Free Speech

I usually write about science, the exciting new papers which come up, and occasionally on philosophy. So, why have i suddenly gravitated to writing on social policies or to say more accurately – Why do i want to question our society and write about it ?

My fellow colleagues (and me included) are all adept at talking about the philosophies of  heaven & earth,  discuss the latest transgressions of our beloved politicians over a mug of hot, steaming coffee. But the moment our coffee mugs are empty, we stop thinking about the world outside our closed walls. We go back in our small cocoons called university where we don’t think about the big, bad world outside but eat and think science.But occasionally something happens in that big, bad world which forces us to look beyond our glass domes.

The Outcry

Such an event happened this year at the Jaipur Literary Fest, considered as the biggest literary event in Asia, held annually in Indian city of Jaipur  since 2006. In a panel discussion on “The Republic of Ideas,” with IBN7 Editor Ashutosh, Tehelka editor Tarun Tejpal, famed historian Patrick French, philosopher Richard Sorabji, and sociologist Ashis Nandy, which was moderated by, Urvashi Butalia. After an interesting discussion on the “promise” of the Indian Republic and Constitution, the exchange turned to the theme of corruption and the importance of the anti-corruption protests led by Anna Hazare.

In trying to deconstruct the sociology of corruption, Tarun Tejpal argued that we need to first understand the – “corruption” of  poor and the marginalised people in the society as an essential strategy to break the shackles of the suppressive nature of our rules, regulations and laws. Further on, he marked the “so-called diverse” Indian society as deeply divided, hierarchical and oppressive, our laws and societal rules, are mostly designed to “keep out” the oppressed from having their say. The corruption of “people like us” — an elitist which has both the resources and power to undermine the politico-judicial system — often goes unnoticed, and if discovered, rarely ever get prosecuted. The crimes of the “others,” in contrast, not only get prosecuted, but also generate outrage, in part because they do not have the necessary skills to successfully cover up their corruption.

“As long as this is the case, the Indian Republic will survive,”  said Prof. Ashish Nandy replying to Tejpal’s comments, citing the example of West Bengal, which he said was the State with the least extent of corruption. “In the last hundred years, nobody from the OBCs, SCs and STs has come to power there. It is an absolutely clean State.”

These remarks led to strong reactions from the audience, and one of the panelists  Mr. Ashutosh, said it was the “most bizarre statement” he had ever heard. Some members of the audience were also quite enraged to the remarks and asked Professor Nandy to retract them. Dalit activists, later on staged a demonstration against the so-called “offensive remarks,” and a First information report was lodged by tribal activist Rajpal Meena against Professor Nandy and Mr. Roy, for which the Section 506 (criminal intimidation) of the Indian Penal Code and Section 3 (1) of the Scheduled Castes & Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act was cited . The police have started to investigate the matter.

Later on, despite Prof. Nandy’s clarying remarks saying that he was taken out of context, the media ire against him hasn’t cooled down. In giving a small summary the editor of Tehelka magazine has this to say:

Why does it matter ?

Ashis Nandy’s choice of words, phrases, and examples can certainly be questioned. He is not known as an organised and media-loving public speaker. One can also beg to differ with both his argument and analysis. For example, the way he didn’t clarify his statement by differentiating the “corruption of the poor” and the “corruption of their leaders,”whose pure neglect of rules often results in them looting the very poor who also fall into their constituents. Nevertheless, Nandy’s argument that the “rules of the game” have been fixed by the ruling, elite class to which he too belongs, which remains a highly privileged lot, and hence, the deliberate neglect of those rules is an inevitable strategy for those seeking to survive and also for upward mobility, certainly has a lot of merit especially in India, where the income gap between rich and poor classes have widened. Clamping down on such nuanced utterances and confusing statements of the kind Prof. Nandy made will only make us a poorer democracy and Republic than what we already are.

Free speech is recognized in many western developed countries as the basis of their civilization. To disagree and be offended but still defend it to death. Voltaire famously said “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” and this is also their basis for democracy. It is on this precarious and precious right does a healthy civil society and political society depend. All societies that engage in preserving ‘sentiments’ of either the oppressor or oppressed by curbing speech have failed and continue to do so. It is shameful for any politician to call for curbs on speech simply on offense, it is further shameful and immoral for a freethought humanist group to call for a curb on free speech of an individual. There has been no compelling logically coherent explanation given other than non-sequitur engaging question begging statements.

Freedom of speech by State is everything to freethought soaked society and to grow rational, humanist thinking. ‘Sunlight is the best disinfectant’ has been said in the American supreme court, which has proven to be true. A society where all ideas are openly talked about and entertained no matter how abhorrent or distatesful, is a society that improves. America has done better than India and Pakistan partially due to this openness. What Ms. Mayawati has proposed is draconian, fascist and anti-humanist. Leaving aside there is a purposeful misunderstanding of a statement taken out of context in Prof. Ashish’s speech, even without context there is no logical and humanist excuse to jail him. It will remain an anti-humanist draconian and oppressive action which will only be of harm in precedent to freethought and freedoms.

