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Justice Katju recently put up on his blog some points for consideration on Freedom of Speech. I did think it is vital for there to be a robust debate on Freedom of Speech and introspection on what it means.

There needs to be space created to look at different perspectives and implications for us as a country. Toward this end, I am writing this post as a continuation of a dialogue he has initiated. Please read his post here, since mine is a response and has that post as its context.

The overall message I got from that post was “but”. Seeing as how a “but” renders irrelevant what comes before it, I think it is important to realize that when we say “Freedom of speech is a good thing, but it must have restrictions” For practical purposes, it ends up meaning “Freedom of speech must have restrictions” in the same manner as “I would like to attend your party, but I am too busy that day” means “I am too busy to attend your party”. The rest is our “cushion” to make it sound more palatable.

In that sense, I see this post as a robust recommendation of several restrictions of speech. I don’t see this as a wrong thing to consider. It is a perspective on this whole “what to do about freedom of speech” debate gripping our public space and as long as there are people for whom this holds value, it must be considered. We are a democracy after all, and how we manage our public space for the well being of all must consider the interests of all.

My perspective on this matter is wholly different, as regular readers here know, and you can find out by reading a few old posts. To summarize the same in new words, my view is:

Reasonable restrictions

We have laws as a country to keep us safe. Our laws do cover for situations of causing another harm or even things like incitement and so on. If free speech does violate them, there is absolutely nothing wrong in this person being punished for it. And indeed, free speech never aims to advocate breaking the laws of the land. Our constitution provides free speech. Our laws provide safety. Subjugating both to a discretionary opinion of one person or a group of people – which in essence it is when we speak of things like offence, decency, morality, etc – is an insult to both. It limits the promise of the constitution, and it discredits our laws as adequate for the protection of our interests and gives arbitrary authority to diverse views in an already polarized environment. It is no secret that all ambuguity is dealt with by using a different, more primitive law – that of the jungle – might is right.

So in essence, keeping the question of whether free speech should be allowed open to arbitrary opinions does far more damage than allowing full freedom of speech would, because it takes away the question of legality altogether and leaves people to interpret “appropriate” to taste. For example, it is offensive to me for a woman’s character to be spoken of in a way that excuses violence against them in the name of modesty. Should I get a right to restrict all debates on the clothing or lack of it because of misogynist, crime excusing and thus offensive speech? Is my womanhood a matter of less respect than someone’s religion that some fictional character is more important to protect than actual crimes being done against our women?

We have far more crimes against women than religious crimes. Why is only a lens of religion the appropriate one in determining dangers of Free Speech? In our entire history and partition violence included we have more violence against women in our history than inter-religion violence provoked through free speech. Why must free speech protect rights of some and not others? We are the fourth worst country to be a woman in and categorically the worst to be a girl child in. Yet where are the reasonable restrictions on free speech that could save lives on an hourly basis? Dalits are far more victimized than Muslims. Why no free speech when economic fundamentalists speak of them as free loaders and thus invoke contempt and hatred for them for “unjustly pilfering resources in times of inflation”? So, why not apply those rules here? Why this selective silencing? Is it possible to protect everything and create an unsaid right to never be offended?

Never mind that. Let us talk about religion and Freedom of Speech and people’s rights. Where were these reasonable restrictions on Freedom of Speech, when Darul Uloom – an organization representing Indian Muslims and speaks on their behalf (or claims to) and asks to Saudi Arabia for a ban on Ahmedi Muslims for the Haj pilgrimage? Are India’s Ahmedi Muslims not entitled to this favor from the reasonable restrictions on Freedom of Speech to ensure their rights? Would such a statement from say – Narendra Modi – be accepted? So it is not about what is said. It is about who said, and who it is said about too. And thus we begin to divide India between citizens and those who are apparently more citizen than citizens.

Don’t want to delve into it, because imagination will give you endless examples how it is simply impossible to regiment an entire country into not giving offense. The bottom line is, right wing organizations have conditioned us to this manufactured expectation – that there actually is in the constitution something called a “right to take offense”. Darul Uloom, Deoband, Hindutva organizations, a few smaller fundamentalist organizations. That is it. The sum total of religious outrage and silencing that rules an entire country. And the Congress, which uses Free Speech to purchase minority votes.

