Willful blindness

C. P. Surendran thinks the protest over Rushdie’s aborted India visit is without merit, and that it the invite to him might even be a cunning publicity stunt on the part of the organizers of the lit. festival. He then uses the stale and irrelevant why-didn’t-the-protestors-protest-this-or-that argument to dismiss the legitimacy of the protest. Apparently, unless people who believe in freedom of expression are willing to be beaten up by Sena goons or thick-skulled members of the Hindutva brigade, they cannot earn the privilege to protest Islamic censorship. Better still, die at the hands of the (“idiot[ic]”) terrorists in Kashmir to prove your beliefs/credentials-

The actual test for literature is outside Diggy Palace, far beyond the ramparts of Jaipur Fort and DSC largesse. How about getting off the plane at Srinagar, standing in the town square and reading passages from The Satanic Verses? In the process, some idiot might cut you down with an AK-47, but what could be braver and better than dying for the words you believe in? Or better still, why not sacrifice one’s bleeding, agonised word-hungry soul for the freedom of speech in Kashmir, where if you throw a word at the State, you gets bullets in your mouth in return?

Forget all that Rushdie went through for a moment. Despite the best efforts of a now-dead Iranian lune, he is alive, for now. Theo van Gogh is not. And so many people have faced death threats and have had their lives permanently disrupted for having the temerity to “offend” Islam that glib commentary of this nature on the issue is not just regrettable, but condemnable more so because it recommends self-censorship.

All religion is based on faith in some nebulous, fictional entity. Some people believe in God-by-any-name; others swear by Batman. And offering protection to the “sentiments” of such people is not good jurisprudence, but lunacy.

Greenwald writes about the perennially stamped-upon US Fifth Amendment-

The Indictment is a classic one-side-of-the-story document; even the most mediocre lawyers can paint any picture they want when unchallenged. That’s why the government is not supposed to dole out punishments based on accusatory instruments, but only after those accusations are proved in an adversarial proceeding.

Whatever else is true, those issues should be decided upon a full trial in a court of law, not by government decree. Especially when it comes to Draconian government punishments — destroying businesses, shutting down websites, imprisoning people for life, assassinating them — what distinguishes a tyrannical society from a free one is whether the government is first required to prove guilt in a fair, adversarial proceeding. This is a precept Americans were once taught about why their country was superior, was reflexively understood, and was enshrined as the core political principle: “no person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” It’s simply not a principle that is believed in any longer, and therefore is not remotely observed.

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  • Varuna  On January 24, 2012 at 12:23 pm

    I think all this talk of freedom of expression can be misleading and confusing. I heard a vulgar, nasty joke, not even funny, about the Prophet the other day. That joke has by now probably been heard by thousands of people and passed on by the Internet. This, you could say, is freedom of expression. I think the issue with the printed word is different. And it is simply this: that books cannot and should not ever be banned. Books are for people who love books. Such people will discuss the book, criticize it, love it, hate it, praise it, whatever. The whole point of books is to encourage you to think and to question accepted norms and accepted ways of seeing things. Books are meant for intelligent people, not for morons and fanatics who don’t view books in this light, who will read, if at all, only in order to justify existing prejudices and beliefs. Incidentally, i think C P Surendran has a point. Though the authors who read from Rushdie’s banned work are to be admired, it’s not going to make any difference.

    • Aristotle The Geek  On January 28, 2012 at 10:00 am

      Ideas are ideas, and I don’t think one should differentiate between their formal and casual representations: there is no logical basis for such a divide. Your view of books is romantic in nature. I don’t have anything against it, but I won’t restrict myself to books. Paintings, plays, films, music etc can be just as thought-provoking.

      I don’t believe there is anything confusing in the idea of freedom of expression. The problem is that most people, especially those who frame, or rule on, the relevant laws, have not followed the idea to its logical conclusion. How many of them would, for instance, agree with this.

      As for Surendran, or even Bhagat or the extremely small-minded Katju, none of them are defenders of free speech. I doubt if any of them understand the issues involved.

      And yes, none of it is going to make any difference. This country is a joke.

  • Gaurav  On February 5, 2013 at 2:20 pm

    I am of opinion that Societies that don’t “reach” to an idea through certain amount of catharsis , experimentation , experience etc, usually fail the idea if it is imposed on them. India is struggling with idea of freedom of expression because the notion of this idea does not come from core of this society. They just don’t get it . So it remains virtually a dead line somewhere in our constitution. The fact is that this idea is being trampled upon every single day by those who are duty bound to protect it , as we saw in Tamilnadu. Again this is because even though we talk about Secularism and Rule of Law, these ideas are inherently alien to our psyche somewhere. In US, section of society protects these ideas zealously. It is same reason that US has failed to export democracy to many countries because those countries and societies were not ready for that idea.

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