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Photo: Miles Stepto/Shimer College/Wikimedia Commons
Photo: Miles Stepto/Shimer College/Wikimedia Commons

Free speech and its overzealous defenders

It's not just conservative religious groups, but also some liberals, who seem uneasy with a full-hearted embrace of free expression in India

Almost exactly a year ago, the Wharton School “uninvited" Narendra Modi, partly because of protests across the University of Pennsylvania by those opposed to giving him a platform at the university. At the time, critics of the decision cried foul, suggesting that his right of free speech had been violated.

In response, Supreme Court advocate Karuna Nundy, and I, argued that free speech was a red herring in the debate. We wrote, “the right to speak freely implies no corresponding obligation for someone else to give you a platform to exercise that freedom".

This offers a useful parallel to the claims by some that Wendy Doniger’s freedom of expression—and, by extension, that of her readers—was violated, after her book, The Hindus: An Alternative History, was withdrawn from the Indian market.

The Wharton analogy, while inexact, shows us why these claims are wrong.

The petitioners and the publisher, Penguin India, reached an out-of-court settlement to “pulp" the book, with no legal ban. Further, Doniger is presumably free to seek a new publisher for her book in India, or make it available on the Internet, if she wishes.

Thus, let us dispose of the canard that freedom of expression—in its narrow legal sense—has been violated in this case.

However, taking a broader view, the chilling effect of Penguin India’s abject capitulation, that too in a legal system which provides far from an ideal level of protection for free expression, will likely lead to a further narrowing of the space for public discussion of controversial subjects in India.

Alas, it’s not just conservative religious groups, but also some liberals, who seem uneasy with a full-hearted embrace of free expression in India.

Liberal defenders of free speech rightly decry the circumstances under which Doniger’s book was withdrawn. But some among them overreach when they appear to suggest that legitimate debate around her work somehow lends succour to the petitioners who sought to suppress The Hindus: An Alternative History and distracts from the larger discourse around free expression in India.

Such arguments invoke the faulty logic of guilt by association. To claim, as some have, that to criticize Doniger’s work in the wake of events—or to point out that the petitioners acted within current Indian law—is tantamount to being an apologist for the obscurantist enemies of civilization, surely may carry its own chilling effect on free expression.

The fact that I’ve had to think long and hard about even writing this piece is a small piece of evidence to that effect.

Those of us who cherish free speech must unequivocally uphold Doniger’s right to put across her views and speak out against those who would attempt to curtail it.

Equally, though, sincere defenders of free speech—who do not wear ideological blinkers—must also stand up for the right of dissenting voices in the academia and elsewhere to put their arguments and evidence before the public.

To do otherwise would not only be illiberal, it would be ironic indeed.

Recall that Doniger gives her magisterial work the subtitle of An Alternative History. She implies, therefore, that her reading of Sanskrit texts is different from the orthodox, hieratic interpretations with which most readers would be familiar.

The “an" in the subtitle should not be passed over lightly. For it suggests that Doniger deliberately offers her take on Hindu mythology as one among a multitude of legitimate possibilities competing for our interest and attention.

It would seem that Doniger better understands the nature of free expression and civilized debate than some of her detractors—and some of her overzealous defenders.

Vivek Dehejia is a professor of economics at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada.

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