It’s an odd paradox. We profess ourselves a rising world power, we extol our new self-confidence and young aspiration, while simultaneously we also get better at playing the victim: whining and raging at anything that might challenge our beliefs about how superb we actually are—whether it’s an article in Time magazine poking fun at New Jersey’s immigrant Indians, or a serious work of literature or art that raises questions about our capacity to treat one another decently, or about the sexual blamelessness of our heroes and goddesses.
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Outsiders are left to conclude that we Indians are hyper-literalists, unable to see the joke or ironic twist where it’s intended, incapable of distinguishing an artistic work from the world. That, of course, is not the case: In the cage match pitting Indian irony and discernment against, say, American irony and discernment, I’d place my money on us. What we have is not a deficit of humour or perspective, but a talent other nations lack. We’ve turned the habit of feigning outrage into a national art.
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This art is underwritten by canny interests. Nowadays, as we seek the wink of profit wherever we look, the taking of offence and the playing at victimhood have become a source of handsome rewards—especially in the political sphere.
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Our increasingly unequal society, and our continuing absence of social safety nets or a functioning government, produces real victims and genuine tragedies on a daily basis. This victimhood is not commercial; it’s a civil catastrophe. But our newspapers fill up with the pretend victims instead: those citizens gravely wounded by the celebration of Valentine’s Day or the term “slumdog” in a movie.
As the psychological affliction of victimhood spreads and is eagerly embraced by groups across our society, it undermines our capacity to think and speak straight, whether about art or religious practices or our shortcomings as a nation. This is so not least because the public authorities who are supposed to guarantee our freedoms of speech and expression—elected politicians, the courts and their enforcing agencies—have perfected an over-solicitousness to the growl and bluster of any and every offended group. The general presumption is that the offended are in the right.
On the force of this presumption, we’ve lost our understanding of the basic purpose of free thought and its expression.
Historically, the emergence of arguments vindicating the right to free speech was based precisely on the recognition that ideas and their expression would unsettle us. Mockery and satire, realism and argument, and even insult, were effective in puncturing the pomp and certitude of accepted orthodoxies and beliefs. If the possibility of free speech didn’t cause social and political ripples, why ever would it need some of the finest intellects—Milton, Voltaire, John Stuart Mill, Tagore—to defend it?
Lately, we seem to think that free speech is a contingent, grace and favour grant from government or from the various religious groups in society. Thus it’s essential to recall the outlines of free speech’s defence—for the validity of that defence is universal and vital to us today as we try to make ourselves new and find a place in the world.
There are two basic and in my view irrefutable arguments for free speech. First of all, permitting free speech is the only credible position for any society that accepts a view of the world which holds that there are truths still to be found and invented by human beings. That’s to say, we need free speech desperately, unless we believe that all truths have already been discovered in the distant past. But if we accept that there are truths still to be discovered and imagined into being through human experiment, then such new truths can only be found or invented if we leave individuals free to think and say new, unexpected, sometimes scandalous things.
The second basic argument is rooted in a view about human identities and their expressive, creative qualities. This view recognizes that individuals experience the world in different and idiosyncratic ways, and that some of us have the capacity to express that diversity in powerful forms. The non-conformity of imagination, and its systematic expression, is what distinguishes humans from other beings. To express our individual perspectives, and to do this without feeling fear, is what keeps us in the game of being human.
It does not follow that freedom of expression must never be curbed. That would be as meaningless as to say that free speech should never offend.
All speech, including free speech, depends on rules: rules that set certain limits. The tricky questions cluster around where these limits should lie. In a liberal democracy, such limits are set by human judgement—not by divine prescription or proscription. As such, these rules and limits are discretionary and subject to contest and dispute—they are and always will be a potential source of deep contention. It follows that setting and revising these limits must involve a process of public debate—based on reasoning and deliberation, and not the result of immediate responses to street violence. Three major institutions can encourage such deliberation—the media, the arenas inhabited by elected politicians, and the courts and its enforcing agencies. Of the three, two are failing us: elected assemblies, and the courts.
The courts have the burden of responsibility to protect free speech, and their overall record is dismaying. They have been too ready to minister balm to the hurting sentiments of any group that thrusts itself forward—banning, censoring, and even interfering in the content of artistic and scholarly work. The rationale generally offered is that such measures are necessary to preserve public order. But the ironic corollary is that public disorder is now regularly provoked in order to pressure courts to ban and censor. Cause and effect are neatly reversed. The public order argument, therefore, is most often a canard.
In fact, we indulge in so much false outrage—about how a book, a painting, a film, degrades our suddenly vulnerable and pitiably impotent gods and heroes—that we are numbed to what is truly outrageous in our social arrangements.
