Freedom of expression isn’t something we value
Though a lot is heard about freedom of speech in India, the reality is that, when it comes to books or movies, there is no real right to free speech on par with the US or the UK experience.
Most countries will agree to some level of censorship on such grounds as obscenity, defamation, national security or paedophilia. But, in India, censorship is routinely imposed for another reason: causing offence.
If this article offends Hindu bigots, then Hindustantimes.com will face demands to remove it. If it offends Islamic fundamentalists, there will be the threat of violent protests. If it offends an ethnic group, there will be talk of legal action. And so on.
But, in fact, without the right to offend, the right to free speech would be useless. If everybody approved of everything you said, then why would you need a constitutional guarantee of free speech? If nobody was offended, then nobody would complain.
In most Western societies, the mere causing of offence is not reason enough to ban a book or a movie. Many Muslims were offended by the Satanic Verses. Yet, Western nations refused to ban the book. (India was the first country in the world to impose a ban.)
Millions of Muslims were offended by the Danish cartoons that carried unflattering caricatures of the Prophet Mohammad. But most free societies took the line that while the cartoons may have been in bad taste or gratuitously offensive, the cartoonist still had a right to draw them.
Even when we recognize that the mere causing of offence is not enough of a reason to ban a book or a movie or a cartoon, we are often confronted with a new justification.
We are told that the ban has been imposed to keep the peace because otherwise, those offended may turn to violence. And surely, no book is worth the death of innocents etc.
This is a terrible argument. For one, it is based on cowardice —- a society must have the balls to stand up for its principles. For another, it is also based on specious reasoning. Liberal principles are the foundation of our society. Of course, they are worth the loss of lives. If we do not risk life and death to protect our values, then there is no hope for the liberal society.
But the worst part of this argument is that it is actually an invitation to violence. Once protesters know that a society will cave in the moment that violence is threatened then, of course, they will turn to violence to get their way.
And yet, this is the prevailing point of view in governmental idea.
Given this background, one can understand why Bombay University caved in and removed Rohinton Mistry’s Such a Long Journey from its syllabus after the Shiv Sena threatened a protest.
Even if the book was offensive, such a decision would be unreasonable and wrong. But as it happens, I have read the book and there is nothing objectionable about it all.
It is a marvelously evocative novel that belongs on an English Literature syllabus.
What’s worse is that Chief Minister Ashok Chavan — a nice fellow but no literary critic —- has also weighed in on the issue. Chavan has not read the book but has seen certain sections and decided that it should not be prescribed to students. (Though, in all fairness to him, he says that he has no role in deciding the University’s syllabus).
The problem with Chavan’s view is that it goes even further than the Thackerays. Usually, people object to books or movies because of the effect they will have on the general public. The standard argument goes something like this: it is okay for intellectuals but ordinary people will be adversely affected.
But here, Chavan has turned the argument on its head. Because he, an ordinary person in this context, is offended by a few paras, the book should not be prescribed to specialists, to people who are actually making a serious study of English Literature!
It is shameful — but not entirely surprising — that Bombay University has caved in so easily. It tells us how little we value genuine freedom of expression in our country.