Monday, 27 June, 2022
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Our right to offend

I am not Charlie. But I will defend Charlie's right to free speech, even if it is bad cartooning.

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On a night when every journalist and commentator in the world is taking a position on the Paris massacre, National Interest can’t be breaking rank with the fraternity. Sure enough, terrorists have been targeting inconvenient journalists for some time now. Closer home, The Wall Street Journal‘s Daniel Pearl was ritually beheaded in Pakistan and his convicted assassin is living quite smugly in jail despite a death sentence on him, plotting more “action” on multiple mobile phones. In India, the first major conscious assault on journalism was seen in Punjab in the early eighties when Bhindranwale’s assassins killed not just selected newspaper editors, owners, reporters but even hawkers and vendors. Most notable was the killing of Lala Jagat Narain, the feisty owner and editor of Hindi daily Punjab Kesari, then his son Ramesh Chander, who had succeeded him. Incidentally, Ashwini Kumar Chopra (“Minna”), the current editor, is now the BJP Lok Sabha member from Karnal and still has to live with heavy security.

The Islamic world, though, has a lot to explain. The old explanation, that such terror acts are being carried out by a lunatic fringe and the entire community cannot be blamed and that Islam firmly forbids the taking of an innocent life, convinces nobody now, even though most say it as a platitude. It doesn’t work because one incident after another has shown us that condemnation from the “moderate” Islamic world and its most prominent states and leaders rarely has been unqualified. There are the predictable “root causes” and bland statements of the whole world being united in the fight against terror. This becomes more evident when the object of rage is somebody who is said to have caused offence to the faith.

This shows in the immediate aftermath of the Paris killings. While the rest of the world has been equally outraged, the reaction from leaders of the most powerful Islamic countries, including Pakistan, Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia, UAE and other rich Gulf states, has been very cautious, if any. In fact many of these countries have draconian blasphemy laws which would anyway have sent these cartoonists to the gallows, even public beheadings. The fatwa on Salman Rushdie, issued by Iran almost like a diktat of the sovereign, has rarely been questioned by Islamic leaders and scholars, and that when hardly any of them would have read the offending passages or may not be intellectually designed (like me) to decipher magical realism. Explanations for 9/11 can be found in “Muslim sense of victimisation by the West”, India’s many 26/11s have many such excuses, beginning with Kashmir and not ending with Gujarat 2002. You wait a couple of days and similar arguments will emerge on Charlie Hebdo. Were they going too far? Lampoon or not, did they have to push at the boundaries of freedom-and decency-by deliberately and consciously doing things that offended a great religion? Of course, all these will be suffixed with the usual “all terror is bad”, “nobody has the right to take a life”, etc. I say it with patient deliberation, but from the Islamic world you will be surprised to find the word “innocent” used for these journalists.

Also read: 5 reasons for the crisis in global Islam

Given these facts and history, which I am restating and affirming, it should be easy to do what is logically expected, to join the global outrage and solidarity with freedom of speech, doesn’t matter who it offends. It is a strong and persuasive idea. I recall anchoring a mega cover story in this magazine in 1989 following the fatwa against Rushdie and picking up a terrific quote from Leon Wieseltier, then literary editor of The New Republic: Thank God for blasphemy, because blasphemy made us free. Even today I shall defend Rushdie’s right to write what he wishes, but will I publish it to demonstrate my solidarity with the idea of free speech? I am afraid I may choose not do so. Will I censor that great offensive-defence of blasphemy from Wieseltier? The answer is no. Will I write, publish something that any faith may consider seriously blasphemous? Again the answer is no.

This should give an idea of where I am coming from, and where I am headed. My commitment to free speech is total and unqualified. As the old wisdom goes, I will defend your right to free speech whatever the consequences, even if I disagree, and to belabour that point, my right to disagree is as inviolable as yours to speak your mind. That is why the statement I am going to make now, in this surcharged week, is a loaded one and risky: I shall politely decline to demonstrate my commitment to free speech and finger to the killers by republishing the cartoons they found offending. And I will not tweet with #JeSuisCharlie (I am Charlie). If forced to take a black or white position on it, I would risk my hard-earned liberal and secular status (usually spelt “libtard” and “sickular” these days), to say, I Am NOT Charlie. But I will defend Charlie’s right to free speech, even bad cartooning.

