Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Religion and free speech - II

I do not agree with what you have to say, but I'll defend to the death your right to say it. -Voltaire 

Religion, far from being a unifying force, has become a dividing force with each group shutting down views that don't accord with its own. There was the row over Ramanujan's 300 Ramayanas, Sanal Edamarku's run-in with church leaders, Narendra Dabholkar's murder, controversy over a textbook, the controversy over the Zubin Mehta concert, threatening an all-girl band in Kashmir....The last one brings to mind H. L. Mencken 's comment about the characteristic of Puritans everywhere: 'The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.' And those who say that Kashmir has more important things to do than listening to music concerts should read Karl Paulnack Welcome Address at The Boston Conservatory.

There is often the conflation of Indian culture with Hindu culture. There is always a Hindu structure beneath a Muslim structure. In a civilization as old as India, everything is built on top of something else. There may be a Buddhist stupa beneath the Hindu structure, a tribal place of worship beneath the stupa...where to stop? Who decides where to stop? As John Stewart Mill says in On Liberty, "..."the tyranny of the majority" is now generally included among the evils against which society requires to be on its guard."

It is disturbing to find majoritarian sentiments among the educated middle class section of the population. I am appalled when I hear liberal Hindus say that Hindus should follow the violent methods of radical Islam. (I am no Hindu apologist. The idea of India becoming a Hindu Pakistan is terrible. I think all these cults are, as Chritopher  Hitchens said, 'equivalent glimpses of the untrue'.) I keep getting confirmations of the observation by Avital Ronell, the second philosopher to talk in this documentary about conversations with various philosophers, who says that people who act with  a good conscience are the immoral ones.

So many concessions have been made to fundamentalist groups of all hues who engage in what Rushdie calls 'a competition of offendedness' in this discussion that that they can indulge in 'whataboutery' forever. This has increased the difficulty of putting the genie back in the bottle. In India, fundamentalists decide the limits of freedom of speech not informed, well-read citizens who are wise in the ways of the world. What happened recently in the UK is even more true in India: the abusers have freedom of speech, the abused don't. Rushdie writes in Joseph Anton:
At the heart of the dispute over The Satanic Verses...behind all the accusations and abuse, was a question of profound importance: Who shall have control over the story? Who has, who should have, the power not only to tell the stories with  which, and within which, we all lived, but also to say in what manner those stories may be told? For everyone lived by and inside stories, the so-called grand narratives. The nation was a story, and the family was another, and religion was a third.  As a creative artist he knew that the only answer to that question was: Everyone and anyone has, or should have that power. We should all be free to take the grand narratives to task, to argue with them, satirise them, and insist that they change to reflect the changing times.We should speak of them reverently, irreverently, passionately, caustically,or however we chose. That was our right as members of an open society. In fact, one could say that our ability to retell and remake the story of our culture was the best proof that our societies were indeed free. In a free society the argument over the grand narratives never ceased. It was the argument itself that mattered. The argument was freedom. But in a closed society those who processed political or ideological power invariably tried to shut down these debates. We will tell you the story, they said, and we will tell you what it means. We will tell you how the story is to be told and we forbid you to tel it in any other way. If you do not like the way we tell the story then you are an enemy of the state or traitor to the faith. You have no rights. Woe betide you! We will come after you and teach you the meaning of your refusal.
While religion is the elephant in the room, the intolerant streak in India has kept growing in other spheres too. Witness the furor over the Ambeddkar cartoon, Ashish Nandy's comments, Shoba de's tweet,  Aseem Trivedi's cartoons... Humourless politicians who take themselves too seriously are always a problem. Talking of humourless politicians, Rushdie relates an incident that took place when he attended a get-together at 10 Downing Street after Tony Blair was elected PM. There was a teddy bear in the room which had no name and Rushdie suggested that it be called Tony Bear. Blair was not amused.

Ratan Tata had once said that India was becoming a banana republic. I had thought that he was exaggerating. I would have been more in agreement if he had said that this was because successive governments have kept giving in to the shrill voices of extremists. India is passing through what Rushdie calls a 'cultural emergency'. Freedom of expression is tested only on views that don't agree with your own. Of course you will allow the expression of views that you agree with.

A citizenry dulled by religion easily accepts arguments like:  'it is for the public good', 'to maintain law and order', 'to avoid hurting religious sentiments', etc. As Christopher Hitchens says about the nature of censorship in this debate, 'It will all be done in the name of niceness. It will all be benign. Will you bear it?' Yes, if your main priority is next week's Bollywood  flick. In this humorous and thought provoking speech, Rushdie makes a key point: You keep the freedoms that you fight for. You lose the freedoms that you neglect.

PS: Salman Rushdie Bozar 13-11-2012 Complete Meeting

PPS: Christopher Hitchens, Deepa Mehta and Salman Rushdie - Love was everywhere 


  1. Suresh... How much do books influence the thoughts/actions of masses ?? Media aka TV does more damage to he common man's thoughts/actions,in my opinion.Though state does not control media (?), the influences in the thought processes of people are far more than radical writings!

  2. I agree. It is the fear from the unknown that makes us religious. We do not want to deviate from the trodden path. Until and unless we do not have a right to question our own religious practices, tolerance cannot increase.