What can be done?

I submit that it is BECAUSE of the potential for arbitrary authority over another that violence happens. Because arbitrary authority gets validated, and then when it doesn’t happen, it is seen as deliberate deprivation that needs to then be corrected with own efforts. If Freedom of Speech is upheld, then rioters being arrested and fined will lead to riots dramatically going down, the sanity of that method itself coming under question. Which I think would be a better direction for the country.

There would instead be far greater opposition and criticism through media, works of writing and so on. This adds to the country’s capacity to understand each other. Understand what makes another angry instead of simply labeling them as touchy oppressors using selective definitions of Freedom of Speech to hound others. The space for dialogue and reconciliation becomes possible if the violence threatening it is unconditionally squashed and the right of those words to exist is upheld, because then they invite more insightful ways of rejection too.

I don’t know the stand of the law and state and the preferences of the government, but I would definitely prefer newspapers having cartoon wars over various religious figures than burnt buses and killed people. But this space needs to be upheld impeccably for those precedents to be created. As long as violence rules, this is not possible. And as long as violence finds justification in its target being questionable under law, many people will be willing to blur those boundaries. Those boundaries need to be crystal clear. That will never happen as long as we use subjective definitions.

But how can people be protected at all then?

Ban ad hominems. Ban attacks on individuals, because they violate the individual’s rights. A much more respectful place for a country to aim for. If I don’t like someone, it should still be illegal for me to say “XYZ is a blah blah blah”, though it would be fine to say “ABC action of XYZ is blah blah”. An example that takes out most of the psychological sting of attacks. That should take care of any actual attacks in the guise of Freedom of Speech (which are actually currently perfectly legal – watch election campaigns) – which really drive conflict.

About “worthy” exceptions

It is interesting that Justice Katju brings up several important names as being worthy contributors to society and thus could be exempted even if they offended. Among them are names I absolutely love. Thomas Paine is one. This man has a bulls-eye idea on democracy. That instinct. Bone deep anchoring in human values, that makes every idea come out true to them. A person whose works must be included in text books to spread ideas worth thinking. His pamphlet “Common Sense” advocated the freedom of America and was so widely influential, that John Adams said “Without the pen of the author of ‘Common Sense,’ the sword of Washington would have been raised in vain.”

I find it particularly interesting that Justice Katju says he would make an exception for Thomas Paine even if he offended people, because when Thomas Paine died, six people reportedly attended his funeral, because he had been ostracized by the Church for his criticisms of Christianity in another pamphlet “The Age of Reason”, which argues against institutionalized religion.

Hindsight is twenty-twenty. Would a Thomas Paine living in India now be allowed to publish his “The Age of Reason” without being gagged for insult of religion or “Agrarian Justice” without being gagged as some anti-Capitalist (and thus Communist/Maoist) piece of writing or must we find a time machine for deciding who should be exempted from reasonable restrictions on their Freedom of Speech, and who must receive full freedom of speech?

On diversity

An adequate support to diversity by its very nature cannot be regimentation, because it will become too complex to protect every subjective perception. There are far more Hindus who were fine with M F Husains paintings, and Muslims who saw no reason to attack Rushdie. In allowing fundamentalists the power to hijack religious narrative, are we not killing this diversity and forcing it into an undesirable image? A diversity that is vital for a country of India – a diversity that will build much needed bridges of reason, instead of expect differences to conform to their view of the world and thus exist constantly in a state of militant frustration, because different identities can never present themselves as completely pleasing – no matter what.

What do we tell law abiding, tolerant citizens? That they don’t matter? That they could break laws to a certain extent if they wanted, that there is an exemption? Any religion. I know Hindus, Muslims, Christians – all kinds of people totally disgusted with the arbitrary and oppressive views of fundamentalists. What do we tell them? That fundamentalists must be given this right to silence in their name and their religion?

