Sunday, February 10, 2013

The Indian Express: Peter Ronald deSouza- The compelling compromize

The compelling compromise Peter Ronald deSouza : Mon Feb 11 2013

The filing of FIRs across the country, the public defence and spirited condemnation, the extensive discussions across all media have, now that the Supreme Court has given its interim ruling on Ashis Nandy's case, come to acquire a secondary status in our universe of concern. The SC's ruling has displaced this everyday politics of word and deed and acquired a primary status because it has a bearing on the foundational issues of our republic, that of freedom of expression and its limits, of hurt and offence, of decency and humiliation. The court's ruling draws attention to the fact that in a world where ends collide, a fair balance must be struck between the goal of protecting liberty and the need to constrain it. The court's interim decision has set the moral standard for free speech in our society today. By both staying his arrest and reprimanding him, the court has effected a compelling compromise.

To the question from Nandy's lawyer on whether the law could penalise an idea, the chief justice responded, "Why not? When an idea is not in the public interest, he can be. Whatever your intent, you can't go on making statements. Tell your client he has no licence to make such comments. Every person has his own idea, but it should not disturb others. Statements are to be made in a responsible manner." With this, the threat of Nandy's imminent arrest passed, leaving many of us visibly relieved. Here, I want to examine the basis of this feeling of relief. Why were we so relieved? Was it because our maverick intellectual was not arrested? Was it because an ugly situation had been averted? Or was it because the SC gave a little bit of victory to both sides?

The three fundamental issues that arise here are: one, the limits of the freedom of expression; two, the constitutional procedures that must be employed to impose such limits; and three, the nature of the compelling compromise. Much has been written on the first issue and the court's comments give us grounds to discuss it further. When we subject the court's own comments ("an idea not in the public interest", "no licence to make such comments", "idea should not disturb others", "made in a responsible manner"), to the standards recommended by it, we discover how difficult it is to determine what is in the "public interest", what will not "disturb others", and what constitutes a "responsible manner". For example, is the public interest defined in terms of what is in the interest of society today or what is in its interest tomorrow, or is it that which is articulated by the dominant classes or by the subaltern classes, as society moves towards greater freedom? Similarly, we would find ourselves troubled by the question, how much "disturbing" is good and how much is pernicious for society? A cursory glance at history would show us that in domains ranging from the creative arts to the anti-colonial struggles, some degree of disturbance has been good for society. We need more dispassionate discussions of these issues. There has been too much thunder so far.

The second issue is similarly complex. Can a statement made by Nandy be read in isolation, or should his statement be judged in terms of the entire corpus of his work? While this, one would expect, would be the proper basis to determine an author's intention, would this still remain the requirement in the case of the atrocities act of 1989? Even if one were to consider it legitimate to read a statement in isolation, in terms of the atrocities act, should it not consider the place where the statement was made, its location of power? Is a statement made at the Jaipur Literature Festival — a horizontal, egalitarian, discursive space — equivalent to a statement, of the same words, made by a landlord in the Indian village that B.R. Ambedkar decried? Surely there is a difference? In the former case, it is a speech act made in a harmless location, whereas in the latter case it is a speech act made to subjugate. Is not the social location of the speech therefore important to determine whether the provisions of the act apply? To then shift the debate and say that while a person's statement may be innocent of prejudice, it can be used by prejudiced persons in other contexts, and therefore must be penalised in the first instance, is to move our society in the dangerous direction of holding an individual responsible for the actions that others do in his name. Surely daughters do not inherit the sins of their fathers?

But it is the third issue, the compelling compromise, that I want to talk about here. In all the bluster it has gone unnoticed. In recent days, because of the increasing frequency with which groups claim to be offended by a word, picture, film, play, article, book, cartoon and now musical band, a lengthening list of offensive acts, our attitude is one of relief when the escalating indignation is diffused by the compromise. We seem to have developed a public culture of compromise, valorising compromise for its consequences. The word "compelling" is used here in two senses, the first as adjective denoting the quality of being persuasive and convincing, and the second as a verb suggesting action, such as to force and coerce. It is this second sense that has begun to determine the shape of our emerging public culture, infiltrated our consciousness without our being aware of its damage to our intellectual life. While the first sense of compelling is attractive, the second is dangerous. Nandy, an intellectual iconoclast, was compelled to accept a compromise in the second sense.

The compromise was endorsed by all because of the new culture of relief that has enveloped us. M.F. Husain's works were taken down from the India Art Summit in 2011. Vishwaroopam was banned after being cleared by the censors. Salman Rushdie was denied an appearance at the Kolkata Book Fair after he was scheduled to speak. Compromise followed by relief. Why do we not see it as the loss of something — irony, dissent, and most of all irreverence — and only see it as the gain of social peace? Does not the jester or the cynic or the wit have a place, my lords? Imagine Akbar's court without Birbal. But the compelling compromise, in the second sense, has come to rule our choices. While such compromise may be valuable in the case of property disputes or service matters or the boundary conflicts of nations, should it be extended to ideas and opinions, even those that are offensive? A world where everyone is only reverential, in addition to being boring, would soon wither away, for there would be no evolution. And since, in any population, the number of persons who are irreverent are minuscule, norm conformity being the default condition, should we not go out of our way to protect the irreverent? The reasons we should protect the irreverent must be spelt out by the SC in its final judgment, giving us the new moral standard, and in the process moving us from one sense of compelling compromise to the other. That would ensure that Nandy's book, Exiled at Home, is classified as fiction.

The writer is director of the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla. Views are personal

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