Tag Archives: freedom of expression

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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Annoyance

The Indian IT Act of 2000/2008 already prescribes punishment for causing “annoyance” via electronic means. According to new rules prescribed under the act, which is being seen as a “blogger control act,” now “intermediaries” are required to take “due diligence” and see to it that their users (bloggers/commenters etc) fall in line by warning them against publishing/storing/etc etc information which:

is harmful, threatening, abusive, harassing, blasphemous, objectionable, defamatory, vulgar, obscene, pornographic, paedophilic, libellous, invasive of another’s privacy, hateful, or racially, ethnically or otherwise objectionable, disparaging, relating or encouraging money laundering or gambling, or otherwise unlawful in any manner whatever;

or

causes annoyance or inconvenience or deceives or misleads the addressee about the origin of such messages or communicates any information which is grossly offensive or menacing in nature;

or

threatens the unity, integrity, defence, security or sovereignty of India, friendly relations with foreign states, or or public order or causes incitement to the commission of any cognisable offence or prevents investigation of any offence or is insulting any other nation.

etc etc etc.

I would have been surprised had I been under the illusion that the constitution guarantees certain fundamental rights, or that we were a civilized country. Since none of the above is true and similar language can be found in nearly every act passed by the Indian parliament, the “rules,” the secretions of an authoritarian mind, are simply business as usual.

Chained speech

Simon Jenkins’ bewildering op-ed in the Guardian

Freedom of speech, like freedom of traffic, can only be defined by the curbs and regulations that make it real. The right wing seeks to curb WikiLeaks, and the left seeks to curb “hate speech”. The right wants the freedom to finance unlimited political propaganda, and the left wants the freedom of unlimited access to state secrets.

[…]

Free speech is a Hobbesian jungle. It requires a marketplace where the trade in information, ideas and opinion has a framework of rules, including rules that maintain fair and open competition. Most will be voluntary, but others need enforcement.

[…]

It is the great paradox of democracy. Free speech cannot exist without chains.

Ah, paradox. Now the curbs and regulations make sense.

Religious cretins

Churumuri links to an article in the Telegraph by Swapan Dasgupta

Earlier this week, a newspaper in Delhi published a telling cartoon that drew many a snigger: a figure fully veiled in black with the simple caption: “Qatar Mata by M.F. Husain”.

The apparent absurdity of India’s most famous artist relinquishing his Indian nationality for the citizenship of Qatar, a place where he claims “no one controls my freedom of expression”, has disappointed many of his ardent supporters who had faithfully backed him against militant and litigious groups. In turning his back on “my motherland” because “India doesn’t need me” and “no one came forward to speak for me”, Husain has handed out an unqualified victory to those who feel that free speech and expression cannot include the right to offend.

[…]

In the past decade, the threshold of tolerance in India has been lowered considerably — thanks in no small degree to the takeover of the internet by competitive extremists. ‘Sensitivity to faith’ has come to mean accommodation of organized blackmail.

The successful anti-Husain and anti-Taslima protests have to be seen in the context of a progressive shrinking of the enlightened public space. India imagined it would be a world player on the strength of its ‘soft power’. Today, that power is being steadily undermined by the clash of rival ghettos. The nonsense has gone on far too long and has touched dangerous heights. It’s time the country extends democratic rights to those who offend fragile sensitivities.

Nice. But the same person, in the same article, writes this – “In theory, there is nothing hideously objectionable to citizen’s rights being qualified by the realities of India.”

As for Husain, I heard the clueless fellow on television, saying the words Dasgupta attributes to him – “no one controls my freedom of expression [in Qatar].” I guess the operative word here is “my.” If only Qatar had offered asylum to Nasreen and Rushdie…

Wimps

That’s what they are – the Indian media. Its been three days since the “secular” communist government of West Bengal arrested (and then released on bail) the editor and publisher of “The Statesman” because of “Muslim anger,” and barring very very very few exceptions, the whole Indian media is absolutely silent – as if nothing has happened at all. 20 people barged into a bar, and the Hindu Taliban is born; 4000 people riot in Calcutta and everyone behaves as if nothing has happened. Why is the Indian media silent?

Some decent “Indian” coverage from-

Johann Hari, the man whose article made the mob go crazy for its Prophet, says he stands by his article

A religious idea is just an idea somebody had a long time ago, and claimed to have received from God. It does not have a different status to other ideas; it is not surrounded by an electric fence none of us can pass.

That’s why I wrote: “All people deserve respect, but not all ideas do. I don’t respect the idea that a man was born of a virgin, walked on water and rose from the dead. I don’t respect the idea that we should follow a “Prophet” who at the age of 53 had sex with a nine-year old girl, and ordered the murder of whole villages of Jews because they wouldn’t follow him. I don’t respect the idea that the West Bank was handed to Jews by God and the Palestinians should be bombed or bullied into surrendering it. I don’t respect the idea that we may have lived before as goats, and could live again as woodlice. When you demand “respect”, you are demanding we lie to you. I have too much real respect for you as a human being to engage in that charade.”

An Indian newspaper called The Statesman – one of the oldest and most venerable dailies in the country – thought this accorded with the rich Indian tradition of secularism, and reprinted the article. That night, four thousand Islamic fundamentalists began to riot outside their offices, calling for me, the editor, and the publisher to be arrested – or worse. They brought Central Calcutta to a standstill. A typical supporter of the riots, Abdus Subhan, said he was “prepared to lay down his life, if necessary, to protect the honour of the Prophet” and I should be sent “to hell if he chooses not to respect any religion or religious symbol? He has no liberty to vilify or blaspheme any religion or its icons on grounds of freedom of speech.”

Then, two days ago, the editor and publisher were indeed arrested. They have been charged – in the world’s largest democracy, with a constitution supposedly guaranteeing a right to free speech – with “deliberately acting with malicious intent to outrage religious feelings”. I am told I too will be arrested if I go to Calcutta.

The foreign media has covered it pretty decently (see my original post) and this is from The Telegraph (Britain)

Religious leaders – often self-appointed – are easily outraged and mobs easily incited into action that sees them torch public transport, block crucial nerve centres of already chaotic traffic systems and even bring about total city shutdowns (locally called bandhs).

But does that mean bowing before the diktats of a handful of fundamentalists at the cost of curbing free speech?

[…]

This was the first time that an editor of a respected daily was arrested for “outraging religious feelings”, which incidentally is an offence under the Indian Penal Code.

When I called The Statesman, they did not seem very keen to discuss the matter and pointed me to their and the Independent’s website.

But a former colleague at a senior editorial position of another city English daily (who wished not to be named) provided some insight. Despite “liking the logic of the article”, he admitted that his paper (with a significantly higher circulation than The Statesman’s) would not have reproduced it because it was simply “not worth getting into the trouble”. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for press freedom. But when you know the possible outcome, it’s best to be practical and avoid these situations.”

He also assured me that very few if any at all among the protesters had bothered to read the original article or were expressing anger they genuinely felt. That job was left to the religious bosses who pulled their strings. The demonstrations had only started after local Urdu papers picked up the issue and urged fellow Muslims to take action over it. The result – protests, clashes with the police and the subsequent arrests of the Statesman duo.

“Practical.” Figures. I am waiting to see what MJ Akbar’s take on the issue is – in tomorrow’s Times of India is – if he bothers to touch it. The next time an Indian newspaper or television channel editor talks about “the freedom of the press,” spit on his face.