Friday, 20 January 2012

The Threat To Our Freedom & A Case To Protect It


Twenty-four years have passed since The Satanic Verses realized itself in print and needless to say, in full glory in the hands of the public before it was, to incisively emphasize, snatched away from the public purview in many countries by slapping it with a ban. However the wounds, entirely self-inflicted I must say, lie fresh on the skins of the deeply religious. Sometimes  I wonder if any of the Muslim protesters have ever even read the novel, or considered its "blasphemous" parts for once with an open, inviting mind. The latter doesn't seem likely at all, for in order for it to happen, one needs to keep his or her faith aside. One who fails to do so, make no mistake, is harboring a large incoherence, knowingly or not, in his or her world view.

That a man, who can easily lay claim to being an architect of a whole new branch of literature, is being made a part of a political plot that aims to keep him outdoors - based on "hurt religious sentiments" - is a nightmarish scenario. That Rushdie must be stopped from gracing the Jaipur Literature Festival is not only ludicrous, but hate-laden and blasphemous, if you, gentle reader, can permit me the use of the word outstripped of any "godly" or "religious" connotations otherwise deeply drilled. That Rushdie should be declined a visa was a highly ignorant proffer in the first place, so smoothly discarded by Rushdie through his tweet, "Regarding my Indian visit, for the record, I don't need a visa." However, he decided against it for the fear of having to face death in the eye swiftly arose.

The cancellation of Rushdie's visit made possible by a mere minority group - political and religious - and the silent spectators dealing in obfuscation - the government - cannot go down well as India boasts of its secular-soaked nature and being the largest democracy in the world, a proud upholder of its constitutional rights. The one question that ought to have taken the center-stage, perhaps much more important than the question of freedom of speech and expression, very aptly pointed out by Soli Sorabjee, the prominent Indian jurist, can be asked thus: Could preventing Rushdie from setting foot on the Indian soil when he was not deemed a criminal by any court of law be constitutionally accurate? The book had seen its ban twenty-three years ago, but could that amount to the author being regarded a criminal? Rushdie was not a 'criminal', in which case he could not have been blocked from entering India.

The right of a citizen to freedom of speech and expression, yet again, is requiring to fend for itself with little or no support from the upholders of the constitution, the government of India, which is now clearly open to all forms of appeasement. In recent history, when the Bhagvad Gita was slated towards a ban in Russia as it was called upon as "extremist literature," there was a large hue and cry, and an almost explosive fit of rage firmly declaring, in indignation, the labeling of Gita as a result of gross misinterpretation. The Indian government had to interfere, and hold talks with the Russian counterpart, in order to explain to them the "hurt sentiments" of the Indians in both India and Russia. The same India has been intently pro-active in banning a large number of books, including the ban on The Satanic Verses in 1988, displaying a severe incoherence in its stand towards the freedoms of speech and expression.

The blemish has also been brushed on to the lively fine art forms that are painting and cartooning. The regrettable case of M. F. Husain being driven out of India by the shameful forces of the violent right-wing Hindutva groups will be forever etched in memory as a disgrace in gargantuan proportions. He was responsible for influencing a whole generation of artists and, not unlike Rushdie, dared to go beyond the ordinary to create works of art, which portrayed the gods and goddesses in a glittering new light. However, he had to face such traumatic experiences such as to watch his house under attack by Hindu groups, and to be slapped with the unfair and pity-invoking charge of "hurting sentiments" of people. That the Picasso of India was banished in such a third-rate manner is impudent and shameful.


In a sparkling mellifluous speech on the Freedom of Speech and Expression at the Hart House, University of Toronto, Canada in November 2006, Christopher Hitchens dared, in supreme confidence, to summarize the works of John Milton's Areopagitica, Thomas Paine's Age of Reason, and John Stuart Mill's On Liberty "in one go," and here is what he said,
"It's not just the right of the person who speaks to be heard; it's the right of everyone in the audience to listen, and to hear, and every time you silence somebody, you make yourself a prisoner of your own action because you deny yourself the right to hear something. In other words, your own right to hear and be exposed is as much involved in all these cases, as is the right of the other to voice his or her view." 
He went on to add,
"Indeed as John Stuart Mill said if all in society were agreed on the truth and beauty and value of one proposition, all except one person, it would be most important - in fact, it would become even more important - that  one heretic be heard because we would still benefit from his perhaps outrageous or appalling view. In more modern times, this has been put best by... Rosa Luxemberg, who said that the freedom of speech is meaningless unless it means the freedom of the person who thinks differently"
Hitchens's arguments - in the form of the authors he quotes and explains - are now ostensibly more relevant than ever before. In the case of Rushdie or Husain, who dared to "think differently," they were banished and made to shut up, in effect, stealing our right to hear them out. The buck doesn't stop there. Not only are we blocked from, say, reading Rushdie's books or viewing Husain's paintings; we don't get to decide what we see or read or hear. Then may I ask you, as did Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., who gets to decide? To whom do you grant the right to decide which speech is harmful? Alternatively, who is the harmful speaker? The law does suggest the need for a person to decide for you. Should you accept such a law?

Consider the Danish cartoon controversy. A Danish newspaper (and other European publications) displayed caricatures of Prophet Muhammad in 2005 and early 2006. All hell broke loose after the cartoons were out, since it failed at distilling sufficient humor, one would think, to the Muslims across the Middle East and Africa, and much of Europe, who resorted to rioting, and burning of churches and embassies in the process of which 200 people lost their lives, and many were injured. Would you say that such a mass-violence was justified? The cry of "hurt sentiments" was utilized once again to cause grave damage to life and property. When Jytte Klausen decided to publish her book The Cartoons That Shook The World, the "Yale University Press decided to ask two dozen experts on Islam, terrorism and diplomacy, whether it should include the cartoons in a forthcoming book..., the answer Yale received was unanimous and vehement: do not print the cartoons," reported The New York Times. I can as much claim to be offended as the religious do when such an act as that of publishing cartoons is prohibited.

David Irving, a British historian, was arrested by the Austrian police in the southern state of Styria on November 11, 2005, under the arrest warrant issued in 1989. He was arrested in accordance with The Verbotsgesetz 1947 (Prohibition Act 1947) which, in its 1992 amendment, introduced the prohibition of 'denying or grossly minimizing the Holocaust or other Nazi war crimes,' which was the cause of Irving's arrest. Now referring back to Rosa Luxemburg's proverb, would it not be the case that Irving's right to speech, in the form of his holocaust denial, ought to have been protected? Instead, he served his sentence in a prison, only to be released in December 2006, and banned from ever returning to Austria.


Many more cases are crying to be opened up, but their services may not be required any more for my purposes right now, for I think, the point, if not already made, is mildly but surely crystallizing.

Where does one draw the line?
Who qualifies to decide when a speech becomes a 'hate-speech'?
What measure of one's speech leads to another's right to claim offense?

On making such an inquiry, I think there is none who qualifies for it. And that any form of speech and expression must be allowed for, and not gagged by certain politically-and otherwise-motivated groups.



Team OpEd said...

Like The Hindu editorials, your blog articles are getting longer by the day.. :)

Karan Kamble said...


Well.. the fire to write is setting ablaze the environs far too quickly.

Thanks for reading.