Free speech warriors need freedom—from dud petitions

Photo: iStock 
Photo: iStock 


By denying artists farces like signing petitions, we can get them to do meaningful things instead

I have received a mail from PEN America asking me to condemn India for jailing writers. The organization, which is older than Independent India, is a community of thousands of writers, and activists who are considered writers. What PEN America wants from me is to sign a petition, and “express grave concerns about the rapidly worsening situation for human rights in India". The “joint-letter" would say that in India, “Writers, editors, publishers and artists face a myriad of threats, including litigation, arrest, prosecution..."

The letter is addressed to Droupadi Murmu, who was sworn in as President of India in July, with the blessings of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the very organisation the petition condemns. The petition asks President Murmu “to immediately release all wrongfully imprisoned writers and speak out forcefully to protect freedom of expression."

To the request from PEN for my signature, I have written the following response:

Dear Liesl Gerntholtz,

I like PEN America, partly because they gave me an award once. However, I will not be signing your petition. Signing petitions is among the most useless things writers can do; far more useless than writing prologues and forewords. And, outside the West, this petition business is so silly that politicians find it more amusing than menacing.

Also, you should not give writers a facile option to mark themselves as good people, where they have to just sign a noble letter. By denying them the farce, the world would put pressure on them to do something meaningful instead.

I did not find anything wrong with the substance of the petition. It is true that the Indian government is using disproportionate force to quell dissent. Yet, I found it annoying. But then some reasonable things are annoying, like when a school teacher tells you how to raise your kids, or a gender studies professor tries to reform men. You may think what I am trying to say is that I found your mail sanctimonious. I did, but I am not against a bit of sanctimony in this world. How else can anyone say the right thing? The reason why your mail was annoying is that of late many of us in India have come to identify that pious Western tone with people whose humane views are a compensation for the ordinary evil inside them.

The American liberal establishment, from where many petitions to the developing world arise, is not exactly a standard-bearer of free speech. Most of you get offended easily. But then taking offence, like hypocrisy, is a fundamental right. It is what we do after taking offence that defines our class. And liberal intellectuals do destroy the careers of those who offended them. But then your point is that at least they don’t or can’t jail, maim or kill their foes. Governments can. In that light I grant that thin-skinned governments are far more dangerous than thin-skinned intellectuals. But then you try to solve a problem posed by thugs with solutions that work on intellectuals. Petition-signing, for instance.

Among the activists whom India has jailed or harassed, there are three kinds. The innocent; those who are in the grey area; and those who may have actually done something unlawful. Most of them have been incited, one way or the other, by American activism but they are not protected by American law or the heft of its extraordinary human rights edifice.

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This is the structure of global activism: sitting in safe havens, Western activists incite people in other regions to seek the joy of revolt. Developing countries jail activists, and their handlers can’t liberate them. Years pass. Petitions are signed and sent to heads of state.

Freedom of expression is a marvellous invention. But Indians never had it for as long as I can remember. Many recent petitions make it look as though the BJP has brought an end to a free society. But we were never free. It is just that the harassment is more organized, orderly and certain today. It may appear that the Indian news media has considerable political liberty and that this freedom emerges from some Nehruvian imitation of Western ideals. It is a misconception. India’s media freedom emerged from a very practical and chaotic source— reporting of political campaigns. As politicians condemned each other, and the media quoted them, it appeared that journalism could take on the powerful.

Across the world, all sorts of freedom arose this way, through collective self-interest. For instance, America was able to abolish slave trade not only because it was the moral thing to do, but also because it made business sense for one camp to destroy the unfair business advantage (of cheap labour) of the other camp.

It is possible that political self-interest can bring American-grade freedom of expression to India one day. As the government becomes more and more authoritarian, I see our political parties, which are numerous and diverse, consolidate into a moral bloc and formalize freedom of expression—what an Indian citizen can do and cannot do, and what exactly constitutes war against the state. Already, the BJP’s overuse of a “sedition" law may have triggered the abolition of that obsolete piece of legislation.

But, before all that happens, if I am jailed by my government, I encourage you to get me the best lawyers, sabotage some Indian investments in America, and raise hell, as you did against Russia. Just don’t send out dud petitions.

Manu Joseph is a journalist, novelist, and the creator of the Netflix series, ‘Decoupled’.

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