It is fraught making any complex or nuanced argument in you-are-with-us-or-against-us times, but to defend total freedom of speech on the one hand and join a solidarity hashtag is contradictory. You should be able to support the other person’s right to free speech while being critical of him. You should not be constrained to agree, or repeat, his words, or cartoons. Defending somebody’s right to free speech should never be confused with having to defend also the content of what he is saying. To idiot-proof this further, because this will get me abuse from the left, right and centre, let me say that as the editor of an Indian publication I would have found these cartoons unpublishable, pointlessly offensive and just not funny. Just as I would politely say no to that hashtag, I would also pass the opportunity to prove my liberal, secular commitment by republishing these cartoons, even on social media. It is a line I have spoken often, and it is such a truism I should avoid claiming to have invented it, that there is no bigger power, or responsibility, in the hands of an editor than the power to decide what will be published, come what may, and equally, what will not be published, come what may. If something is deliberately designed to offend a faith, I shall say, no thanks. But if you are targeted for publishing it elsewhere, I will be on the pickets to defend you.

Anticipating the questions that will follow is easy. What about issues on which people of other faiths, particularly Hindus, take offence? Why don’t people who insult Hindu gods ever target Islam or Christianity? What about Aamir Khan and PK, to begin with? What about those questioning the authenticity of Ramayana and Mahabharata? What about M.F. Husain and his painting of Hindu goddesses? In my book, the same logic, the same test of editorial judgment would apply as with Charlie Hebdo cartoons. I will defend the freedom of each one to say or do as they wish, but I may agree with some, merely accept a few and be critical of the rest.

Also read: Not just Macron’s politics, it’s France’s brand of secularism that always clashed with Islam 

I will, therefore, have no problem defending PK. The film attacks godmen, or “managers of God”, as the alien calls them, and those types are particularly in bad odour now, if not in jail. In terms of its attack on Hindu conservatism, superstition, ritualistic idolatry, it says nothing new that great reformers have not said over the millennia, from Gautama Buddha to Guru Nanak to Maharishi Dayanand. It is precisely because Hinduism has been tolerant, non-dogmatic and open to change that it has grown and prospered. It is fashionable to say that Muslim rulers carried out mass conversions of Hindus at the point of the sword. If that were so, how come every single village along the GT Road between Delhi and Agra, the two Mughal capitals for centuries, has a Hindu majority? It is because Hinduism was open to criticism, new ideas and big-hearted enough to absorb them within.

I did, on the other hand, cause raised eyebrows at the Bangalore Literature Festival last year when I qualified my defence of Husain, and this when I was supposedly representing the liberal side on that panel. In my view, while Husain was at liberty to draw Hindu goddesses as he chose, those offended have the right to protest, even go to court, but peacefully. You can protest against PK as well, but not vandalise theatres. The beauty of liberal democracies is precisely this, they give you the right and space to protest, so you need not pick up guns, or even sticks and stones. People filing cases against Husain were taking lawful recourse and the Supreme Court had taken a fair view, clubbing them together in one court in Delhi to save the painter harassment. Secular UPA was in power and I wish he had stayed on and fought for justice instead of using the excuse to exile himself  – with his paintings – to a country that may not be a shining example of religious  freedom, but has no capital gains taxes. It’s in the same vein that I said it was fine for Deepa Mehta to portray a lesbian relationship between two loveless sisters-in-law in a crowded Hindu middle class family, no offence. But did they, Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das, have to be named Sita and Radha?

There is a problem with using liberalism as an excuse for causing offence to any faith particularly when there is a motive. That controversy will give you publicity, fame and commercial success. Liberal democracies will give those aggrieved the right to protest lawfully and I will not call the exercise of that right an assault on freedom. And if someone unleashes violence on you, I will rise in your defence. But I will not paint myself in the liberal corner with any judgmental hashtag, #IAmHusain, as much as I won’t say #IAmCharlie.

Also read: France attacks show Muslims’ self-inflicted paranoia. But Quran allows freedom of expression 


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