What happens in the meanwhile to my right to express my intellectual opinion that religions are stupidifying people? I can present data to prove this, but should I be silenced and the stupidity to continue unchallenged, simply because what I say is guaranteed to offend those who don’t want to hear it? Who will never consider the value I see in my observations and reject them – often without even hearing me out? Will this add to the intellectual capacity of our country and lead to better days? Will it EVER allow us to walk free out of this intolerant climate or should we simply accept that being born as Indians, we are inferior when it comes to managing diversity and we must be regimented to prevent catastrophe? Is this really at all what the idea of India is? Can Justice Katju provide one vision, where he says following these guidelines will enable such and such and thus, then this will happen and then, one fine day, we will be free of these intolerance competitions?

In the same way that covering up women will never prevent rapes, but is still recommended as a restriction of clothing, pretty much as the only solution, silencing undesirable opinions will never bring about tolerance, but is recommended as a restriction of free speech, pretty much as the only solution.

These are big thoughts with no easy answers and my view is just one of many, but we must make an effort to see beyond this curtain of religious intolerance to see how much of it is a political manufacture and how much of it is us cowing to threats of violence and choosing to restrict the non-violent.

We need to introspect carefully on the battles we abdicate out of fear of losing them and what we do to our values in the process. Without values, we are building castles of lies.

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I got thinking about this, and it has led to some pretty deep thoughts, which as usual are likely to offend all parties involved indiscriminately, so if you are easily offended, do yourself a favor and stop reading.

I have no doubt that Muslims who say Islam is a religion of peace believe it from the bottom of their soul. I also have no trouble understanding the outrage at some happenings in the name of Islam. Most people are horrified that Muslims don't condemn killing of non-Muslims. For example, the ghastly mob killings at the UN office in Afghanistan, because some obscure pastor in the back of beyond burnt a Koran. There were massive protests. It isn't like a few people quietly killed a few more people.

However, Terry Jones does make the point he started out to make - challenging this facade of Islam being a moderate religion. While I have no doubt that Muslims do believe that they are genuinely peaceful, I find that the more religious they are, the more their descriptions of peace and justice and other good values become unrecognizable, though we use the same word "peace". To many peace loving Muslims, there is absolutely nothing wrong in someone desecrating the Koran to be killed. The killers are heroes and defenders of Islam. We can't even call them inhuman, because their laws ARE different from ours and so is their spiritual guidance. Death is not something they shy from - possibly are more honest about it than the rest of the world. By our standards, this is wrong, but the part the world does not get is that they aren't applying our standards. They have not idolized life and death and sanctity and such things, which frankly, the world has idolized in claim, but does not respect. I am not calling them good or bad, but it is clear that calling a Muslim peaceful is extremely misleading, not because they aren't - they are, but because their idea of peaceful includes many things ours doesn't. And then again, it isn't all Muslims. Many have adopted western standards, so when they say peaceful, they mean it exactly like we do.

It is not good or evil. It is simply a different culture, and the faster the we accept that, the better it is going to be for the world. The middle east is not the west. In their rush to be accepting of people of a new culture, they have chosen to believe things and now they are blaming Muslims for not living up to those standards. What standards? It was never a Muslims idea to let a Koran burning go unpunished though a few may have agreed on being asked/challenged. We want to make friends of them, but on our standards - even in their country.

It is like going to some nudist beach and judging the people by their lack of clothes, or judging a cannibal tribe for eating people. Its food, damnit! I had read about a tribe I don't want to name here and they aren't cannibals anymore, because it isn't about them, but a quote remains in mind "How much more can you defeat your enemy than not just kill them, but eat them!". An utterly alien thought that makes perfect sense in a different culture. Or the outrage of the guest in another tribe to find that his dog had been considered a gift and was now on the table for dinner. The Dalai Lama is a symbol for peace, but if you read the history of Tibet and some of the nightmarish tortures that were routine punishments... There is a huge diversity of cultures, which are coming closer as the world is better connected. Even among the so called standardized "values" that are eating up individuality, we have conflicts - torture of prisoners is routine in many countries regardless of what anyone says for or against it.

