Saturday, September 26, 2015

P B Mehta & Free Speech in India

Some serendipitous YouTube surfing brought me to this video - A Speech by Shri Pratap Bhanu Mehta titled - The Strange Death of Free Speech in India. Now, I have been disillusioned for quite some time by India's liberal intellectuals and generally don't have much time for them. Whatever, his views may be, before or after this speech, this particular speech by Shri P. B. Mehta was different from the voice that you typically hear from some of those who are part of the elite masquerading as a secular-liberal intellectual in India today. It is a superb speech (about the 1st hour of the video) and I would recommend anyone reading this to listen to it. And the difference of this speech by Shri P.B. Mehta from your average liberal, elite pundit is that Shri Mehta comes across as a more honest man, at least here.

An almost exact replica of the speech delivered by Shri Mehta appeared as an article in The Open Magazine titled: The Crooked Lives of Free Speech  (Liberals lose the plot from Paris to Delhi) . (Despite it being in the printed form, I think listening to video is better).

It is worth discussing on the main themes and points that he makes regarding Free Speech and its history and usage in India. I have summarised the highlights of the speech/ article for me. The wordings in red are probably me reading between the lines or interpreting the speech rather than being said explicitly by Shri Mehta.

1) These are precarious times for speech all around with Charlie Hebdo type attacks and what have you. (Possibly also because a RW government is in India - but this is left unsaid of course).Free speech is the battleground for a lot of the political divisions as well as mobilizations. At the same time, societies and governments are concerning themselves with the debate between surveillance & liberty and liberty is on the losing side at the moment. We see all kinds of censorship these days and so things are overall looking bad for free speech. Why then is not enough outrage and concern on this issue in India today ? (I would think enough and more are shouting fascism at every other thing, but that's just my opinion). Does this mean Illeberalism (Code word for Hindu RW perhaps) is rising? However, that is not the case, because the big fear in our democratic arena has been Plato's fear of debasement of democratic discourse as compared to Mills' fear of censorship. And actually in India, social restraint or the tradition of India's tolerance is now completely collapsing as traditional structures of caste etc are collapsing. And so it is not illliberalism as such but the loosening of restraints on all side which is causing censorship.(An interesting point made by him was that the biggest critic of Sec 66A of the IT Act have been the "so called bigots" (probably referring to Internet Hindu Trolls) and not "liberals" as such.)

2) The Politics of Free speech : Now to my favourite part of the speech in which Shri Mehta demonstrates how every attack on some work of art/ literature etc, by extremists ends up being a victory for the mob or the assassin. Given that we know that in the age of the internet, the demand for a ban for a book or cartoon immediately draws more attention to it, it can be inferred that the demand is generally not for real banning but actually to draw attention or gain publicity for an issue for social or political ends.

Summarizing the situation and four typical scenarios to the usual flash-point situation:

Let us consider the situation of a book/ cartoon/ speech by someone (generally considered intellectual exercising free speech offends deeply the sensitivities of a group - typically religious.

Scenario Number 1) Invoke Mark Twain, and ask folks to show respect. In other words, the free speech using folks should not do the offending as an exercise of  "respect peoples' sentiments". And with this restraint shown and thereby respect for their religion gained - the attackers win.

Scenario Number 2) "Civil Society" throws full weight behind the makers of the offensive speech - they hold rallies, republish books etc. This results creating greater social polarisation, the attackers are able to prove the point that these people truly disrespect what they hold sacred etc and with greater polarisation done - the attackers win again.

Scenario Number 3) : Folks try to isolate the attackers from their communities by saying things like the attackers of Charlie Hebdo are not real Muslim type things. This is the typical apologist response and used widely by politicians having to be politically correct and many well meaning liberals. But what it ends up doing is once again sacrelizing the faith that was being attacked by the free speech offenders - thereby proving the point of the attackers that their faith is indeed sacred.

Scenario Number 4)  The whataboutery or hypocrisy traps to expose the double standards of people. If the Prophet Mohd can't be drawn as a cartoon, how is it OK for  Saraswati or Ganesha being allowed to be drawn in an offensive manner and so on. And really having drawn some arbitrary boundaries in the past, these are indefensible positions. And in light of changing circumstances this essentially becomes a debate to redraw the boundaries of acceptability. 

3) Other Highlights of the speech : There are many other great examples Biggest betrayals of free speech have been liberals and center and not fringes. There's great insight about how three very different laws: (i) Article 295 of Criminal Procedure Court - which protects religions against offensive speech with malicious intent; (ii) Representation of People's Act - which prevents use of religious speech in election campaigns; and (iii) Various anti conversion laws and judgments by the courts upholding them are based on the same underlining premise that religion is a sublime object and things relating to religion have to be handled with care and that it is acceptable logic that people lose their agency when religion comes into the the picture. India's constitutional origins are explained in terms of paternalism and deep statism. Countries choose their bias based what they fear most - where they fear of tyranny most - they go for liberty and where they fear social oppression most - they go for state empowerment; and in the case of India - it has clearly been the latter. There is a great anecdote on the debate on the 1st amendment and how S P Mukherjee challenged Nehru by asking if Nehru trusted the people of India and how Nehru basically said no. There are quite a few other points and anecdotes and a lament on the tragic split in India's free speech history wherein India's progressives (Congress) were  willing to create oppressive legal regime for achieving progressive outcomes, while those who were libertarian in their outlook and wanted more restrained legal regimes ended up being tainted as communal

And no line was funnier than the admission, that not a single legal instrument of suppressing free speech that is being used by the BJP has had to be created by them - they had already been created by and used by the Congress. 

To conclude, I found the speech to be extremely educative and illuminating. It was also refreshing to see a self proclaimed liberal giving an honest account of the various anti free speech positions taken by progressives in the past. While I agree with his broad conclusion that the mutual respect model of not offending will no longer work in this digital age, it will take a lot more than one Pratap Bhanu Mehta speech, for India's elites to confront the sins of omissions and commissions of their own side, in both the past and present state of free speech, before earning the moral authority to pontificate on this issue. 

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