Sunday, January 22, 2012

Reconciling western notions of free speech with India

Okay. So, we've all recently suffered through the Salman Rushdie fiasco, where India's ostensibly immature attitude towards freedom of speech denied him permission to travel to Jaipur. As a progressive, I do find this distasteful -- because I personally hold no diety sacred; I hold no supernatural dogma sacred -- but I do hold individual liberty and the freedom of speech sacred.

I have no doubt in my mind that this is not the way it ought to have been. Let us assume the worst, for instance. Let us assume that Salman Rusdhie was trying to troll the adherents of the religion of his ancestors. (This article discusses Islam's beef with Mr. Rushdie  -- I would be willing to call this creative license, and not intentional trolling --- but as I said, let us assume the worst).

Let us also consider the similar case of M.F. Hussain, held by many to be India's answer to Picasso. Hussain earned the hatred of India's insane conservative Hindu movement for these paintings (how dare some muslim draw our godesses in the nood?), among others. (I'm fairly sure that if India's far right read this blog, they would be after my head too -- but hey, I get about one view a day!). Again, for argument's sake, let us assume the worst. While I don't think these paintings are inherently more salacious than the average sculpture/painting of the same goddesses in question (that the  Hindu worships without question), let us assume that these were made to troll the Hindu masses.

So, extrapolating from these two cases, let us consider two thought experiments. Author S who intentionally trolls religion I1 with incendiary writings; Painter H1 who trolls adherents religion H2 by depicting godesses in the nood. Ought a democratic third world nation, I2, comprised primarily of religions I1 and H2 ban the offending works of S and H1? Ought I1 and H2 be ostracized from I2 society?

The answer is a clear no. Ideas that challenge the status quo must not be shunned; they must be allowed to spread based on their merit in society. Take Darwin for instance; his theory of evolution pretty much invalidated the deeply held dogma of all organized religion out there -- and they did not like it. His theory is one of humanity's most significant philosophical achievements to date. Irreverence to holy texts should not be censored, at the very least.

Given the nature of the opposition to Mr. Hussain and Mr. Rushdie ("let us vandalize his house and destroy everything he loves" / "let's kill him"), we must understand that we're dealing with intellectual twelve year olds here.

Of course, a Hussain or a Rushdie could be deemed to be a polarizing figure. Someone who makes religious people uncomfortable. A model citizen, in my book, if offended by a Rushdie or a Hussain, would write about it in blogs and in facebook. A model citizen would conduct a peaceful protest march on the street.

Sadly we don't live in such a world. Provoked mobs are notorious in their tendency to lynch. Salman Rushdie will probably be killed if he is in  Muslim country (like translators for the satanic verses have been killed elsewhere).

More than that, angry third world mobs tend to riot, hurt and kill themselves. A puristic interpretation of the freedom of speech would prioritize the  freedom of expression of a smug troll over the life of a thin skinned human being who lives in the third world. 

While I do believe the average third world ought to develop a thicker skin, I think he/she has better things to do --- like work for food. To this end,  I do believe absolute freedom speech is a western luxury, and third world nations such as India and can be forgiven for banning books which have a high chance of creating communal tension. I'm upset that Rushdie cannot be allowed to come to India to address the meeting in Jaipur, because I believe the freedom of expression has suffered a blow. But I do understand that his visit would have brought about a potentially dangerous situation in Jaipur.

Following the thread of causality I just articulated, it means that I'm upset that India is a third world country with citizens who have very thin skins. Or that I'm upset India is a third world country. Which is the story of my life. I'm upset that my home country is a third would country with the largest number of poor people in the known universe.Which is a bigger problem than the freedom of expression of a troll.

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