All beliefs command a certain political respect—they should be heard. But let’s be equally clear that not all beliefs are equal, nor should they all be shown equal respect in intellectual or moral terms. Some beliefs are correct, others are false; some are better, others are worse. To think that the belief that widows should be burned on their husband’s funeral pyres stands on a par with the belief that all young girls should be educated, is morally repulsive and intellectually stupid.
But how are we to find this out, how do we come to evaluations that lead us to reject some beliefs—even if they are embedded in religious world views—and to embrace others? Such matters are not to be found out by consulting holy books or scriptural authorities; nor by polling the offended sentiments of religious believers.
We like to think of ourselves as argumentative, as debaters welcoming of diverse views and energized by confrontation. In reality though, what passes for argument is melodrama: shouting past one another, whether in Parliament and state assemblies, in TV studios, or at a railway counters; or else a timid refusal to really engage at all, a cowardly deference to “sentiment”.
The truth is, we’re not very good at tolerating views that question, mock or subvert our accepted beliefs—especially if we happen to be able to describe these as our religious beliefs. This collective chippiness—which makes us boastful and seeking the approval of others, but unwilling to take their criticism or questioning—is not a conducive psychological precondition in favour of free speech.
Add to this our bedraggled political and legal infrastructure for the defence of free speech. First, Article 19 itself, the constitutional provision explicitly concerned with free speech, is hedged with restrictions. Five clauses pull back the right affirmed, in the name of “the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency or morality or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence”. It’s something of a false friend to liberty of expression.
Second, politicians and the courts loudly proclaim the infinitely tolerant capacities of our religions, while simultaneously lending support to their every intolerant assertion—close down that exhibition, beat up that film-maker, burn that book, because it ruffles our beliefs.
Do we have in fact consistent rules, applicable across belief groups (religious or not religious), about what constitutes offence, and how this should limit free speech? If a self-proclaimed spokesperson of Hindu, Muslim or Christian sentiment can claim offence, shouldn’t a non-believer—agnostic, atheist—equally be able to move courts to restrict religious groups from expressing certain views? In a liberal democracy, protections (and restrictions) for all deeply held beliefs must conform to an equal standard; religious beliefs have no special priority over other beliefs, for example, the belief in artistic or scholarly integrity.
And yet over the past decade or so, the freedom of artistic, scholarly and journalistic expression has received steady attacks. Some of India’s most distinguished minds, imaginations and public voices have been the targets. M.F. Husain, Deepa Mehta, Taslima Nasreen, Ketan Mehta, Arundhati Roy, Romila Thapar, Ashis Nandy, Anand Patwardhan, Rakesh Sharma, the young Vadodara art student Chandra Mohan, Shilpa Shetty, Nandita Sen, Aamir Khan, Mallika Sarabhai, the American historian James Laine, S.Z.H. Jafri, Mallika Sherawat, Khushboo, Vijay Tendulkar, Habib Tanvir, D.N. Jha, Mahesh Bhatt, Shabana Azmi, Y.D. Phadke, Salman Rushdie, P.V. Narayanan, Vikram Seth, Jose Periera. The roll call of those attacked and intimidated, in what we like to celebrate as our “argumentative democracy”, is sobering.
Add to this attacks on social practices and lifestyles: women in bars, couples in public, and those exercising marriage or sexual choices. Cinema halls showing certain films have been bombed, works of art and galleries attacked, newspaper and TV offices trashed, leading research institutes vandalized.
The assaults are in part attributable to class resentment at newly risen economic groups experimenting with so-called lifestyles. But the violence is also an expression of anxiety over change, and particular the changing role of women—which carries implications for the family—so often the last bastion against the expansion of personal freedoms. The attacks also and perhaps above all draw on the infinite Indian capacity for political opportunism and profit-taking. The ability to discover offence, to set oneself up to harass such “offenders”, and to mobilize popular fury against them, have become skills essential to mustering support for political purposes.
That such attacks have become a habit is now seriously undermining our most fundamental freedom—to think, live and define ourselves as we choose, and to honour the right of others to do the same. That freedom is enshrined in Article 21 of our Constitution—“No person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to procedure established by law”—and is the cornerstone of our personal liberty. It is on this that we might build a more robust infrastructure in favour of personal freedom for all Indians.
If we cannot allow criticism and deflation of our certitudes and beliefs, we remove the possibility of reasoning about how to change ourselves—and of change itself. We’ll have to bear the costs of such social stagnation internally, as well as externally, in a world bemused by our simultaneous desire to be accepted as equal to any other society and our defensiveness about our local brutalities.
Still, ultimately, it’s not the negative consequential effects of overly restricting free speech that trouble me—it’s the fact that, more than 60 years after we gained our collective freedom by severely provoking and offending the British, we are still not free as individuals to paint, to film, to write, to imagine the world as we feel moved to. What, then, was the point of struggling to create a free society?
Sunil Khilnani is the author of The Idea of India and is currently working on a new book, India in Search of Wealth and Power.
Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org