Salman Rushdie is an Indian Muslim who was recently stopped from visiting India by those who claimed their ‘sentiments were hurt’. Salman Rushdie was not allowed to attend the recent Jaipur Literary Festival because his book ‘Satanic Verses’ remains banned by the Government of India. MF Husain was another Indian Muslim who was forced to leave India because another group claimed their ‘sentiments were hurt’. Husain died in exile in Qatar pining for his home country. An author and an artist are the casualties of an extremely immature and peevish democracy called India.
In both the cases, the state, in the form of Indian Government, has succumbed to the mounting pressures from religious groups who claimed their sentiments were hurt by the actions of this author and the artist. The weak state has allowed for suppression of expression of an artist and an author bowing down to the protests of ultra-sensitive groups. As a result, the individual lost out to the power of a committed and bigoted group; and the state stood in support of the group and not the individual.
In India, freedom of expression comes with moderation. That’s where the problem is. Most educated Hindus also believe that freedom of expression cannot be absolute. Guatam Adhikari writes in TOI:
Someone, apparently a tolerant and liberal person, said on a TV show that he was for freedom of expression but "you cannot offend or hurt people". He then added: "This is not London or Paris or Amsterdam, this is India".
What Indians fail to understand is that freedom of expression includes the freedom to offend or hurt organized groups, hurt public figures, hurt all those who are in the positions of influence, hurt all those institutions which are powerful and influential, hurt our histories, our legacies, and our past. Freedom from religion is one such freedom, and so is freedom to criticize our culture, tradition and the nation. Freedom of expression cannot come in doses of moderation, like what the Indian Adults want us to believe. And that’s where we got our democracy wrong, making it immature, refusing to let our people grow. Freedom of expression cannot be defined differently in a nation or a city; it is the same in almost every country and nation, like Theory of Gravity or Archimedes Principle.
After a nearly thousand years of tortuous history, mainly in Europe and America, we have come to an understanding that there are some freedoms that have to be near absolute, without preconditions and without imposed restraints; and one of the those essential freedoms is the freedom of expression, the ability to say or depict what you want to say however contrarian or despicable that opinion is to the majority, to the state or any group or individual. The reason why we have come to that understanding is- anything less we will go back in time to the authoritarian times, the medieval times, the dark ages.
When United States became independent, they believed all men are created equal, but then they thought it cannot be absolute. They put some conditions, saying that Blacks would not be considered men, and were kept outside the purview of the freedoms that Whites got. Even women were not considered equals and were denied the right to vote. But now we know better. All such moderation and exceptions will go away with time, will cause friction, will suppress certain people, make them second-class citizens, and allows for one section of people to target another. It creates a medieval society as time progresses. We cannot go on to say, ‘you are free to think and write; but you cannot do this and that, you cannot hurt him or them, you have to stay within these boundaries’.
There is a general consensus amongst many Indians that freedom of expression cannot be absolute, that it should come with some moderation. So the question is – who is going to enforce that moderation? The state? Or should it be a self-restraint to be praticed by the society itself?
If we allow the state to enforce that moderation, the societies turn into autocracies. The people in power get to stifle the freedoms of common men. That's what communist countries do - those who are in power decide what people can say, do or watch.
In a mature democracy, the restraint has to be practiced by the society itself, either by counter-criticism, parody, comics, cartoons, columns, satire, etc. There is a constant need to check upon the powerful people and groups which try to encroach upon the rights of common men and women. A mature democracy, by allowing free expression in near absolute form, allows for self-restraint. If you go too far in your expression making it really troubling for everyone, a mature democracy will automatically correct itself by showcasing that expression as utterly ridiculous. No one had to shut up Sarah Palin. If she speaks for long, she loses her audience. And all her gaffes will be lampooned and ridiculed. If a priest in Florida speaks of burning Koran, there is no need to invoke a law to lock him up. Enough criticism will be launched in media to make him retract his statements. It will be a disaster to American democracy if that priest is arrested for making such statements, however volatile they are. It would have been a disaster to American democracy if they had to make Jay Leno shut up just because he made a joke on Mitt Romney using Golden Temple of Sikhs.
The ‘freedom of expression with moderation and imposed restraint’ is a paradox in itself. The country ends up being autocratic given enough time. The American nation created by American Revolution became a successful democracy because they gave themselves these freedoms as near absolute. A contemporary revolution in France became a chaotic, bloody and retributive failure when it allowed the powerful state to decide which rights the individuals can enjoy.
The experience of many nations on this planet has made it clear that we cannot decide what expression we are going to allow and what expression we are going to curtail. If we start with the premise ‘freedom, but with constraints’ the question that arises is who is authorized to regulate those constraints? The state or the groups? Whoever is entrusted with that power, they will become autocratic eventually.
Indians, instead of forcing their people to become mature, have instead resorted to protecting the ultra-sensitive people to get their way. How many books shall we ban? How many plays shall we ban? How many authors and artists have to flee this nation? Before we start realizing that the creativity cannot come with constraints and that it is the responsibility of the state to ensure an individual is protected against the ire and anger of a frustrated group no matter how egregious that individual is. The state cannot be in bed with the religious groups to suppress that voice of the individual. That’s like monarch in cahoots with the priests of the land persecuting every free thinking woman and man.
Now, people ask, ‘what about those speeches which clearly urge or encourage people to take up arms and target certain kinds of people?’ We have enough laws already in place to take care of such incitement; and therefore we require no extra laws to protect sentiments of religious groups. ‘Hurt sentiments’ should not be and could not be used as a pretext to shut up any artist, author, movie maker or any speaker.
What happens in India is that there enough number of antiquated and medieval period laws coming from witch-hunting times by which almost anything you say or do can be considered ‘hurting the religious sentiments’ of one or the other group making the freedom of expression a ridiculous freedom which can be taken away by the state any time whenever a group of more than ten people come together to complain.
Rushdie and Husain are casualties of such an immature democracy. India is an immature democracy because it has consciously chosen not to grow up. It has consciously chosen to remain ignorant and prejudiced. It has consciously chosen not to use it brains faculties to think and reason. It has chosen to remain peevish and ultra-sensitive to every mockery, ridicule, satire, joke, criticism and parody. It has ensured that its people remain highly sensitive, getting hurt every time anyone says anything remotely negative against them. Recently, the Indian government asked United States government to take action against Jay Leno just because he showed a picture of Golden Temple as a future home of Mitt Romney. Our sentiments got hurt immediately. As a nation, we can’t even take a joke.
India will become a mature democracy only when it gives the freedom of expression without constraints, without restraints without having to regulate moderation. The message for India now is, 'grow up, grow up, and grow up, and face the music'. Face the onslaught of criticism like a mature person, face the ire, anger and vitriol of people inside and outside your country. Let your institutions be critically examined, ridiculed, made fun of. Let your public figures be derided and spoofed.
If we start allowing every group of ten people to come together and claim ‘hurt sentiments’ to stop an artist or author to shut down his work and flee the nation, we will go back in time, to the dark ages, where all forms of creativity and original thought is banned, censored and regulated, where witch-hunting will become the main pastime of the state, where the rabid priests will hold the sway over fate of every freethinking man and woman.
Related Posts: Go back Rushdie, You are not welcome here, Scrap sedition laws, Why do we criticize our nations?, Scrap the Insane Laws, Immediately, Freedom from persecution, 'You hate me, I arrest you'