Cultural Emergency of India – Akshay Mehta

In the last month, the nation, driven by the ever increasing shrillness of 24-hour news channels, aided by the ever more intransigent nature of protesters, lurched from outrage to outrage. It began with outrage on Yoyo Honey Singh’s concert – making him a household name. The protests had an effect of getting his New Year concert cancelled, but as compensation he became so known, that he was on national television as a featured performer in the finals of a music talent show. Then this was followed by outrage on misogynist statements by relatively obscure political personalities, giving them the kind of publicity that money cannot buy. But the price of this was public haranguing on TV till they apologised.

Then there were protests on Ashish Nandy’s statements, followed up by a FIR under the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989; outrage on Shah Rukh Khan’s article(“Being a Khan”, on how he was treated by politicians; asking him to return to his native land) followed by a lengthy explanation; right wing protests on Pakistani authors visiting the Jaipur Literature Festival, forcing the authors to cancel the show; potential rage on Salman Rushdie visiting Kolkata that led the Mamata Banerjee Government to prevent him. And finally protests by some Muslim organisations in Tamil Nadu against Kamal Hassan’s new Tamil Film Vishwaroopam – which has taken a life of its own.

Just as a cycle of protest and outrage dies out, a new cycle of protest and outrage begins, the previous outrage is forgotten. It is almost as though this has become the Republic of Outragistan. Ask those protesting about what they are protesting about – and they will tell you in all earnestness – against an insult to xyz (where xyz could be muslim religious intolerance, language, culture, nation, hero, sentiments, feelings). Most have not even interacted with the objects of their outrage.

People have begun to identify themselves by the things they hate rather than those they love. “There is nothing more frightening than active ignorance.” It is a quote that comes to mind every time there are protests about books, authors, paintings, films, music – in short ideas and concepts. Most who protest have neither read, nor seen, nor experienced the object of their outrage. They believe that the idea has profaned what they hold in great esteem. And, they think, therefore, that they have the right to silence this ‘offending’ view so that no one gets to experience it . “The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it.If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error”. In India, Evil of this nature is triumphant time and again. Opinion is getting repressed, creativity is being suffocated and intellectual and personal liberty are on the line of repression. Organisations with political backing stop couples from cuddling, women from smoking and drinking, films from being released, books from being sold, essays from being taught, paintings from being viewed with rich political dividends. Instead of being arrested for breaching the peace, cultural vigilantes call the shots.

As author Salman Rushdie, no stranger to censorship and an attempt to muzzle his right to express, points out – there is a “cultural emergency” in India , that allows mobs to disrupt the work of artists, writers and film makers. Art, films, books and music has no military of its own, whereas fringe groups attacking such cultures are violent and supported by politicians. Politicians are lit up when incidences of cultural protests are in flow, as they can make a strong vote bank by supporting such fringe groups. The big question is what should the silent victim do?  Censorship is being applied in the name of maintaining law and order. And, herein lies the crux of the matter. Law and order cannot be maintained by submissing to outrage. Nor is it by giving in, to the threat of violence. Law and Order is maintained by protecting the rights of the individual against the ire and rage of a group. The more various governments give in, the more they encourage the politics of competitive disruption of society and the attempt to stifle voices. “If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind (On Liberty, 1859)”. In India, the concept of freedom has to move away from placating groups that claim to be offended, to protecting individuals who have the right to offend. That will be the test of Democracy.

In recent years, the government has cast a watchful eye on the Internet, demanding that companies like Google and Facebook prescreen content and remove items that might be deemed “disparaging” or “inflammatory,” according to technology industry executives there. In November, police in Mumbai arrested a 21-year-old woman for complaining on Facebook about the shutdown of the city after the death of the nativist politician Bal K. Thackeray; another Facebook user was arrested for “liking” the first woman’s comment. The grounds for the arrests ?  “Hurting religious sentiments.”

The new intolerance  is also being fuelled by a section of India’s sensation-seeking media, which favours certain political leaders, exaggerate the facts and corner activists making them temporarily speechless. Also politicians should share a large part of the blame. “When politicians abdicate the responsibility of standing up for the average citizen in the face of such action, when they become cheerleaders for intimidation in fact, the republic is in trouble indeed. But, again just as we are deciding how intolerant the society is, along comes a scathing speech by a politician Akbaruddin Owaisi , openly disrupting communal harmony between hindus and muslims. This is the time you start wondering-does India have too much freedom of speech? Who decides what is too much?  As per our constitution freedom of expression/speech should not impinge on another’s constitutional rights. To some extent, in that lies the answer. Freedom, in fact is power; and with power comes responsibility. Average Indians treat ‘freedom’ like free alcohol… most often unable to handle it. The Indian Constitution is no better or worse than any other in the world. According, to me freedom of speech should be absolute. There is no grey area here. Today, I do not agree with Owaisi-but he has the right to speak his mind, similarly a simple man on the street should have the freedom to call him an idiot. I should be allowed to criticize any religion, faith, leader etc. as I feel about it, and you should be allowed to rebut my arguments. This is what freedom of speech means. If any part of this is curtailed, the said freedom ceases to exist. And no – there is never ‘too much freedom of speech”.

But again I consider that one aspect of absolute freedom is that it is never too much, but has consequences; like all rights it comes with responsibility. An example of an above argument is that no one has the right to shout “fire” in a crowded place. Such an expression or speech incites other to directly harm third parties, which justifies banning certain inflammatory types of speech. Shouting ‘fire !’ ( fire here can be hate speeches, abuses, violence provoked by speeches) is more analogous to the unnecessary pulling of a fire alarm, which is illegal. Extending this argument, I suggest that hate speeches should be banned because they incite violence and disrespect India’s culturally diverse society. On the other hand, I suggest that freedom of speech should be limited to ‘ criticism and offence’ as it is just expression of one’s point of view or one’s view on a specific event or situation. Also, it’s claimed that the best way to oppose speech, art, music, books etc. you don’t like is to use your own free expression against it, and that the whole point of freedom of speech/expression is to protect ‘extreme’ speech; after all, by definition ‘acceptable’ or ‘mainstream’ expression needs no such protection. Thus, the Indian government should protect the expression of an opinion and give full protection to the victim in case there is protest against him, and also the government should arrest a person who delivers a hate speech, causing serious harm to the society.

As a developing country, India is caught in middle of old fashioned ways of life, sexist policies, rich traditional background and new progressive ideas. How they react in connecting their traditional background to the modern progressive world will be a key factor in how India is viewed in the future. I believe India will handle this issue well though. A little over half a century ago they had to deal with another reinvention, when they became independent of the British empire. They came out of it, the world’s largest democracy, and a nuclear armed state. Such determination is a great trait of the Indian population, and that determination will allow them to take the best of their traditional cultural background with them into the future.

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