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The right to write

The right to write
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First Published: Wed, Jul 20 2011. 09 43 PM IST
Updated: Wed, Jul 20 2011. 09 43 PM IST
The doctorate in economics that Subramanian Swamy was awarded many years ago in the US may suggest that he is a rational, learned man. His article on how India should deal with terror published over the weekend in the Daily News and Analysis (DNA) shows how naïve such assumptions can be.
Swamy has been a constant feature on the sidelines of the great Indian political drama. His one great achievement was during the emergency in 1975-77, when he made a sensational appearance in Parliament (he was an MP, but in hiding) at a time when he was on the government’s “wanted” list, because it was busy jailing troublesome opposition MPs. Swamy not only appeared in Parliament, he also managed to escape after his intervention, making the security look red-faced. But since then, it has been downhill, the last week probably the nadir.
Swamy’s astonishing rant against India’s Muslim citizens in a piece ostensibly about terror attacks in India has led to protests from the newspaper’s readers. Swamy says many have written to him in support, too. A petition has criticized DNA for publishing the piece, and many want the newspaper to apologize. Don’t rule out the possibility of someone suing Swamy, or the newspaper, under notorious provisions of the Indian Penal Code, which prohibit speech that causes offence or can incite communities by spreading hatred. Such a case would be a mistake.
First, the substance: In his article, Swamy reveals not only transparent bigotry, but also offers the fundamentally undemocratic idea of creating an inferior class citizenship. Swamy lacks Bal Thackeray’s crude pithiness, he is not as funny as Praveen Togadia (to see Togadia fulminate on TV is always entertaining), and he doesn’t have the pompous, patronizing tone of RSS ideologues. But his message is as flawed as theirs.
In Swamy’s universe, unless Muslims in India were to accept certain conditions (including accepting Swamy’s interpretation about their origins), they would effectively be disenfranchised. He chides Hindu cowardice and advocates abrogating Article 370 of the Constitution, which restricts federal authority to a few critical areas in Jammu and Kashmir, and calls for a uniform civil code (which would reflect a Hindu way of life—including the “discipline” of the caste system, which he praises).
Swamy’s Hindu India will be the mirror image of the kind of countries Swamy claims to hate. For models, and where such thinking can lead, think of Idi Amin’s Uganda, which expelled tens of thousands of Indians in the early 1970s; apartheid-era South Africa, where non-white citizens could live only in certain areas, had limited voting rights, and blacks had to carry a pass to travel within a city; or a softer Wahhabi kingdom.
Not surprisingly, he has cheerleaders, and in a nation of a billion people, they may even run into thousands. But is India so fragile as to outlaw views such as Swamy’s, and let them fester underground? However distasteful his views are, Swamy has the right to express them. And an editor has the right to publish them, though his choice can be questioned, and the debate that will follow will enrich the nation. It is worth remembering that newspapers don’t publish only those views with which they agree.
Did Swamy cross a line, and does what he wrote constitute hate speech? The phrase “hate speech” has been diluted through frequent use: it is not the speech one hates or which provokes hatred, but the speech that can kill. It was defined sharply in the Rwandan case of Radio Television Libre des Mille Collines, which operated for a year during which it incited violence against Tutsis, moderate Hutus, and the international community. The broadcasts did not launch the genocide, but they contributed to what followed. The radio station succeeded because alternative voices were absent or silenced. Swamy’s article has offended many, but strong counter-views exist.
Banning “unacceptable” views will only increase their mass appeal. A banned Swamy would become an unworthy martyr, as though he were as important as Salman Rushdie, when, in reality, Swamy’s outburst is the equivalent of a post on the website Rediff’s bulletin board (although, granted, without spelling mistakes and written with reasonably correct grammar, unlike the frustrated fantasists who fight their inner demons on those bulletin boards).
If the secular, liberal, and leftist Indians want views like Swamy’s to be restricted, then the right-wing nationalists will want views like Arundhati Roy’s to be restricted. This is not to suggest that Roy and Swamy are in any way comparable, except to suggest that both arouse visceral responses of similar intensity among different types of Indians, and India is a better society if it aggressively protects free speech. Disagree with them by all means; challenge them, debate them. Don’t stop them from speaking. Otherwise, as the late Behram Contractor, who wrote as Busybee, astutely observed about the emergency, the only safe topics left to discuss will be cricket and mangoes.
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Your comments are welcome at salil@livemint.com
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First Published: Wed, Jul 20 2011. 09 43 PM IST