Freedom of speech, violence and India

News channels had a lot on their plate today as a protest against Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen in Kolkata by some outfit named All India Minority Forum turned into a riot when extremists joined in bringing the Nandigram issue with them. Stone pelting and torching of vehicles followed, which is a normal progression as far as these events go. What is not normal, however, is the army being summoned to control the situation.

India is not a stranger to violence. It is an everyday phenomenon in most parts of the country. However, threats and violence have been used too often as a weapon to suppress freedom of speech and expression. And, unfortunately, this phenomenon is religion-agnostic. This time, the protestors are predominantly Muslim and their target, Nasreen, who has become the next Muslim author after Salman Rushdie to court the ire of intolerant people from her own religion. In fact, she was attacked a few weeks ago in Hyderabad by another group who had more serious intentions.

The fact that incidents such as these happen so frequently only goes to show that people are free to speak only if their views are in tune with those of a violent group who hide behind their religion or some favourite cause. It was just over a year ago when a few Christian groups (Catholic Social Forum in particular) protested over the exhibition of the film ‘The Da Vinci Code’ because it hurt their sentiments as it dealt with the subject of Jesus being a mortal and him being married. The Tamil Nadu and Punjab governments immediately banned the exhibition (till the Supreme Court of India intervened in the matter). So did other countries in the neighbourhood such as Pakistan and Iran (India does have esteemed company in matters such as these). As for hurting Hindu sentiments, M.F. Hussain is the person who regularly finds himself in the eye of the storm.

The Government of India does not consider such matters to be very significant. Neither do courts in the country (their decisions on ‘hurting sentiments’ and censorship of the legal kind have not been very inspiring). Other worrying demonstrations of intolerance include the fact that any state in which the BJP comes to power on its own tries to pass laws making religious conversions extremely difficult.

Films, books and plays are regular targets of organised as well as unorganised protests, which turn violent too often. And laws do not help victims of such actions. In fact, successive governments have been very active in the censorship game themselves.

The right to unbridled freedom of expression is one of the most important rights that any human being can have. Any curtailment of that right should only occur after it has gone through a rigorous process. Even then, such a thing should not be done too often and if done, should only be for a limited period of time.

Communities, nations and their people should have thick skins that can take any criticism of their theories and actions. If every pinprick results in a violent backlash, what is the difference then between living in a democracy and living under an authoritarian ruler?

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