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How to champion freedom of speech without causing harm

Instead of drawing battle lines around the right to give and take offence, can we all learn to ‘adjust’, please?

Muslims hold placards during a prayer to protest against cartoons of the Prophet on 30 October in Rome.
Muslims hold placards during a prayer to protest against cartoons of the Prophet on 30 October in Rome. (Getty Images)

When the offices of Charlie Hebdo were attacked in 2015 for its cartoons about Prophet Muhammad, my social media was flooded with #JeSuisCharlie hashtags. I was aghast at the carnage that unfolded when gunmen stormed into the magazine’s office in Paris. But their cartoons—Islamophobic, homophobic, xenophobic—made me cringe as well. Nothing can ever justify the violence and the bloodshed but I couldn’t say #IAmCharlie either. I don’t believe in offending for the sake of offending.

Recently, a schoolteacher in Paris was beheaded by an 18-year-old Chechen man merely because he showed his class those infamous cartoons in good faith as part of a debate on freedom of expression. Then, three people were killed in a church, one of them beheaded, in Nice by another enraged Muslim.

Predictably, we are all back at the same ideological logjam—free speech vs sacred symbols, the right to offend vs the right to be offended. The debate has no easy answers but it should at least have a lowest common denominator of agreement that no matter how offensive a cartoon or a book seems to someone, no one deserves to die for it. As writer Tabish Khair poignantly put it in a recent essay: “The two ideas do not die. Their conflict does not die. They have no body that can be beheaded or shot.”

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That we seem to be moving away from that minimum modicum of decency is what feels the most disheartening. Countries like Malaysia eventually condemned the murders but the first reaction of Malaysian elder statesman Mahathir Mohamad was that Muslims had “a right to be angry and kill millions of French people for the massacres of the past”. It must have escaped Mohamad that if everyone decided to avenge past massacres, Muslims too would not escape the bloodbath.

In fact, horrific attacks like this serve only to harden attitudes on all sides, trapping us in a cycle of reprisals where each side feels more vindicated in its self-righteous anger. In an op-ed in The Times Of India, Swaminathan Aiyar says all religions have strong beliefs in their own superiority which will offend practitioners of other religions. “Freedom to practise any religion necessarily implies freedom to offend others, and tolerance by those offended,” he writes. But try explaining that nuance to some young person who already feels aggrieved at being ghettoised and treated as a second-class citizen in his own country and sees a cartoon as adding gratuitous insult to injury.

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We can see that play out all over the world. If a Muslim gunman attacks Charlie Hebdo in Paris, a white supremacist attacks a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, and a gurdwara in Wisconsin, US. And now we are back to Paris again, all of us trapped in an Escher staircase of giving and taking offence.

All of us like to believe that we are champions of freedom of expression. Mostly, that refers to our own freedom of expression. Few of us will admit that each of us has a line we will not cross and that line is deeply personal. For some, it might be the Prophet, for some it might be their mothers, and for some it might be their armed forces. That line, in the end, cannot really be legislated. What we can and should legislate against is the right to take the law into our hands if we feel that line has been breached.

Instead, we condone and abet lawlessness. While we are aghast (and rightly so) at the act of one extremist in France or New Zealand, we ignore the fact that politicians have discovered that the right to be offended can be a potent force to mobilise their shock troops. In a country like India, we have elevated the art of taking offence to Kamasutra levels—52 positions in which to take offence, with new ones being invented each day.

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In recent years we have been offended, sometimes to the point of violence, by a Bollywood costume drama involving a Rajput princess (who may or may not have been real) even before the film was made, a Muslim actress and member of Parliament taking part in Durga Puja rituals, a stand-up comedian trying to poke fun at the statue of a warrior king, an advertisement for a jewellery brand trying to show harmony in a mixed-religion marriage, a food delivery person of a different religion, a lower-caste character in a novel.

Most governments have found it useful to discreetly look away when a rampaging mob descends on a film set or in front of a writer’s home because they want to reap the benefits of that discontent. In a country like India, stoking a sense of grievance is an easier way to garner votes than standing up for some poor cartoonist or writer.

Freedom of expression was the casualty of the first amendment to the Constitution. Today politicians from the ruling party are quick to target all kinds of dissenting views as anti-national. But in the early years of independence, they were in the opposition, championing freedom of expression. As Tripurdaman Singh’s book, Sixteen Stormy Days, points out, when Parliament was debating the first amendment to the Constitution, it was the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s Organiser which wrote in an editorial, “To threaten the liberty of the press for the sole offence of non-conformity to the official view in each and every matter may be a handy tool for tyrants but is only a crippling curtailment of civil liberties in a free democracy.”

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But civil liberties had weak roots in our national thinking. As Singh writes, coming out of an independence movement, “liberty was understood not in the terms of individual rights and freedoms but solely as a nation’s collective right to self-determination”. Thus political parties have been opportunistic when it comes to defending an individual’s freedom of expression, standing by them when it was politically convenient and going after them when it was not. The Bengal government stood up for freedom of expression in the Padmaavat case in Bharatiya Janata Party ruled Rajasthan. Not much later, in the same Bengal, a political satire that targeted all political parties, including the ruling party in Kolkata, was ignominiously pulled from theatres even after it cleared the censor board. Even worse, the government did not ever admit to pulling the plug on it.

That’s why there is something almost cathartic in hearing French President Emmanuel Macron say, “I will always defend the freedom in my country to write, to think, to draw,” even if those cartoons make him squeamish. But I sometimes wish we could bring back another almost quaint Indianism. It’s that old phrase, “No problem, we will adjust.” It could apply to anything from someone showing up in your railway compartment with way too much luggage to religious festivals to dietary habits. In a country as heterogeneous as ours, we cannot live together without being forced to “adjust” to some discomfort in the public space. That might be tolerating the azaan from the neighbouring mosque or a mata ka jagran. Instead of banning them all, or complaining about one and not the other, we can just face up to the fact that we are a deeply religious country and a very noisy one and we can just adjust to that (with ear plugs if necessary).

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Adjustment is not necessarily a sign of weakness. It can be a sign of respect, the same way some of us show respect to our elders by not smoking in front of them. The elders know we are going up to the roof to smoke, we know they know, but we all adjust in order to preserve the peace. Respect has to be given for respect to be earned. Instead of drawing battle lines around the right to give offence and the right to take offence, instead of being offensive to prove a point, we would all be happier if we could take a deep breath and just tell ourselves “It’s okay. Thoda adjust kar lenge (we will adjust a little).”

Cult Friction is a fortnightly column on issues we keep rubbing up against. Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host.

@sandipr

  • FIRST PUBLISHED
    05.11.2020 | 11:00 AM IST

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