Last week, four news items made the rounds, bringing the issue of free speech or freedom of expression (FoE) back to the centre of the mainstream narrative.
1. A 17-year-old student from Baduria in West Bengal got arrested for a Facebook post where he made some ‘objectionable’ observations about the Islamic faith. The Muslim protestors didn’t stop at his arrest and indulged in violence.
2. An FIR was lodged by the cyber police, Mumbai, against Tanmay Bhatt of All India Bakchod, an independent stand-up comedy group, for making a meme of Narendra Modi with a dog filter. It all started with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s look-alike being spotted at a railway station and AIB co-founder Tanmay Bhat putting up the meme on Twitter.
3. Madhur Bhandarkar’s new film Indu Sarkar was asked by the CBFC to make 12 cuts and add two disclaimers. Madhur refused to make the cuts and has taken the matter to the revising committee. He has been asked by the CBFC to do away with dialogues such as Bharat ki ek beti ne desh ko bandi banaya hua hai, Aur tum log zindagi bhar maa-bete ki gulami karte rahoge, Main toh 70 saal ka buddha hoon, meri nasbandi kyun karwa rahe ho? and Ab iss desh mein Gandhi ke mayane badal chuke hai. They have also been asked to remove the Indian Herald newspaper cutting that mentions leaders' names like Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Morarji Desai and Lal Krishna Advani during 1975. In addition to that, the words that have been ordered to be removed from Indu Sarkar include Kishore Kumar, IB, PM Section Officer, RSS, Akali, communist, Jayprakash Narayan. Again, it didn’t stop here. The Congress has gone on an all-India protest against the film and has already ransacked two press conferences of Madhur after which he has been provided police security by the Mumbai Police.
4. A documentary — The Argumentative Indian on Nobel Laureate, economist and Harvard professor Amartya Sen — made by Suman Ghosh has been asked by the CBFC to beep Gujarat where Sen talks about ‘Gujarat criminalities’ in reference to Indian democracy. At another point in the documentary, there is a reference to the enemy in India being religious leadership. CBFC asked ‘India' to be removed. The third word asked to be removed is where Sen speaks of India being interpreted as ‘Hindu'. The fourth change is in Sen's line about the Vedas being used in a sectarian way these days. CBFC has asked for the words ‘used' and ‘these days' to be removed. And finally, in CBFC chief, Pahlaj Nihalani’s words: “Prof. Sen refers to the Hindutva view of India as ‘banal’. We asked for the offensive adjective to be removed and asked them to remove ‘cow’ where Professor Sen while speaking of religious integration, makes a frivolous reference to the ‘cow’… because we felt a documentary on an Indian Nobel laureate referring so insensitively to our politics and religion could result in a serious breach of the peace and harmony of the country. They have been screening the film without a censor certificate in various public places of India. That's illegal. Freedom of expression is fine. What about breaking the law?"
If you examine closely, all these matters are juvenile, laughable and inconsequential in the context of the world’s largest democracy and the third largest economy, distressed with numerous complex issues seeking attention. But they made news, created massive outrage followed by protests, dharnas, goondaism, arrests, damaging of public property and violence. And a sharply divided house. One may ask, how can there be divisions on the matter of FoE in a democracy? But as expected the opinion leaders, influencers, media, civil society and social media enthusiasts were all divided on these four matters pertaining to FoE. Obviously, the liberals supported AIB and Amartya Sen and ignored the 17-year-old boy and Madhur Bhandarkar as if they do not exist in the marketplace of news. I haven’t seen any opinion leader talking about the miseries of the teen with the same concern as they speak in defence of AIB. I haven’t seen anyone support Madhur’s FoE with the same love and passion as they showered over Sen. On the other hand, the right wing outraged against the AIB meme, filed complaints, outraged over the arrest of the teen, outraged over West Bengal violence and outraged over the former’s silence and selective support of FoE.
Political parties, as it happens, played to the script and hijacked the debate of FoE to score political points and the liberals used both sides to their advantage. Like always, it became a battle of ‘whose FoE is more sacred?’ between liberals and the conservatives and played out as such on the theatre of social media. Common man on the street has no time to understand FoE in his race to earn his living. He doesn’t care about the legal constitution but follows the social constitution. Since India is a diverse and complex country with beliefs, customs, habits, conditions, polity, ideology, needs, food, costume, language changing every hundred kilometers, there are a plethora of social constitutions. The scope of FoE also keeps changing according to these social constitutions.
In a society like this the role of the media, artists, intellectuals, opinion leaders and influencers and reference groups becomes critical because they integrate this complexity with one central narrative on fundamental issues like FoE and liberty. Collectively they are known as liberals. These liberals have failed in their job and I’ll tell you why. But before that let me clarify that I am keeping conservatives and right-wingers out of this because they as a group don’t have the same power as the liberals. Most of our humanities academia, media, art and cultural institutions, and faculties that construct the mainstream narrative are filled with leftist ideologues. They have intellectual and communication power which the right-wing doesn't enjoy. By choosing to highlight one incident and ignoring another; coining terms like the ‘Internet Hindu’ while ignoring Leftist and Islamist violence and amplifying a local lynching, communalising it but ignoring the lynching of RSS workers in Kerala, the liberals have displayed a very vulgar side of liberalism.
