Photo: AP
Photo: AP

The outrage brigade

Freedom of speech is not only the freedom to say things others like, but also to say things that might offend others

It requires a peculiarly warped moral compass for a loud part of society to outrage over the inconsequential and to ignore what is shameful. And yet, India managed to do it rather spectacularly this week.

First was the utterly disproportionate response to comedian Tanmay Bhat’s Snapchat recording, in which his face morphs into those of cricket icon Sachin Tendulkar and renowned playback singer Lata Mangeshkar. In the mock conversation that follows, we see Tendulkar feeling hurt because Mangeshkar believes Virat Kohli is a more talented cricketer. The clip itself is sometimes funny, sometimes silly, and in the grand scheme of things, forgettable. (In the age of the Internet, we are no longer famous for 15 minutes, as Andy Warhol once said; some are famous for 15 seconds.)

Granted, Indians are broad-minded and inclusive in their taste and readily sanctify individuals as “God", as has happened to cricketers, film stars, assorted sadhus and sadhvis and politicians, not necessarily in that order. Thus, what followed after the Bhat clip got widely distributed by the electronic equivalent of word-of-mouth was that the outrage factory took over. Anupam Kher, reminding us that he is a comic actor (I think his best role was when he marched to the Rashtrapati Bhavan protesting against writers who returned their awards), was shocked by the disrespect shown to Tendulkar and Mangeshkar. Predictably, political parties stepped in, and some worthy turned up to file a complaint with the police.

Given the huge amount of latitude that India’s colonial-era laws grant those who claim to be offended, and the lip service the state offers those who wish to exercise their right to free speech, the outcome of that complaint is pre-ordained: summons from courts in distant towns, television shows in which “the nation" will demand “to know" how such material can be made public.

And I wouldn’t be surprised if Bhat is forced to express some contrition. The outrage brigade will then focus on its next target. As my friend Tunku Varadarajan quipped: “If only the British had given India their sense of humour, instead of their sense of bureaucracy..." Or, for that matter, if only India had borrowed from Britain its 20th century freedoms instead of retaining 19th century laws.

There are three problems with the Bhat episode. One, which is rather obvious—Bhat’s right to speak is being disregarded completely. Freedom of speech is not only the freedom to say things others like, but also what might offend others. This does not mean everything that’s said and which is offensive is worthy—but who is to decide?

The second problem is the assumption that individual heroes cannot be criticized. It is nobody’s case that Tendulkar was not a great cricketer. But when he got a larger stage—as a parliamentarian—he has been quaintly quiet; he has not spoken out on issues of national significance, nor about the mess that is India’s cricket administration. And while Mangeshkar’s singing pleased generations of Indians, such is her power that few are willing to say openly how hard she made it for other female singers to build their careers. Several singers’ careers (Vani Jayaram, for example) were brief and they only got occasional gigs because mainstream music directors simply wouldn’t call them. Why would that be? But, ah, gods and goddesses work in mysterious ways.

Three, it isn’t as if there aren’t cases for Indians to outrage over. Consider the story of Nisar-ud-din Ahmed. As Muzamil Jaleel describes in a moving story in The Indian Express this week, sometime in mid-May, Nisar stepped out of jail in Jaipur after the Supreme Court acquitted three men of all charges, setting aside their life sentence.

They were arrested in 1994—22 years ago—after five bomb blasts on trains on the first anniversary of the destruction of the Babri Masjid. Two passengers had died and eight were injured in those blasts. “For me, life is over. What you are seeing is a living corpse," he said upon his release. His father fought hard for his release, but he died while Nisar was in jail. “I am thankful to the Supreme Court for giving my freedom back. Who will give my life back?"

The tortuous turns his story takes makes for depressing reading. Picked up by Hyderabad police from Karnataka, Nisar was being accused of various blasts at various places, and his custodial confession was being used to convict him. Anti-terror laws were used liberally then, and Nisar’s lawyer, Nitya Ramakrishnan, said that the alleged confession was “the beginning and the end of the case". With no other evidence, the Supreme Court ruled the earlier conviction “completely unsustainable".

It is nobody’s case that terrorism should be taken lightly. But it is astonishing that a case relying solely on custodial confession—itself controversial—went this far and stole Nisar’s youth. Want to outrage? Here is that case: cry, the beloved country.

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London.

Your comments are welcome at salil@livemint.com. To read Salil Tripathi’s previous columns, go to livemint.com/saliltripathi

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