Thursday, February 7, 2013

Economic Times: Editorial - Ideas can be debunked but not outlawed

Ideas can be debunked but not outlawed EDITORIAL, 8 FEB 2013

"Democracy in India," said Ambedkar, "is only a top dressing on an Indian soil which is essentially undemocratic." Constitutional morality, he added, is to be cultivated, since Indians have yet to learn it. Decades after that statement, it would seem that the process of learning is, at best, still a work in progress or, at worst, an impossible task. And when the highest court in the land, meant to uphold and protect the democratic spirit, censures an academic for his utterances, it only buttresses that pessimistic outlook.

The Supreme Court might have spared Ashis Nandy from being arrested — after an FIR was lodged against him for remarks alleged to be anti-Dalit — but in its admonishing the sociologist for his comments, it seems to have, even by default, veered dangerously close to approving the notion that ideas cannot be expressed freely. "We are not at all happy," the SC bench reportedly said, and also told Mr Nandy's lawyer that his client "has no licence to make such comments". The Constitution guarantees freedom of speech, of course, within logically permissible limits.

But it is in drawing the boundaries of those limits that a polity can display whether the democratic spirit is a mere top dressing or a lived reality. A truly democratic society is one where ideas, particularly contentious ones, can be debated — whether accepted, celebrated or debunked — in a free exchange. Short of deliberately and actively promoting hatred or violence, little else by way of words need be censured.

And, unfortunately, even though perhaps unintentionally, the SC might appear to be adding to the unsavoury clamour for restrictions on ideas and expression. That is quite avoidable.

Giving in to various sections claiming offence at the drop of a hat can only make for a republic of hurt sentiments. A statement or an idea, whether obnoxious, nuanced or contentious, is matter for a rational, even if heated, debate. Logically, freedom of speech should imply even a right to offend, given the many holy cows and shibboleths that retard the progressive development of our society. Intolerance needs to be binned.

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