Manohar Seetharam
Confusing And Subverting Free Speech
This article originally appeared in centreright.in. CRI content has now been subsumed in swarajyamag.com. The views expressed here are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of the editors of swarajyamag.com

The Indian left found itself badly exposed in the recent Salman Rushdie saga. The so called progressive part of the minority community openly broke ranks with the established left and left-liberals and made no bones about demanding that Rushdie be denied entry to India. Individuals from academia and theater alike, continued to support the rowdy elements in Jaipur – who had promised “Instant trouble” upon Rushdie’s real or virtual presence in the Jaipur Literary festival, by constantly legitimizing their urges to impose blasphemy laws upon Mussalmans and non-Mussalmans alike. But we have to hand it to the brilliant organizers of the Literature festival that despite so much internal crisis they managed to celebrate the Arab spring, show their support to the Palestinian state and to top it all succeeded in presenting a benign and charming image of the Muslim Brotherhood. Frankly, it seemed that the stage of Jaipur Literature Festival was nothing more than a glorified coffee shop.

For the last two to three days the entire left-liberal / progressive machinery seems to be working overtime to settle this score. An opportunity in the form of the issue of the movie Jashn-e-Azaadi could have come at no better time.  I haven’t watched the movie and hence will not comment on it’s contents, however what we know is that the censor board declined to certify and permit this movie for public viewing and screening. By it’s description from it’s makers one can conclude that the movie is indeed designed to make a political point. As of now student bodies like the ABVP who were opposed to lend the University platform for such political purposes seemed to have prevailed over the authorities of Symbiosis College Of Arts And Commerce.  As a result the College has canceled the scheduled screening of the said movie.

The first shots in this campaign -aimed at confusing the readers to submit to and unquestioningly accept the equality of the Salman Rushdie fatwa saga and the movie screening issue, were fired by the daily -“The Hindu”. Sudhir Kumar presents a brilliant takedown of such attempts by The Hindu here. This was followed by a series of posts at Kafila which again tried to work the same angle. The words fatwa, movie-ban seemed to have been clinically chosen to hammer in the equality of both these cases into the minds and hearts of unsuspecting readers. Even a very little and a momentary application of some basic human intelligence is sufficient to see both these issues for what they are and conclude that they are anything but similar.

The idea of free speech is propounded and accepted only for a certain public sphere, it is an obvious point but an essential one. I for example, cannot demand that a paper like “The Hindu” publish this post as their lead opinion piece. The newspaper falls outside the public sphere I just mentioned. Just like a newspaper labors to remain consistent to it’s ideals and reader expectations other public institutions like the Universities have to respond to student concerns and local pressures. As long as it is non-violent and legal there is absolutely nothing wrong with such lobbying and pressure tactics. For eg , years back students at many Engineering colleges brought pressure on their managements to disallow Dow Chemicals (Responsible for Bhopal gas tragedy) from recruiting students directly from their campuses, and the Institute administrations had to fall in line.

In the Rushdie episode we had a group which wanted to deny him entry within India, the same group had succeeded in ensuring a ban on his book. These steps were intended to deny Rushdie that very public space which is central to the concept of freedom of speech. It is nobody’s case, ( not even the ABVP’s I think) that the makers of this movie be deported from India or that the movie be banned. The movie is available freely on the internet. The producers of the movie can look for other venues for such screening with the approval of authorities of those respective venues. They have just been denied a platform which is primarily owned by the college and it’s students. If they wish to, they can stand outside the Railway platform and distribute free copies of the movie to the masses.

In the last few years there seems to be some nascent trend of nationalistic and centre-right voices finding firm footing in select few places. Platforms like universities, media, art etc have been exclusively used by the left-liberals of the nation for decades. They do it with impunity and with absolutely no sense of self-doubt. Those on the right who assert legally by forming pressure groups etc must continue to press forward without any moral baggage.