It seems the battle between ‘Hindutva fanatics’ and ‘Wendytva fanatics’ has begun. On one side, we are told, are forces of free expression and freedom; on the other side are fascists who would stop at nothing in their quest to impose religious hegemony on everyone. The liberals would have us believe that anything and everything must be allowed in the name of free speech. The other group, which some liberals address as “extremists” and “fanatics” argue that Wendy Doniger’s book is the gravest threat to Indian culture since Mahmud of Ghazni.
The reality is somewhat less dramatic I am afraid. The villain here is oversimplification.
While it is true that the contents of Wendy Doniger’s book ‘The Hindus’ contain the potential to offend many, it is also true that any kind of ban on it is a violation of freedom of expression. The right to free expression, if it is to mean anything at all, must extend to everyone and everything. Otherwise, it is not much of a right at all. By the same logic, any angry response to the book must also come under the ambit of the right to free expression.
The liberals among us may not realise it, but they are arguing against free speech when they suggest that those offended by Wendy Doniger’s book should not raise a hue and cry over it (as long as such outrage doesn’t translate into physical violence). After all, does a citizen of a free country not have the right to take offence? To argue that people should not take offence despite their religion being defamed and their icons being insulted is more than simply unfair, it is emasculating.
A more sensitive line that liberals might consider taking is this: ‘If you are offended by Wendy Doniger’s book, then let us talk about it.’
But why is it that in India, we never talk about these matters? Why is it that our approach towards any controversy is binary – we either praise it to high skies without having read it (just because it offends) or we declare it a danger and demand an absolute ban?
Let me give you the wrong answer first. It is not because ‘Hindutva fanatics’ are ‘intolerant’. And it is not because ‘liberals’ are upholders of free expression. The short history of independent India has had the ‘saffron’ side marching side by side with dissident authors like Taslima Nasrin and Salman Rushdie, as well as the ‘liberal’ side siding with fatwa-issuing fanatics like Ayatollah Khomeini and even the ‘secular’ Left.
The real reason we keep trying to shut the other side up is because we have been told from Day 1 that it is okay to do so. While the American Constitution’s First Amendment was an enabler of free speech, the First Amendment to the Constitution of India curtailed our freedom of expression. Jawaharlal Nehru, in his attempts to make sure that the Constitutionally-sanctioned freedom of speech was not ‘abused’ to offend religions, put severe restrictions on the Indian citizen’s right to criticise religions. Ever since, the unfortunate Amendment has been the source of legislation that has muzzled free speech and clamped down on independent thought. The most recent example of such legislation is Section 66(A) of the IT Act, which has been abused by parties on either side of the ideological spectrum to victimise those they perceived to be offensive.
Small wonder then, we jump at books with such ferocity when push comes to shove. Healthy idea exchange forms the spine of a modern nation. Neither the Left, nor the Right would say they stand for anything other than modernity and yet, because we live in an environment which accommodates intolerance, the Wendy Donigers of the world find India fertile ground for raising outrage and becoming generally more famous.
(Originally published at Niti Central on February 16, 2014)