Edited to add: A little over a year after we first had this discussion, Indyeah has written another post on the Freedom of Expression. Not much has changed in this one year – at least not for the better. Both the editor and publisher of The Statesman were arrested in Kolkata for reprinting a certain article, a certain word was beeped out of a song in the film Kaminey, Hussain accepted Qatari citizenzhip in the face of continued exile from his country and an article allegedly written by Taslima caused riots in Karnataka. We still have people rising in defence – rightly so – of Hussain’s Freedom of Expression. These very people seem a little reluctant to give Taslima – or the duo from The Statesman – the benefit of that same right.

The arguments of those condemning Taslima range from the ridiculous to the stupid. For instance, a few people claimed that as a guest in this country, she shouldn’t have written what she did. Let us, for a moment, concede this point, preposterous as the argument may be. But what about the right of an Indian newspaper – both the paper in Karnataka and The Statesman in Kolkata – to publish an article written by a foreign national?

Amidst renewed clamour for even more restrictions on our already constitutionally-curtailed right to the Freedom of Expression, something that has taken considerable beating from all kinds of goons and hooligans, it is absolutely critical that we safeguard and cherish that right. As I concluded in my post a year ago, this right is the only thing slowing our eventual transformation into a banana republic.

Unfortunately, we seem to have made rapid strides in that direction in this one year.

*

Indyeah wrote two passionate posts on why the freedom of expression should be restricted so as to not offend certain people. I left a comment on her blog, but had some further thoughts, so I may as well write on it here. I wrote:

“I agree, freedom should be accompanied by responsibility. However, the responsibility can never be ‘forced’. If I were to give my position in one line it is this: Your freedom of expression has more value than my right not to get offended.

I might disagree with your statements, your books, your drawings, your views. But I cannot deny you the right to have that freedom. I might not allow it on my blog (because that’s my property), but I will never question the freedom you have to put it on yours, or the freedom of other people who show the stuff on their blogs/newspapers/channels.

Freedom of speech and expression can never be compromised. Because once you compromise and give in to one pressure group – however loud or violent their methods, or however hurt they may be – you have opened the doors for everyone else to come in. And that is the end of freedom. Yesterday it was Rushdie, MF Hussain, Taslima Nasrin. Today you have objections to Water, Fire, Deshdrohi, the term “Slumdog”, and the term “Barber”. Tomorrow it might be something equally stupid. Once you give in to one group, and compromise, what reason can you give other groups? That their offended feelings are not good enough? Where do you draw the line?

Every freedom, every liberal principle derives from the freedom of expression. Take it away once, and you are already rolling downhill towards intolerance. India is a prime example.

And for all those who are offended: please don’t watch the films, read/buy/gift the books, view the cartoons, see/buy/gift the paintings, or put up links to those on your blogs. But you can’t stop the person from his right to have that opinion, and the rights of others to publish or display it.

For example, you may choose to not publish this comment. You have every right to do so, as it is your blog. But I have every right to retain my views, and express them freely on my blog, or on any other platform that might allow me to do so. Ditto for Rushdie, MF Hussain, Taslima, Danny Boyle and the girls who went to the pub in Mangalore.

Because the moment the state upholds the right not to be offended over the right to free expression, it is just a matter of time before Mangalore happens. Please remember that.”

Further, my view is that anyone who believes that Rushdie, MF Hussain or Taslima should have exercised “creative restraint” (an oxymoron) is no different from Muthalik. Shocking? Let me explain why.

Implicit in Indyeah’s argument is the judgment that the hounding of Rushdie, the killings of Theo van Gogh and Hitoshi Igarashi, the vandalism, violence and persecution that MF Hussain, Taslima Nasrin, Deepa Mehta and the supporters of Laines’ work have been subjected to were ‘invited’, because their works and expressions hurt people, ‘immature’ people who then resorted to violence as a form of protest. It is also implied that ‘creative restraint’ would have negated the need for ‘provoked’ violence.