The burden of proof lies with those who wish to curb a right. There is good review of free speech and its foundational premise in building civil society in the American court decision supporting Westboro Baptist Church. Idea of anti-racism is also open to criticism, which is the reason why there are racist academics who publicly engage in racist publications such as Satoshi Kanazawa. They are fought by social and academic boycott, not by legal sanction.

ACLU is known for protecting the civil liberties and is traditionally viewed as a liberal group. One of its finest moments came in  1978. I  am quoting that incident from ACLU’s website:

ACLU defended a Nazi group that wanted to march through the Chicago suburb of Skokie, Illinois where many Holocaust survivors lived. The ACLU persuaded a federal court to strike down three ordinances that placed significant restrictions on the Nazis’ First Amendment right to march and express their views. The decision to take the case was a demonstration of the ACLU’s commitment to the principle that constitutional rights must apply to even the most unpopular groups if they’re going to be preserved for everyone. Many now consider this one of the ACLU’s finest hours.

An important matter to take a note of is that this is not the first time when the largest democracy in the world, India has not clamped down free speech, which remains a fundamental right here. A simple look intoWikipedia for free speech violation gives me this huge list:

  • In February 2009, the police filed a complaint against Ravindra Kumar and Anand Sinha, the editor and the publisher respectively of the Kolkata-based English daily The Statesman. The police charged Kumar and Sinha under section 295A because they had reprinted an article from The Independent by its columnist Johann Hari. Titled “Why should I respect oppressive religions?”, the article stated Hari’s belief that the right to criticise any religion was being eroded around the world. Muslim protestors in Kolkata reacted to Hari’s belief by violent demonstrations at the offices ofThe Statesman.
  • In September or October 2007, the police in Pune arrested four Bangalore-based software-engineers for posting on the Internet an obscene profile of Chhatrapati Shivaji, a sixteenth-centuryMaratha warrior king, clad in female underwear.
  • In May 2007, a Buddhist group in Maharashtra’s Amaravati district said their religious sentiments were hurt, and filed a complaint against Rakhi Sawant, an actress, because she posed in a bathtub against a statue of Lord Buddha.
  • In March 2007, a newspaper editor BV Seetharam was arrested under the Sections 153A, 153B, and 295 of the IPC for allegedly promoting religious hatred. He had written articles criticizing the public nudity of the Digambara Jain monks.
  • In 2007, the authorities charged ninety-one-year-old Maqbool Fida Husain with hurting religious sentiments by painting Mother India as a naked woman.
  • In December 2006, a complaint was filed against cricketer Ravi Shastri for hurting the religious feelings of Hindus by his allegedly eating beef during a Test match in Johannesburg.
  • On 2 August 2006, two religious groups in Ahmedabad complained to the police that their religious sentiments were hurt because a garment-maker had printed text from the Hindu and Jain religions on clothing. The police filed the complaint as a matter under section 295.
  • In November 2012, Maharashtra Police arrested Shaheen Dhada (aged 21) for questioning the total shutdown in the city for Bal Thackeray’s funeral in a Facebook post, and also her friend Renu Srinivasan (aged 20) for liking her post. Although no religious issue was involved, the two were charged under Section 295 (A) for hurting religious sentiments, apart from Section 66 (a) of the Information Technology Act 2000.

So, in times like these when the world is considering India to be one of the next superpowers, how can a humble budding scientist like me stay quiet and listen to the regular subversion of free speech in my country. Sometimes its done in the name of religion, caste, political figure, some old archaic customs and what not !! You name it, and India will probably ban it in the name of protecting the cultural diversity and hate speech. What it needs is to define the boundaries, limitations and definitions of hate speech. Make free speech, really FREE.

In the end, i would like to reiterate the words of Shoma Chaudhury, Tehelhka’s editor:

“What is the whole idea of Freedom of Speech, without the idea of discomfort? If we are only going to speak in ways that would make each other feel comfortable, then we might as well give up on the idea of free speech in India.”

More on this:

  1. Two women arrested for Anti-Shiv Sena comments on Facebook, government orders enquiry, Economic Times, 2012.
  2. Mumbai shuts down due to fear, not respect, The Hindu, 2012.
  3. A Forgotten History, Outlook India, 2007.
  4. India’s First Blasphemy Prosecution, International Humanist and Ethical Union, 2002.
  5. Sacred text on clothes: fashion designer booked, Nerve, 2006.
  6. M F Husain loses home over nude ‘Mother India’, Express India, 2007.
  7. Case filed against Ravi Shastri for eating beef, Zee News India, 2007.
  8. Freedom of expression under attack, The Hindu, 2007.
  9. Pune cops book Orkut user, Times of India, 2007.
  10. Editor arrested for ‘outraging Muslims’, The Independent, 2009.
  11. Indian police probe Nandy caste remark (

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