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Business News/ Opinion / Columns/  Vir Das, Kangana Ranaut and a big failure on freedom of speech

Vir Das, Kangana Ranaut and a big failure on freedom of speech

We have ‘two Indias’ that are so divided that neither seems to understand the value of a basic liberty

A file photo of Vir Das (Photo: Reuters)Premium
A file photo of Vir Das (Photo: Reuters)

There is an India where a large number of people cheer stand-up comic Vir Das for revealing the Janus-faced nature of his country. Das praises the India that is inclusive and critiques the India that is splintering. And at the same time, this group is appalled that actor Kangana Ranaut can ridicule India’s freedom struggle by describing what happened in 1947 as a mere act of British charity towards an India begging for freedom.

There is also another India where a similarly large number of people (to be fair, in India, any group is by definition large) express outrage over stand-up comic Vir Das ‘insulting’ his motherland before an international audience, which goes on to applaud him. Indians abroad are meant to act like Vivekananda, the Hindu thinker who in 1893 spoke at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago, mesmerizing his audience. (The group praising Vivekananda forgets that the philosopher actually called for religious tolerance and an end to fanaticism, a message similar to Das’s). That other India then loudly lauds actor Kangana Ranaut for telling the bitter truth about India’s freedom struggle because, in its view, the relevant turning point in Indian history was 2014, seen as Year Zero.

Those two Indias can barely stand each other. The former yearns for a liberal, inclusive, secular India that is committed to democratic ideals and is proud of its non-violent struggle, its culture of unity in diversity, and which believes that India today is staring into the abyss. The latter is tired of what it describes as ‘pseudo-secularism’, seen to have kept India in a dark valley; it is convinced that India is at last on the ascent as it wraps itself in jingoistic, virulent nationalism, and considers those who disagree with its world view ‘anti-national’, offering a grotesque caricature of fascist movements worldwide. Those two Indias coexist, wanting firm action taken against the other. As citizens of the republic of hurt sentiments, neither side seems to understand the value of free speech.

To be sure, we are like that only. Works of art, films, books, forms of music, lyrics, jokes, cartoons, advertisements and messages forwarded on social media have all evoked the wrath of fury. Canvases have been slashed, film theatres attacked, books banned or burned, a stand-up comedian has been arrested on the mere assumption that he might say something offensive even before he had a chance to get on stage, exchanging cartoons or even liking them online has led to prosecution, ads have been yanked off after an eruption of outrage, and in some horrific instances, writers have been murdered. The country swears by freedom of speech, but it cannot guarantee freedom after speech. Say something that might offend someone, and the state, whose job it is to protect human rights, will likely ask the speaker to shut up; it won’t tell the one who claims offence to do something else, or to read or watch something that offends him less.

A mature society would laugh at Ranaut’s hilarious assertions while she was being interviewed by a fawning TV personality who describes herself as a journalist. Their performance perhaps proved the adage that the meek shall inherit the earth. That Ranaut spoke in all seriousness the very week she got a civilian award from India’s President only shows the tolerance the country has developed for poorly-informed opinion. And yet, some aggrieved Indians filed police complaints against her, giving wider, undeserved currency to an expression of profound ignorance.

But the other India wasn’t going to be denied its part in the fun. Not only were old misogynistic remarks by Das trotted out to show what a bad boy he has been, two activists of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) reportedly filed complaints against Das for insulting the country. They usually take their cues from their leaders: In February, when the popular singer Rihanna and climate activist Greta Thunberg criticized India’s farm laws, foreign minister S. Jaishankar evidently saw it fit to slam their remarks instead of ignoring them. This isn’t just an affliction of the ruling BJP; leaders and activists of the Congress, All India Trinamool Congress, Shiv Sena and various incarnations and versions of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagham, as also political parties of the Left, have all shown little tolerance for views that are critical of their leaders or ideas.

Feeling offended is a trait that unites most Indians and the list of what cannot be said gets longer by the day. Writing about the Emergency of 1975-77, columnist Behram Contractor, who wrote under the pseudonym Busybee, said there were only two safe topics left that were worth writing about: mangoes and cricket.

Given the vituperative flak that Indian cricketers Mohammed Shami and Virat Kohli received after India’s poor performance at the recent T20 World Cup, even cricket is no longer safe. Quite so. After all, in his famous non-political interview of 2019, actor Akshay Kumar asked Prime Minister Narendra Modi if he liked mangoes, and whether he had them cut, or preferred them unsliced. Such is the level of permissible discourse in a country where a comedian is yelled at for some truth-telling and a performer hailed for confusing fiction with fact.

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in New York. Read Salil’s previous Mint columns at

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Published: 24 Nov 2021, 10:06 PM IST
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