Sunday, February 3, 2013

HindustanTimes: Karan Thaper-Shame on us

Shame on us    Karan Thapar, February 02, 2013
The truth is we've become an intolerant people. When we don't like a film we stop its screening. When we disapprove of a book we ban it. When we disagree with someone's speech we censor it. We forget that other people have different views, different tastes, different ways of doing things. Our way, we insist, is the only way.

Yet we call ourselves a democracy and believe we uphold freedom of speech. But free expression is not just for those who we think are right. It's also for those who we believe are wrong. More critically, freedom of speech includes the right to offend. That has to be the critical test.

Sadly, that's where we fail. If Rushdie's interpretation of Islam upsets us, if Hussain's depiction of Hindu goddesses annoys us, if Nandy's analysis of caste and corruption raises troubling questions or if Kamal Haasan's Vishwaroopam disturbs our self-image we turn on them with viciousness and vengeance. 

The answer should be very different. If you disagree with something counter it with fact and argument. If a book upsets you, write another. If a painting annoys you, don't see it. If a film troubles you, criticise it and, if you can, counter its message with one of your own.

None of this do we do. Instead, we seek the easy but wrong solution: ban the work, jail the author, wipe out from existence what you don't like.

Voltaire is supposed to have said, "I disagree with what you're saying but I will defend to the death your right to say it." We've changed that to "I disagree with what you're saying and you will die for it."

Let's examine the Ashis Nandy incident a little closely. I concede that he expressed himself clumsily. I recognise that the point he was making was both complicated and, for many, novel. It wasn't easy to grasp or comprehend. Many got the wrong end of it. Additionally, some television channels and newspapers misrepresented him by editing what he said and omitting the context in which he was speaking. And, yes, those who know him say he has a penchant for speaking in surprising ways, even at times sensationally. So, perhaps, it was easy to misunderstand him.

However, once you realised you had, once it became clear he was making a very different point to what you initially thought, surely our response should have changed? But that didn't happen. We doggedly stuck by our initial impression even after it had been proven wrong.

But suppose for a moment we had been correct in our initial understanding of Nandy. Suppose he was out to offend. Does he not have a right to do so? Did that call for an FIR? Did that warrant the attempt to send him to jail?

Provided he was not inciting violence - and he wasn't, he was only speaking at a seminar in a literary festival - and provided he was not stirring up hatred - which he clearly wasn't - he has a right to say what he wants. Otherwise what is the value of our democracy? And our claim to champion freedom of speech?

The truth is this sorry affair reveals more about us than Nandy. We need to examine our behaviour. We need to question our responses. We need to ask whether we really understand what freedom means.

The Nandy episode and the treatment of Kamal Haasan's film diminishes us. Today we're smaller because of our actions. We've shamed ourselves.

Views expressed by the author are personal

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