Kanchan Gupta rocks. His piece, “The Sterile Debate over Free Speech” is a keeper. Go read it all. An excerpt below the fold.
Unfortunately, freedoms that are guaranteed to the citizens of the world’s largest democracy by their Constitution are often curtailed for reasons which fly in the face of liberty. Recall how the Government headed by Rajiv Gandhi had imposed a ban on Salman Rushdie’s novel, The Satanic Verses, even before bonfires were made of copies of the book in Bradford by Muslim immigrants who would be hard put to read it cover to cover. While Iran came to the world’s notice with Ayatollah Khomeini issuing a fatwa sanctioning Rushdie’s murder, India came to enjoy the dubious distinction of becoming the first country to ban The Satanic Verses. Now contrast these responses with the reaction of the British Government. Mrs Margaret Thatcher, who was then Prime Minister, not only defended Rushdie and took on Iran’s mullah brigade but also ordered full protection for the author, including arranging for safe houses for him. And all this despite the fact that Rushdie was among the strongest and most outspoken critics of Mrs Thatcher, rarely if ever missing an opportunity to offend her and her Conservative Government’s policies. Compare that to a cussed Government of India refusing to issue a visa to Rushdie; he had to wait till 1998 when Mr Jaswant Singh, as Minister for External Affairs, struck down the dumb ‘policy’ that prevented a person to visit the country of his origin simply because he had offended those who hadn’t even read The Satanic Verses, including the Left-liberal commentariat.
We could cite numerous other examples of the Government and other institutions of the state bending over backwards to appease the easily offended by circumscribing the liberty of those who believe in free speech and freedom of expression. Few would remember today a celebrated — and controversial — case of 1985 when a petition was filed in the Calcutta High Court, seeking the judiciary’s opinion on certain passages of the Quran which were quoted verbatim in the petition. The judge who heard the case waxed eloquent on faith, made high falutin comments, and dismissed the petition. Later, the petitioner, Chandmal Chopra, along with popular historian Sita Ram Goel, published the court documents, including the petition, as a book. Chopra was arrested; Goel was declared an ‘absconder’. In more recent times, a huge mob of Muslims attacked Statesman House in central Kolkata in February 2009, claiming their sensitivities had been hurt and faith defamed by The Statesman which had reproduced an article by Johann Hari, “Why should I respect these oppressive religions”, from The Independent. The newspaper’s editor and publisher were arrested; they had to issue a groveling apology.
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It serves little or no purpose to say this today, but those who are shedding crocodile tears for MF Husain, lamenting that he was ‘forced’ to leave India and live his last years in exile — he insisted his departure was voluntary; there are suggestions he fled on being told of an imminent inquiry into money-laundering and tax-fraud by some big corporate houses facilitated by him — were stunningly silent when free speech and freedom of expression were being ruthlessly trampled upon by the state, its agencies and institutions, denying others the same right which they believe the artist was entitled to. A prominent Bengali newspaper which has been extremely acerbic in denouncing Husain’s critics forgets that it dropped Taslima Nasreen’s column rather than risk the ire of goons who can’t even spell her name, not even in Urdu.
But two wrongs don’t make a right. Husain chose to offend Hindu sensitivities while exercising his freedom of expression — whether he did so wittingly or unwittingly is a matter of irrelevant debate. The correct response would have been to ignore him. After all, this is the land where Charvaks have preached that there’s nothing divine about religion, that the authors of the Vedas were “buffoons, knaves and demons”. A close scrutiny of Swami Vivekananda’s writings and speeches would show he often militated against conventional wisdom. The Bengal Renaissance, or the Awakening, was more about repudiation than endorsement; the Brahmo Samaj found a place within the larger Hindu samaj despite its rejection of everything that the Hindu orthodoxy stood for. We really don’t need to compete with those who teach their children that “Jews are apes and Christians are pigs”, as is taught to toddlers at King Fahd Academy in Acton, and believe that Hinduism is not worthy of recognition as either a faith or a way of life. They are worthy of neither emulation nor applause.
Freedom of expression is a non-negotiable basic right, in my opinion. So I have written quite a bit on that — see these posts.