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Feb 04th, 2012
FinePrint: The Joust In Jaipur

Do we need a more nuanced, more mature perspective on free speech?

Ranjeev C. Dubey

Even though the putative purpose of literature is to show us the true nature of reality, the tamasha at the Jaipur Literature Festival compels us to ask if litterateurs, or their fans, live in a world substantially removed from reality. In the beginning, the joust seemed to be about facilitating the author of a banned book in Jaipur. It then became about video chatting with the man across 4477 miles of shark infested waters. Finally, it became about persecuting some other authors for reading from a banned book. Running as a subtext through all this, as Salman Rushdie reminded us with his impeccable intellectual clarity, was the threat to humanity's fundamental right to freedom of speech.
It does seem like a heavy load for a bunch of book lovers to carry on a pleasant January weekend in a pretty city like Jaipur. What on earth was going on out there?

Let's try to break down the issues. Should Jaipur have facilitated the author of a banned book? Rushdie's work The Satanic Verses was never published in India. Nearly as I recall, Khushwant Singh advised Penguin against doing so because it could and eventually did upset the Muslim community. Nine days after it was published in UK, it was barred from being imported to India under Section 11 the Customs Act which allows the government to prohibit imports to protect the "maintenance of public order". We can of course debate the relative merits of maintaining public order by banning books as opposed to containing the emotional outbursts of people upset with insults to their prophet. Be that as it may, the ban was on the book, not Rushdie. As a PIO, he has a right to come here and this was indeed what the Government said.

Should he have been discouraged from coming here by holding out — as he claims and the police deny — references to the security threat? Let us not deny that Rushdie's very presence offends those he has insulted, and they swore to kick up a right crazy shindig if he showed up. Whatever our views on free speech, I trust we are not suggesting that we have a right to insult someone under the shelter of free speech but that person does not have a right to be offended. Are we then suggesting that the offended person does not have the right to protest the offense caused to him? I believe most of us will defend the right to protest but add that the protest has to be peaceful and so forth. Since we are neither policemen nor politicians, this sophistry allows us to disclaim the ensuing consequences when the peaceful protesters spontaneously combust and start burning buses and shops at which point there is a lathi charge and someone gets his skull split open. Perhaps we need to pause and ponder the argument that the principle is more important than the lives lost, that the blood on the street is fighting the good fight.

Either ways, we know what happens next. The imams make speeches from the minars and the country goes up in flames. All this because somebody wants the right to say nasty things about the Prophet of 1.5 billion people, i.e. 21 per cent of the world's population! I say no more because I know the argument that to avoid the slaughter is appeasement of minorities while the protection of those saying crass insensitive things about others is an admirable promotion of liberalism and freedom of speech.

Which bring us to point number two: should the government have leaned on the festival organisers to prevent them from having a video conference? The neo conservative traditionalists are no doubt on thin ice here, not least because Rushdie was on national television the same evening, carrying on the same chat with page 3 newscasters, saying presumably the same things! Having said that, if you accept that lives may be more important than free speech, you would have to reluctantly admit that the diktat to the festival's organisers was consistent in philosophy, even if it wasn't to your taste.

That takes us to point number three: should we be threatening prosecution of authors who read from banned books? As I have said, the book is not banned. If you flew back from London with a copy in the nine days before the ban was imposed, you could continue to have it sit pretty on your library shelf. If you like, you can get up on Amazon, download the Kindle version right now and you would not be accused of anything. Reciting passages from The Satanic Verses is not in principle a crime either. On the other hand, what you read may be a crime. For instance, under Section 153A of the Indian Penal Code, if you read something that promotes enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language, and so forth, or disrupts the harmony between these groups, you have committed a crime. Similarly, under Section 153B, if you promote hatred between people, you can be put away for three years. Finally, under Section 295A, if you deliberately and maliciously outrage religious feelings, you are a criminal. Naturally, to be guilty, it is not just The Satanic Verses you could read from!

The upshot of this is that as a society, we have accepted the idea that it's not okay to hurt the religious sentiments of others. That I won't insult your prophet and you will not show the naked bodies of my goddesses is a long accepted deal. This is a choice we have made as a society — not as individuals — and it reflects in our laws. The essence of Rushdie's view, and of those who support him, is the proposition that it is okay to abuse someone's religious beliefs. Without suggesting that Hussain did any such thing, the logic of the proposition is equally that it is okay to make a pornographic movie about somebody else's god or goddess. How about full frontal triple X rated nudity with Lord Krishna as a horny stud in a garden by the river full of naked Bombay B movie extras begging him for a piece of it? Is that okay?

If you asked me where I stood on the issue, I would admit that as a member of India's very westernised English speaking urban elite, I would come down on the side of liberalism and all this means by way of free thought, action and speech. But we need to ask ourselves if we need a more nuanced, more mature perspective on it. We also need to exorcise some false Gods in the bargain.

For instance, let us be aware that free speech goes only so far in practically every society no matter how liberal it claims to be. I have heard no end of good humoured jokes about killing off mother in laws in America but I have never heard a good humoured one about ravishing mothers. Why raping one is worse than killing the other is not clear to me. As Bhajee found out, you can question the morals of anyone's mother in Australia, but you can't berate them from being simians. Why a bastard is better than a monkey is no clearer to me than it would be to an animal rights activist. In Europe, it is quite alright to rubbish the religion of another but it is not alright to condemn them for the colour of their skins. Why it is more important to be skin sensitive as opposed to spiritually sensitive is not at all clear to me. Political correctness is completely arbitrary at the best of times. At any rate, no society believes in completely free speech and every society promotes public order. There would be no defamation law or riot busting policemen if it wasn't.

As I think about the joust in Jaipur, it strikes me that we have an honest to goodness cultural conflict here. We have a traditional culture in India which does not approve of religious insensitivity even as it is completely insensitive about a great many other defining parameters of individual identity. We also have an emerging India that has taken a great deal of liberal influence from the west and is pushing for a quite different vision of India. In the mix is a bunch of PIOs and non-residents who make money out of India and patronises it at the same time. There are dynamics at play here and I see it as a negotiation process between groups carrying radically different opinions. In the circumstances, while I have my individual preferences, I don't see the benefit of the us-and-them blood-on-stone inflexibility on the issue. At any rate, I do not buy into the absurdity of Salman Rushdie damning us all for failing to protect free speech even as he declined to come to India in defence of his own freedom of speech, preferring instead to save his life and limb on the off chance that an outraged zealot blows both of them up to smithereens. I especially don't see why India should be compelled to protect his freedom of speech at the risk of jeopardising the lives of citizens who, misguided as they may be, work and live here, and probably contribute something to our society too!


The author is managing partner of the Gurgaon-based rechristened corporate law firm N South and author of the pioneering business book, Winning Legal Wars. He can be contacted at 

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