Excuse Me – But Can I Say This, Or …?

My mother believed in her children’s ability to make independent decisions. She saw no contradiction between that and her telling me once, “You can get married to anyone provided I approve of her!” It seems that the freedom of speech and free expression meets a similar set of conditions in India today. Suppressing speech and artistic expression is no longer a once-in-a-while event and a deviation from the norm.

It was a group of self-appointed defenders of Muslim sensibility in the state of Tamil Nadu that objected to a movie titled Vishwaroopam made by the talented Kamal Haasan. I haven’t seen the movie and so do not know what the fuss is about. All that I know is that its detractors allege that it had scenes which hurt Muslim sentiments. That was enough reason for the state government to ban the movie in Tamil Nadu, while different levels of the judicial ladder rescinded the ban, and rescinded the rescinding of the ban in a forty-eight hour time frame. Never mind that the same movie was shown in neighboring states (Karnataka, Kerala, and Andhra Pradesh) with very little to no effect on Muslim sensibilities. Things have now settled, with the Muslim groups winning – Kamal Haasan agreed to cut scenes which the guardians of Muslim sensibility found objectionable. An unfortunate outcome!

In Jaipur, of all places at a literary festival,  Ashis Nandy, a sociologist, author, and T.V. pundit had to pretzel what he meant (and later apologise) after he strung together words which, when reported, sounded like him saying that Dalits in India are more corrupt than…. It wasn’t enough to challenge him, say he was wrong, and engage him intellectually, on something he quite definitely did not mean (for a transcript of what he said, click here) – not that it should matter even if he meant it. Nor was it enough to simply ignore him. An FIR (First Information Report) was filed against him with the police on the grounds that he had transgressed the law by running afoul of the Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. So much for sticks and stones may…. To be clear, I am not suggesting that Nandy’s arguments have merit. In fact I think they don’t. What I am suggesting though is that he is entitled to his perspective, and should be able to air it without fear of reprisal if given the opportunity to do so.(For a “Dalit” response to Nandy, click here to hear Dr. K. Satyanarayana, a Dalit scholar and activist.)

While the Supreme Court ensured that Nandy would not be arrested in this instance, the court was clear as to where its heart was. As The Hindu reported on February 1, 2013, “Even as counsel Aman Lekhi began his submissions and asked the court whether a law could penalise an idea, the CJI shot back: “Why not? When an idea is not in the public interest, he can be. Whatever your intent, you can’t go on making statements. Tell your client he has no licence to make such comments.” It was not a question of an idea being punished but the manner in which it was made. “Every person has his own idea, but it should not disturb others. Statements are to be made in a responsible manner. Why do you say something which you don’t intend?” (my addition CJI – Chief Justice of India). Clearly the CJI does not believe that the only speech that needs a stout defense is offensive speech. Apparently, we all need to defer to people’s sensibilities. Furthermore, it doesn’t matter if people are really hurt by what we say; they just have to say that they are hurt, and we’ve messed up.

In Jammu and Kashmir the victims of the censoring absurdity are a group of teenage kids who put together a rock band. In a state which has been rocked (pun intended) by violence off and on since 1947 one surely thinks politicians, civil society, religious leaders, and anybody else who matter have more important things to worry about than fully clad young girls making music. But, no! A mufti (apparently the official state sponsored cleric) issued a fatwa (simultaneously translated as edict, ruling, advice, threat) which essentially suggested that music is un-Islamic, and some nonsense about Western influences and the disintegration of society. The girls seem to have succumbed to the threats and have said they will disband. The timing of all of this seems curious since in August 2012 the girls were featured on NDTV, a prominent Indian media outlet. Nobody seemed to have paid attention then when the news was positive. But now, with a fatwa, and … let’s check out what’s happening.

It seems that in this case the mufti and his message seem to have gone awry. The state Chief Minister Omar Abdullah, who by past actions and statements seems to realize that we live in the 21st century has come out in support of the girls. I predict the young women will sing again, and ironically the mufti may have done their musical careers some good.

The tragedy is, I can list a number of other cases recently where speech and other forms of expression have been stifled by self-appointed protectors of the India way. Even without scratching the surface, it is clear that parochial perspectives (often there aren’t even interests!) misinform these acts of subversion. What’s happening?

I suspect these are symptoms of a deeply insecure group of individuals and groups who seem threatened in the face of change. It isn’t that they are protecting something wonderful. When confronted with the unfamiliar and at times the unimaginable they are lashing out. They think they are losing control of a social ethos of which they were never in control. In this mix is a weak political structure, pandering to every sub-group. The pandering seems inevitable in a political climate dominated by regional, sectarian, and parochial powers and where ascension to power depends on political coalitions. Fear and opportunism stand up well to liberal values. Give me a multicultural society, social transformation at a tremendous pace, an ever changing political landscape, and I will give you an assault on values like the freedom of expression, speech, and the rights of the individual.

There’s little one can do in the short run with individuals and groups in society as they protest free speech and expression. One hopes that over time they will see that the more things change, the more they stay the same, and will back off. Or, it is possible that they will overplay their hand, and will be the victims of a backlash. However it mustn’t be too much to expect that all the organs of the state – the executive, legislative, and judicial branches – will deliver the word and spirit of Article 19 of the Indian constitution, which amongst other things delivers the right to freedom of speech and expression. I’m not holding my breath. And I wonder, will I be okay if I say that?