So how is this different from Muthalik? He is offended that Indian women were drinking alcohol and wearing clothes that hurt his sentiments – both of which were legitimate ‘expressions’ of the women concerned. Legitimate expressions of emancipation, modernity, an independent income, a culture they believed in, legitimate expressions of their right to choose. Muthalik and his goons were offended, and they resorted to violence, exactly like the Islamic fanatics in the case of Rushdie and Taslima, and the Hindu fanatics in the case of Hussain, Mehta and Laines. By the same logic, if the women had exercised ‘restraint’, the violence (implicitly ‘invited’ and ‘provoked’) would never have happened.

What gives any of us the right to condemn the latter, without condemning the former? Who am I to decide that Muthalik was wrong in feeling offended – and resorting to violence – but that the people who attacked Hussain et al. were legitimately offended and worthy of support?

I feel her argument condemns Muthalik (and rightly so), but seeks to exonerate (against every civilised principle) the other goons for similar crimes.

Freedom of expression cannot give in to pressure groups. And to counter her argument’s biggest fallacy, it is not just about artists glorifying genitalia (and so what if they do?) – it is about all of us and our choices. Once you compromise, where do you draw the line? There will be more Muthaliks tomorrow who will be offended by the most trivial things, none related to art.

Indyeah mentions, in support of her thesis, that we already have restrictions on our fundamental rights, so why the fuss? Correct. The exceptions to the Right to Freedom are so vaguely worded that the government can see just about anything as violating all of those provisions. But the fact that it’s a fait accompli doesn’t make it right.

She asks, what is the solution in India? No one knows. But I know the solution does not lie in curtailing freedom. It does not lie in capitulating, as the state has, to certain pressure groups – because that only signals to others that the state is willing to compromise, depending on the levels of noise and violence. The battle’s lost right there. Such surrender, and restrictions on freedom, will only embolden newer fanatics. Is that what we want?

Finally, contrary to her assumption, I have no illusions about India ever turning into a civilised, tolerant nation. I would, however, value freedom of expression because it is one of the few things that will slow – not stop, just slow – our inevitable transformation into a banana republic. We’re almost there, anyway. While it is my fond hope that it doesn’t happen in my lifetime, I’m not holding my breath.

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Saudi Arabia took the debate about beauty and the commoditisation of women to a whole new level this Friday.

Sample this surreal piece of breaking news from Riyadh: “Saudi beauty queen Aya Ali al-Mulla trounced 274 rivals to win a crown, jewellery, cash and a trip to Malaysia, and all without showing her face.

To win the title of Miss Moral Beauty, Miss Mulla had to go through three months of ‘tests’ to prove how much more dutiful than the other contestants she was towards her parents, and society.

While one of the organisers claims that “The real winner in this competition is the society”, what I found interesting was the fact that the only other pageants so far held in Saudi Arabia had as contestants “goats, sheep, camels and other animals, aimed at encouraging livestock breeding”. What a great list to be part of!

Well, after decades of struggle, Saudi women have finally been given their own pageant and now take their rightful place in that long and exalted list. Though I am very sure the aim – quite laudably – still continues to be socially sanctioned breeding.

Because that’s what women everywhere are for, isn’t it? That’s what moral beauty is all about – duty towards husband, parents and society. And fecundity. Let’s not forget the fecundity.

The guardians of Hindu culture are back. Women should not go to pubs and should not drink. I wonder what else their charter of demands comprises. That women should be veiled from head to toe? That they should not be educated? That they should endure a life of servitude – euphemistically called marriage – and domestic violence? That they should consider themselves fair game as far as rape, molestation and sexual assault are concerned?

And if this wasn’t shocking enough, it seems this ‘cause’ has found supporters in the most unlikely places. Apart from the usual suspects, it seems even a Congress Chief Minister and the Communists agree that women should not be in pubs. “India is not Europe. Mushrooming of pubs is not part of the Indian culture,” said Communist Party of India state (West Bengal) secretary Manju Kumar Majumdar.

Aaaah…Indian Culture – the glories of a 5000 year old civilisation that celebrates feudalism, casteism, ignorance, misogyny, cowardice, treachery, selfishness and a total lack of concern for one’s fellow citizen.

Please join me, as we enter the 60th year of our constitution, in saluting the people of this country who have allowed the great gift of constitutional democracy to wither away in large parts of the country and, where it hasn’t withered away, to turn into a shameful travesty.