Terry Jones makes an important point, that governments the world over need to consider - to stop using cliches and labels to define an entire category of people, because this leads to confusion. In India, for example, the public has mostly accepted this. We have accepted completely the reality that regardless of how things should be, we are a people who will rise to kill and die for religion, and because we don't want that, we make extra effort to avoid such triggers. Religious insults are rare and usually by political figures rather than religious leaders (not always). There is a strong narrative for respecting all religions, which holds the people to sanity and the voice calling for violence then is the jarring note. But we went through hell before we realized the value of not avenging everything.

Sometimes it fails, as it did in the communal riots (actually it was born then), or at Gujarat. Modi couldn't have done one bit of harm if people weren't in the mood to be intolerant. This was a failure to integrate that gets blamed on one man so others can excuse their own petty hates. The main reason that Gujarat could recover has nothing to do with Modi either. It is the strength of the voice that rose against those actions. AND it was the Hindu voices disowning and condemning those actions that had impact. The Muslims would have condemned of course. It was only to be expected. A clear line was drawn - this shit has nothing to do with avenging Hindu honor.

Less noticed was the outrage against Vastanvi for asking Gujarat to move from complaining to progress, but it was an important milestone for Indian Muslims. When the traditional line was outraged at this seeming pacifism, the masses recognized it for what it was - moving with purpose. Another line was drawn - don't make it a rule for Muslims to always be hostage to some or the other agenda and prevent growth.

I am not attacking or defending anything at all. I am, myself an atheist and happy to burn any book in the world, as long as I am able to reference the knowledge I want. I am simply trying to look into the factors that result in these clash of civilizations kind of scenarios.

It appears to me that our stereotypes are failing us. When one person says "peace" he may mean peace as in non-violent. Another may mean the peace of being true to your value systems. You can see how a value system that honors killing in the name of religion does not connect killings of religious offenders with lack of peace. In fact, they would probably call it making the world more peaceful by getting rid of the sinners.

By whitewashing the whole thing, we disable ourselves from seeing the bite sized chunks that can be addressed and resolved. If we were able to look at it as say "day to day functional interaction" or "country above religion" etc - the ones who are not able to do this become visible and something can be done to resolve the situation rather than making assumptions that them calling themselves peaceful means that they will accept that the Supreme Court is greater than the Mullah.

I remember reading on some "anti-jihad" variety forum, where the chief occupation of people seems to be criticizing Islam and Muslims for perfectly logical reasons repeated infinitely. There was this utterly, beautifully, delightfully naive Indian who commented something along the lines of "We all should live like brothers because all religions are equal". The thread erupted in pandemonium. There were people who called him a Muslim pretending to be a Hindu, asked him about not speaking up against extremists, terrorists, etc, convincing about the evils of Islam.... the works. I cannot dispute any of the data they brought up, it is true. However, what I found ironic was that this was a group of people blaming Islam for being intolerant of other religions bringing the roof down because someone suggested co-existence!

Reminds me of those much ridiculed posters during the cartoon riots - Kill those who say Islam is a violent religion.

We are easily outraged by the inconsistency of another, but we fail to recognize it within us. And I include me in this. I remember going to the Jama Masjid one Eid night many years ago. I wanted to see how it is. It was glorious. Wonderful. Bright lights, Happy people, much celebration, excellent food.... but, in the background, I was totally terrified that someone would find out that I was "Hindu" and "something would happen". I had never been around so many Muslims before. Thankfully, nothing happened. The friend whose house I visited teased me mercilessly about my fears, but to help me feel safer, sent her brother to escort me out of the area after my visit was done. Said brother was Muslim of course, but that's different. I knew him. Huh? Illogical.

Stereotypes have an important function in life. They give us the broad understanding on something. However, they usually fail on intimacy, as they are a generalization, and emerging individual details demolish them. Then these stereotypes become dysfunctional.

All the arguments are correct. I am not disputing the logic of anything. I am asking for creativity out here. What else can we try? How else can we define the terrorists/extremists or other wrong actions so that we don't amputate a leg to remove a wart? Are there more useful ways of achieving this merger of civilizations other than wars, judgments and ill will?

Note: I am not recommending anything at all. I am throwing in a few things that came to my mind, and asking if we can be more innovative in how we manage our shared world.