I am not saying right-wingers aren’t selective, it’s expected out of them. They are conservatives. Their idea of FoE is restrictive. They have no qualms about their selectivity. They aren’t the ones who take the high moral ground. Liberals do. Right-wingers believe in boundaries, liberals want an open world. Right-wingers follow their social constitution and fight to protect it over and above the legal constitution. Liberals follow the legal constitution and they have taken it upon themselves to protect FoE absolutely at the cost of challenging the social or religious constitutions. But in real life, it’s just the opposite. Liberals amplify Sen’s and AIB’s case but remain silent when Madhur and that 17-year-old boy’s FoE is assaulted. Hence, they are guilty of selective outrage or partisan support of FoE.
A fleeting world of over-communication — wherein smart phones, digital technology, free-for-all information, free movement of ideas and globalisation, fading cultural boundaries, putting the entire diversity on the same platform with equal advantage and loss — has resulted in immense confusion and chaos. Since our legal system is ineffective and the law enforcement mechanism vulnerable, FoE has become a perfect tool to settle political points and reinforce agendas and narratives. Our legal constitution neither protects FoE, nor interferes or advises in such matters and mostly remains indifferent. If you force it to act, it so entangles the FoE victim in draconian legal technicalities that sooner or later the victim forgets FoE and withdraws. This confusion around FoE is also because the government or Parliament never clarify their position on the matter of FoE. That’s why people have taken this matter in their hands and each party wants to define FoE according to its vested interests. The government is guilty of such lawlessness. But then when was the government not guilty of anything?
With the absence of governmental or legal attention, people get away with anti-India slogans and while they can be arrested for ideological Facebook posts, defamation cases never reach anywhere, films are censored -- irrespective of the regime, paintings are burnt forcing the artist to flee the country, theaters are damaged but our legal constitution remains indifferent. Or, hapless. In such critical times, even our liberals are found silent. Or, amplifying only one narrative. Self-proclaimed champions of FoE have repeatedly been found to be selective and opportunist. Yes, CBFC is guilty of censorship of ideas and creative work. But the liberals are equally guilty of censoring the assault on the FoE of the right-wing. CBFC constitutionally weakens the absolutism of FoE. Liberals weaken its purpose, intellectually.
FoE is the greatest discovery in human history — one that is prior to every other discovery. FoE doesn’t mean speaking what one may like, it means questioning and challenging faith, revelation, dogma, authority, charisma, augury, prophesy, intuition, clairvoyance, conventional wisdom, subjective certainty and help humanity move towards scientific and social enlightenment.
Genocides, killings, atrocities and violation of human rights is found in states where free speech is not allowed because FoE is the antidote to dictatorship and tyranny. Think about Hitler’s Germany or today’s China, Russia, North Korea, the African continent, and most of the Islamic world. How do dictators survive? They disallow dissent, hence, no FoE. If millions of citizens act together, no regime has the army to resist them. But citizens act only when they see the opinion leaders exerting their FoE against the state as a collective and united body. Citizens can be mobilised only through common knowledge which is created by public information. And public information is controlled by the liberals. But in the fight to protect FoE as a principle, our liberal group has been criminally selective and immorally opportunist, and therefore, weakening the very roots of our democracy.
FoE isn’t there just to keep the government in check, it works against the oppressors of everyday life, the exploitative boss, the paedophile preacher, the molester in the bus, separatists, corrupt, racists, bigots, and so on. Our governments routinely ban books, movies and jail opponents on superficial charges to silence them. But we find our liberals reacting only on those issues of FoE which serve their political agenda. How is Madhur’s FoE less important than Sen’s? How is an FIR against AIB’s for a Snapchat dog filter an assault on FoE and not the arrest of the 17-year-old boy for a Facebook ideological post? Liberals are those who do liberal things and the first principle of liberty is equality. Our liberals are found taking sides, pushing agendas, manipulating information, censoring news and faking news and then giving it credibility. They have failed to protect the very fundamental principle of liberalism.
FoE is also an accelerant to social engineering, progress and harmony. It starts working in reverse mode when the public information, constructed and controlled by the liberals, becomes selective and agenda driven. This results in chaos, conflict and violence. That’s the very purpose of jihadis, separatists and Naxals. That’s exactly, what is happening in India. I find liberals guilty on this charge.
Last year, while releasing my film on Urban Naxalism, Buddha In A Traffic Jam I was threatened, sabotaged and physically assaulted but the liberals not just maintained a deafening silence, some of them even discredited the movie without even seeing it. I had wondered then, why would they do this if their declared objective is to protect FoE, mine or theirs? Genuine liberals are those who stand up for everyone’s FoE, irrespective of ideas or ideology because they want to protect democracy and liberty.
Today, the same thing is happening with Madhur’s film. It’s a sad commentary on our liberalism that the liberals aren’t supporting a film based on the emergency. The emergency that crushed an entire nation’s liberty, its dignity, its FoE. It’s time to question "why so silent, who so selective my learned liberal friends?"
The author is an award-winning filmmaker, writer, public speaker and the founder of I Am Buddha Foundation. He tweets @vivekagnihotri
Updated Date: Jul 22, 2017 18:44 PM