being brown

In defence of my right to not provide a defence

The freedom of expression is well and truly under fire. All our national debates seem to revolve around some form of freedom of expression or the other. With social media, much of our personal debates also seem to centre around the freedom of expression.

Take, for instance, this reprimanding email (from an aunt) that my sister and I received for quarreling on my Facebook wall. For the record, the quarrel was in jest. And yet the email told us off for fighting in public.  Just to put things in perspective, I have been an adult for more than 10 years now and my sister is 5 years my junior. I reassured my aunt that it was indeed in jest.

But what if it wasn’t?  What if I did have a public spat with someone? Wasn’t it my right? What was it that made someone wag-a-finger-scold us? What I concluded was this. Yes, I had the right to have a public spat. And yes, it is none of my aunt’s business. No, there is no question about it. And yes, I have wasted my time and energy thinking about it. So does this mean that my freedom of expression is not important? It is only as important as my aunt’s scolding has made it out to be. The freedom of expression debate sticks us into a polarized world of pro-against that, in reality, exists only in the minds of those against.

The recent Salman Rushdie controversy is a case in point.  Here are the facts. Rushdie might have written blasphemous fiction. However, you cannot issue fatwas and threaten to kill him. He is free to move anywhere in India including Jaipur. If the government cannot provide enough security, it has to acknowledge administrative failure. Period.

No need for Chetan Bhagat’s pompous sound bite imploring the media not to make a hero of Rushdie. No need for Justice Katju’s comments about the poor and substandard nature of Rushdie’s novels. No need, in short, for the media brouhaha that ensued. What else was read and discussed at the Jaipur Literary Festival, we will never know. And all this for a book that was published more than 20 years ago.

I am reminded of a year ago when Aditya Thakeray, that philistine offspring of Udhav Thakeray and undergraduate student at St. Xaviers college, decided that Rohinton Mistry’s Such a Long Journey should not form part of English Literature course. I will not go into ‘why’ because, like Rushdie’s blasphemy, the ‘why’ is immaterial. And yet, he wields so much power ( so bad for one so young) that the university vice-chancellor removed it from the syllabus effective immediately.

Like my aunt, these numbskulls have been allowed to determine the contours of the ‘freedom of expression’ debate. The truth is I don’t want to ever defend my right to free speech ever again.

And with that, I am off to read The Satanic Verses (a book that my country has deemed unsuitable for me), a PDF version of which was posted on Facebook by an ever resourceful friend.

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4 responses

  1. Achintya Rao

    It is indeed a shame that we are so ready to cut down on someone right to express themselves simply because a section of our society seems to “take offence”. If you are offended, go live in your cave.

    February 12, 2012 at 4:09 pm

  2. sumanyav

    yes, if you cant weather a little difference of opinion, why even talk of progress!

    February 13, 2012 at 4:00 pm

  3. Just for argument’s sake, Sumanya, what if a fatwa were considered to be a freedom of expression? An expression of an opinion—in this case an opinion of a book? Just thinking alound.

    March 1, 2012 at 3:03 pm

    • sumanyav

      That is an interesting angle, Sudha. But i think this is where we should talk about the additional responsibility that comes from being in positions of power. If you wield enough power to unilaterally change university syllabus or issue a fatwa that presents the real possibility of another human being being killed, I suppose the rules need to be slightly tweaked. for example, I hate Chetan Bhagat and sometimes harbour murderous intent towards him, but is someone going to take a knife to him because I said so. no.

      March 1, 2012 at 8:14 pm

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