Free speech sounds great but not when you can either be killed for it or it can translate into hate speech. I have no particular reflections on this quagmire, nor on the Charlie Hebdo episode because in the country I still call ‘home’, i.e. India, free speech is either severely curtailed by the powers that be in every sphere of life, or that it is a tool to defend the fanatics and the fundamentalists. Remember during the 1975-1977 period of national Emergency, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and her sycophants made every effort to ensure that free speech did not raise its ugly head to point fingers at them, nor raise questions about the wilful murder of democracy in the country. Official censorship or banning of free speech especially critical of the government is a norm strictly observed by all governments of the day. But governments’ don’t always worry about their hurt feelings. They are also concerned with aam janta, you and I who can feel emotionally vulnerable and hurt because some morons believe in free speech! So in that sense our emotional well-being is looked after by watchful governments who use censorship in ‘our’ interest. We are infantilized as governments come to our emotional rescue. Remember again, India was the first country to ban Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, even before the Iranian Ayatollah decided to issue the Fatwa!
Since then we have kept this official ‘free speech’ tradition alive: of banning this and that which can ‘offend’ communities, ‘hurt’ public sentiments. And by that logic, those who do not get offended, or hurt or would not approve of censorship are not considered part of those communities and the public who need to be rescued. But there’s that other side to it. Governments can have free speech, people cannot, or all people should not. Free speech does not exist for women and girls at home and in the public sphere. No brainer, right? The number of times one was reminded that ‘girls should be seen not heard’; ladki hoke zubaan mat chalao (do not use your tongue if you are a girl) etc. Not just women, certain kinds of people, must not speak certain kinds of truth. Governments can punish you, communities can banish you and unleash their terror anytime, those offended can vandalise with impunity and even hack you to death. Free speech can get you killed these days and your killers will be showered with rose petals. Such are the violent times we live in.
I must qualify that satirising or criticising religious traditions in any form is fine by me; religions are not meant to be beyond critique and satire and if people are killed for it, it is the death of humanity and our entire civilizational heritage in so many ways. Right to practise religion cannot be greater than the right to life. Imagine if Mahavira and Buddha had not been allowed to critique ritualistic and Brahmanical Hinduism, imagine if Guru Nanak was not permitted to question the caste system in Hinduism, and imagine if the many thousands of women and men social reformers had not raised questions against the orthodoxy of different Indian traditions! It is that spirit of critique and debate that makes India so unique. I like religions and the diversity of Indian traditions I am familiar with, have always encouraged debates, disagreements and scathing criticisms, without which there can be no spiritual advancements. No one has the monopoly of truth in the religious/spiritual sphere. And just too bad if a bit of criticism (however unfair) shakes your faith to such an extent that violence is the only answer. In that it is our duty to speak up where possible (and it may not be always) and ensure that those who react with violence, do not do so with our complicity.
And that complicity is what worries me the most in this debate. I have a specific issue with those whose free speech is an assault on human dignity and violates principles of decency and respect in public engagement. I am concerned about my complicity with those whose moronic ideas are more than a minor irritant only because they profess to speak for my ‘community’ and me. How do we deal with their ignorance and bigotry without censoring them, or giving more power to the governments of the day to curtail free speech? How do we deal with free speech which is supposedly in our names, to protect our communities and our values; free speech that is on all our behalf and yet we remain silenced, our critiques and outrage unheard. For those in India who are suddenly realising that Mother Teresa was only interested in converting people to Christianity and suffered from the ‘white woman saving brown women’ syndrome (I cringe!); that India cannot have a mosque because Saudi Arabia cannot have a temple; Hindu women should have ten children to protect their faith; and that incidents of rape can be brought down by more yoga, please make sure you announce you are speaking for yourselves and NOT on behalf of the Hindu community.
Among the many identities I have, I love being a Hindu and discovering for myself the ancient wisdoms of this wonderful 'way of life' with multiple ways of imagining the moral, ethical and spiritual worlds. The many philosophical traditions and debates provide the space for critique and coexistence of a variety of worldviews, sometimes even contradictory. I do not agree with everything that Hinduism claims as its inherent tenet or practice, and always have spoken out against its outrageous discriminatory practices. And both Hinduism and I continue to thrive with and against each other, both nurturing each other. Please let me be; let Hinduism prosper for its diversity and goodness and not for your myopic and often bigoted sense of the world.
Free speech, yes. Not on behalf of communities, people and religions, please. Taking offense to free speech, yes. Not on behalf of communities, religions, gods, prophets and public sentiments, please.