Abuse of Freedom vs Freedom to Abuse

One of my favourite quotes has always been Voltaire’s, “I may not agree with what you say, but I’ll defend to death your right to say it.” That one line, to me, is the fine line that separates true civilization from the laws of the jungle. That one, undeniable principle should be the bedrock of any system that aspires to be truly democratic.

Why, you might ask, am I worried? The very fact that I can sit in my armchair and comment on everything from the government to Google Maps proves, if proof is needed, that my right to free speech is being upheld. Right?

Wrong.

Freedom of speech these days comes with an asterisk next to it. Conditions apply. As long as what I say is not a threat either to national security, a blanket that covers everything unpopular with the ruling dispensation, or to local peace (covering everything under the rather broad ambit of ‘hurting the sentiments of the community’) – as adjudged not by qualified Solomons but by politicians and untrained keepers of the law – I am free to speak.

Ah, but unfettered speech is harmful, right? It needs to be curbed, na?

Let me take a step back here before I answer that question. Not as a retreat, but as an attempt to trace recent history back to the time when freedom meant something less… conditional. On a global level, that turning point was America bringing in the ‘draconian’ Patriot Act in 2001 – justified as it might have been in the backdrop of the 9/11 attacks, the Act still empowered officials to track and flag you as a possible enemy of the state on the basis of your thoughts, becoming the free world’s precedent for curbing your freedom on the pretext of assuring someone else’s. 

There is an interesting remark that Manoj Bajpai’s character makes in Special Chabbis – “Saza jurm sochne ke liye nahin, jurm karne ke liye milti hai. Aur wo bhi, jab unke khilaaf sabooth ho.” You do not get punished for thinking of a crime, but for its execution – and even then, only with proof. It is perhaps telling that the movie was a throwback to the 80s and a world that seemed a lot safer for the law-abiding citizen – except, perhaps, in Punjab.

In India, the Shah Bano case and its handling by the then Congress government was perhaps the first instance of the central Government buckling under organized pressure from a particular community, setting back perhaps decades of progressive reforms towards equality in caste, creed and gender. Though this had very little to do with free speech, it set the precedent for what followed: the attacks on MF Hussain (1996) and the protests against the movies ‘Hey Ram’ (2000) and ‘the Da Vinci Code’ (2006).

I know that as a Hindu, any defence I make of the protest against Hussain’s painting will be viewed with coloured lenses. But I am only quoting a contemporary of Hussain’s by repeating the same question many Hindus had at the same time – would Hussain have dared to depict any of Islam’s or Christianity’s icons thus? Would he have faced as much vitriol from those communities if he had?

The later years provide the answer. 

The ‘Da Vinci Code’ was banned in many countries because it hurt the sentiments of Christians, but surprisingly, the Christian West, despite its protests, allowed it to be shown with only a disclaimer; the more diverse East was ironically the more restrictive, banning the movie outright in several countries and states and buckling under organized pressure. 

When a Danish paper published cartoons depicting the Prophet, Islamic sentiments were hurt. The protests turned violent in many places and degenerated into an us-vs-them mentality in many parts of the world, further isolating the communities and fostering the air of distrust and disrespect.

Where – and it is the benefit of hindsight to be so judgmental – the world went wrong was in giving in to these voices of emotion. The government should have ensured a level playing field to the two sides and left it at that, instead of silencing one voice on the pretext of avoiding violence. That is the fundamental problem when it comes to protectionist censorship – there will always be a bias, for the simple reason that it will be human beings operating that censorship.

It is perhaps symbolic of how much we have fallen when I receive a petition on Change.org against Shah Rukh Khan’s promotion of ‘fair skin.’ 

Really, that’s your concern right now? was my first thought. 

The second was more introspective and led to this article. What right do I have to dictate Shah Rukh Khan’s endorsements? Why should I intervene on decisions that are purely personal, either at the advertiser’s end or at the buyer’s? Who am I to presume that I should educate the rest of the world on the (non-)interrelationship between fairness and success in life?

And that is where we are now. We took the step from defending our sentiments to promoting our sentiments under the same disguise – and took that step back from being understanding creatures to those that thrive on strength and numbers. We lose our individual identities because that identity is carved into, and the property of, so many emotional communities at so many levels. We care not about other individuals but the communities that we are aligned with or against; we devolve our understanding back to stererotypes and prejudices.

I am a dark-skinned, Tamil-speaking, MBA-holding, ex-software-engineer, a Hindu, a Brahmin and a resident of Bengaluru, Karnataka. But if I am to rise to every slight, imagined or otherwise, to any dark-skinned OR a Tamilian OR an MBA grad OR IT professional OR Hindus OR Brahmins OR Kannadigas OR Bangalore-ian, I won’t have time being who I am – an individual with my own opinions, and asking for the right to express them. I will only have time protesting against others’.

And then… the more I win, the more I lose.

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