the painter to leave the country, which is defending Nasreen’s right to free speech now. That is politics, and quite what you’d expect. On the one hand, the BJP will stand up for anyone who offends Islam, but will jump on anyone who might offend them. On the other hand, we have pseudo-liberals who defend those attacked by the BJP, but not those who offend Islam.
The concept of free speech has become a political tool, not a principle to fight for, as groups across India take offence randomly to show their clout and rally their supporters. Worryingly, such competitive intolerance, as blogger Nitin Pai once termed it, seems to find support in civil society.
Outlook magazine recently carried an interview of Nasreen where she was asked accusatory questions that reflect a common viewpoint. “(F)reedom of expression at what cost? Does it give you the right to hurt religious sentiments? It is a fact of life, isn’t it, when you choose to write about a subject such as religion, you are going to raise hackles?” It was as if the writer was responsible for the violence caused by the rioters. It was like a rape victim being accused of wearing provocative clothes.
Similarly, Karan Thapar, perhaps being deliberately provocative in an interview with Arundhati Roy, asked her if it was acceptable for Nasreen to offend “beliefs which for tens of millions of Indians, maybe for hundreds of millions, are sacred”. His question implied that the these beliefs were so flimsy that they could be shaken by one woman’s words. Should true believers take offence with Thapar then?
A mature democracy ignores the wail of the mob and protects the rights of the individual. America’s First Amendment set the benchmark. Christopher Hitchens stays out of jail despite describing the author of the Ten Commandments as “a mad despot”, and Richard Dawkins is unmolested on book tours after calling the God of the Old Testament “a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully”. Giving offence is not a crime in the US, or free speech would becomes subject to politics, and thereby meaningless.
And yet, in India, politicians run to the courts or the government like schoolkids running to their teacher after recess shouting, “Teacher, Teacher, Chintiya called me Motoo. I’m offended.” Really, what is wrong with us? We haven’t just let Nasreen down recently, we’ve let ourselves down as well. In India, it now seems that the sword is mightier than the pen.
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Also read: Don’t Insult Pasta.
You can browse through all my columns for Mint in my Thinking it Through archives.
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Update: Nitin Pai explains why supporting free speech is not just a matter of principle, but a practical necessity.
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