The abject surrender of the Loksatta editor, who apologised for publishing an editorial critical of sainthood for Mother Teresa, is one more nail in the coffin of free speech. While it is fashionable in these "intolerant" times to blame the Hindu right wing for curtailing free speech, the fact is this group has only come to the ban-and-gag party in the last decade or two, starting with the exile of the late MF Husain and more recently for pulping Wendy Doniger's book on Hindus.
What the "liberal" media is unwilling to accept is that the basic curbs on free speech have worked largely against the majority community's right to freedom of expression, and not the minorities. as blasphemy is not a feature of Hinduism at all. Hindus do not attack those who attack Hinduism as much as the latter do.
Consider the evidence. Despite the pulping of Wendy Doniger's book on Hindus (to much hand-wringing by fake liberals), it is back everywhere on bookshelves following a change in the publisher. But we don't see Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses anywhere. JNU is reported to have discarded Bertrand Russel's Why I Am Not A Christian with Kancha Ilaiah's Why I Am Not a Hindu. But there is no Why I Am Not A Muslim by Ibn Warraq in any academic institution in India. Or Ambedkar's Thoughts on Pakistan.
The reason why the Sangh is occasionally treading along the path of intolerance is largely to gain equivalence with the Abrahamic religions, which believe blasphemy is a crime and are willing to create mayhem to prove it. Two sections in the Indian Penal Code - Section 153 A (promoting enmity between groups on grounds of religion, etc) and section 295 A (deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting religion or religious beliefs), in fact, indirectly encourage intolerance since they can be used by belligerent groups to ban anything by threatening violence.
This is easily done by adherents of the Abrahamic religions since blasphemy is a valid ground for offence there, but in Hinduism it is not the case.
Consider, again, the evidence. We worship Durga, but we (large sections, that is) don't get outraged if someone thinks Mahishasura is worth mourning. We tried to pretend outrage over Aamir Khan's PK, which tilted largely against Hindu beliefs, but it went on to become the biggest commercial hit in Hindu-dominated India. We love Sri Rama and Sri Krishna, but there are temples to Ravana and Amartya Sen has repeatedly questioned Sri Krishna's advice to Arjuna as given in the Gita. We consider Gandhi a Mahatma, but there is no dearth of criticism against him, and no apology is demanded from his critics. Dalits repeatedly abuse and critique Gandhi and they don't get pilloried for this.
But Mother Teresa, "Oh, my God, no. How can we critique this noble soul and Saint?"
In "liberal" English language media's Idea of India (it's more likely the Idea of India International Centre, where these fake "liberals" hang out), the Mahatma can be critiqued but rubbishing "Saint" Teresa is "communal". In effect, they have bought the Abrahamic idea of blasphemy, and their idea of free speech is about critiquing the only religion that does not accept blasphemy as a valid thought. In other words, use the essential liberality of Hinduism to belabour it, and steer clear of religions that invoke blasphemy.
It is this one-sided playing field that has encouraged the Sangh to decide two can play the blasphemy game. Its feigned outrage on issues ranging from MF Husain's paintings to PK emanate from the thought that if you do not begin to constitute a threat to public peace and harmony, the field will continue to be tilted.
Currently, articles 153A and 295A are used largely to stamp down on free speech and blasphemy. These articles are an eyesore in the statute books of a liberal republic that is supposed to respect free speech, even if it sometimes offends groups of people.
Article 153A's wording is so wide that you can use it to ban almost anything even mildly offensive to some people. Its wording runs thus:
"Section 153A. Promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language, etc, and doing acts prejudicial to maintenance of harmony..."
(a) by words, either spoken or written, or by signs or by visible representations or otherwise, promotes or attempts to promote, on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language, caste or community or any other ground whatsoever, disharmony or feelings of enmity, hatred or ill-will between different religious, racial, language or regional groups or castes or communities, or
"(b) commits any act which is prejudicial to the maintenance of harmony between different religious, racial, language or regional groups or castes or communities, and which disturbs or is likely to disturb the public tranquillity...
"2[or] 2[(c) organises any exercise, movement, drill or other similar activity intending that the participants in such activity shall use or be trained to use criminal force or violence or knowing it to be likely that the participants in such activity will use or be trained to use criminal force or violence, or participates in such activity intending to use or be trained to use criminal force or violence or knowing it to be likely that the participants in such activity will use or be trained to use criminal force or violence, against any religious, racial, language or regional group or caste or community and such activity for any reason whatsoever causes or is likely to cause fear or alarm or a feeling of insecurity amongst members of such religious, racial, language or regional group or caste or community,] shall be punished with imprisonment which may extend to three years, or with fine, or with both."
Article 295A has this to say:
"295A. Deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs.
"Whoever, with deliberate and malicious intention of outraging the religious feelings of any class of 273 [citizens of India], 274 [by words, either spoken or written, or by signs or by visible representations or otherwise], insults or attempts to insult the religion or the religious beliefs of that class, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to 4[three years], or with fine, or with both.]"
The upshot of the above provisions is that anyone threatening violence resulting from alleged feelings of hurt or outrage based on someone else's views or actions can prima facie obtain a gag order from the police.
These provisions follow from the Abrahamic notions of blasphemy, and thus it is the feelings of outrage generated in the minority communities that facilitate this attack on free speech. Various caste groups (as in the Perumal Murugan case) and the minorities have managed to gag others by calling any criticism as "hate speech".
These provisions can quite as easily be invoked to stop proselytisation activities by evangelical or Wahhabi groups, for who can argue that these do not result in "outraging the religious feelings of any class of citizens of India"? Evangelical literature is full of negative portrayals of Hindus and Hindu beliefs. Muslims regularly criticise idolatry.
The Sangh parivar and other Hindu groups have only now learnt to use sections 153A and 295A to tackle their critics.
But their problem is Hindus are not so easily outraged. The net result is these sections curb the majority community's right to critique others, and not the other way round. You can slander Gandhi but not Teresa.
If we want to support free speech both sections need to be scrapped and replaced with a shorter law that only bans exhortations to violence. It must be used not against those who provoke, but those who get provoked and move towards violence.
First Published On : Mar 21, 2016 11:40 IST