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Business News/ Opinion / Views/  We face a bonfire of hypocrisies over the freedom of expression

We face a bonfire of hypocrisies over the freedom of expression

An episode of offensive remarks and sharp reactions exposed self-serving adherence to key principles

People protest against Nupur Sharma (recently suspended from BJP), over her alleged remarks on Prophet Muhammad, in Ranchi on Friday (Somnath Sen)Premium
People protest against Nupur Sharma (recently suspended from BJP), over her alleged remarks on Prophet Muhammad, in Ranchi on Friday (Somnath Sen)

Too often, when people say they believe in freedom of speech, they mean their own freedom of speech. Discomfort begins when others exercise their right too, and their speech sounds offensive. Insincere free speech champions are those who take offence over what they don’t like, but reserve their own right to be offensive. They want freedom only for themselves.

This is glaringly obvious in India. Many like to swear by freedom of speech and blame Jawaharlal Nehru for the Constitution’s first amendment, which placed “reasonable restrictions" on freedom of expression. It wasn’t only Nehru who believed such curbs were necessary; he was guided by Constituent Assembly debates and his colleagues Vallabhbhai Patel and Babasaheb Ambedkar were among many who saw risks in allowing unbridled freedom of expression.

Following the brouhaha over Nupur Sharma and Naveen Kumar Jindal’s careless remarks on TV and social media, many Bharatiya Janata Party supporters, including a parliamentarian, have cast the two as free speech martyrs. Let us be clear: they have the right to hold their views and express them. But as an employer of their services, the BJP has the right to suspend or expel them, as India’s ruling party has done.

But the BJP’s stance does not come across as principled. Had the Islamic world not reacted so sharply, Sharma and Jindal would likely have remained in office. Her effigy would probably still have been hung, she would have received threats, some Muslim clerics would have roused their followers, protests would have erupted and stones pelted, and in a state that often goes by rule by law rather than the rule of law, bulldozers would have razed Muslim homes in disregard of due process.

But Sharma and Jindal had to be benched because the Gulf states, on which India relies for energy and remittances from around 8 million Indians of all faiths who work there, took umbrage and this may have had economic consequences. And when they asked India to apologize for Sharma’s and Jindal’s irrational exuberance, the government dropped them like hot potatoes, calling them “fringe elements", even though Sharma, in particular, was a nightly guest in Indian homes, attacking the BJP’s opponents in vituperative language on TV networks and yelling over opposing voices, egged on by pliant and ratings-hungry ‘news’ anchors.

Perhaps the BJP thought nobody would pay attention except global organizations that would downgrade Indian democracy, for which the party could blithely challenge their methodology, or a Western foreign minister who could safely be ignored. But the Gulf states were different; when they objected, the ruling party’s confidence was shaken.

This is a bonfire of hypocrisies, reminding us that freedom of speech has consequences. If you say something that’s highly provocative, there will be a response. The reaction may be unfair and seem unjust, and could be wrong, but there will be a counterpoint.

The response may even be hypocritical. Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE are not democracies. They jail writers and dissidents; some among them are tortured. That is abhorrent. The real question is why is India so eager to please unelected governments while overlooking the US Secretary of State who had also criticized India. Does India believe in ignoring democracies and prefer kowtowing to powerful dictators?

Some government supporters have criticized the Gulf states’ hypocrisy by pointing out how Qatar made the renowned Indian artist M.F. Husain its citizen after he left India because of the hundreds of cases filed against him since he painted a few Hindu deities in the nude. How could the same Qatar be outraged over Sharma’s remarks that pious Muslims considered blasphemous? Without comparing Sharma’s intemperate vocabulary with Husain’s elegant artistry, the issue is not Qatar’s double standards, but India’s own fall from grace. Why did the brightest star of Indian art no longer feel at home in India? What drove him away from a land where the mind was supposed to be without fear?

Sharma and Jindal have got off lightly; a suspension here, an expulsion there, which can be revoked once people forget about the episode. After all, the BJP is a party with a heart large enough to welcome so many Congress leaders who had been critical of the party. Think of its latest acquisition, Hardik Patel. Sharma and Jindal will probably be back.

To be sure, the Gulf states, and indeed other Islamic countries, are hypocritical. Their long silence over widespread discrimination against Muslims in India since 2014 was eloquent. Think of the lynchings, laws like India’s citizenship act which discriminates against Muslim refugees from the neighbourhood, the national registry project, bans on prayers or wearing hijab, restrictions on conversions and marriage, the pointed razing of homes, the habitual refusal to grant bail, and proscriptions on beef consumption and selling meat in some areas. All of this was apparently deemed just a matter of India’s internal affairs.

The lesson for India? Don’t act at home as if the world isn’t looking. There are windows. These are made of see-through glass that isn’t sound-proof. As the late British columnist Bernard Levin wrote once, those who live in glass houses should undress in the dark.

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in New York.

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Published: 15 Jun 2022, 09:53 PM IST
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