Who will defend free speech?
Looking at the cartoon for which a Jadavpur University professor had to face assault, multiple criminal cases, and even arrest, one immediately begins to suspect some sort of a conspiracy. (Just to be clear: professor Mahapatra is only accused of circulating the cartoons.) Surely this cartoon couldn’t possibly offend anyone even mildly sane. It is completely innocuous! However it has offended the Bengal government so much that it has set its goons/police after professor Mahapatra. He has been charged with multiple offenses including—believe it or not—outraging the modesty of a woman. In Mamta’s Bengal, it appears, a rape may not be a rape but criticizing the chief minister is akin to a collective assault on Bengal’s women. Once India was Indira; now Bengal is Mamta. And if this was not enough, Mamta Bannerjee has strongly defended her government’s actions promising that her relentless pursuit of ‘criminals’ cannot be thwarted by protests from interested parties.
Even in a country where free speech has to be defended ‘book by book’, Mamta Banerjee’s actions mark a new low. Hindi heartland politicians like Laloo Yadav and Mulayam Singh who were never shy of flaunting their friendship with criminals never went after a mere cartoon like this. Hell! Even Thackerays are not this contemptuous of criticism.
There is no need to mince words here. Mamta Banerjee is either completely delusional or power has gone to her head to the extent that she simply does not care two hoots for even minimal democratic norms. What is even more worrying is that she surely realized that her government’s actions would be widely criticized. Yet, she had no qualms in going after professor Mahapatra.. With Mamta it appears that everyone is a conspiring against her government—women are prepared to be raped merely to besmirch her good name. It is clear that Mamta and her band of merry followers believe intrinsically in her divinity and their actions only betray their totalitarian mindset. Indeed that is the real worry: Mamta’s actions are not mere posturings; she appears to believe in her own conspiracies.
Or maybe she just believes that those who march for free speech are such a tiny minority that their voices can easily be muzzled or simply ignored. Her pro-people credentials are already secured by her actions like vetoing the railway budget; why should she bother about largely inconsequential critics ranting on social media?
Democracy thrives on a system of checks and balances. If India was a truly developed democracy, then Mamta’s actions would have been resisted at multiple levels. Perhaps it is too much to expect the police to ignore the wishes of their political bosses, but what about the courts? The local court in which professor Mahapatra was produced could have applied its mind; did the charges pass the smell taste? Retributions is no fan of judicial activism but surely this is a fit case for the Calcutta High Court to take suo moto cognizance and summon the police officers responsible for this brazen assault on the law. And what about the governor who’s entire role is to ensure that the constitutional process is followed in his state?
Unfortunately, the institutions of the Indian state are increasingly compromised with even the ones which have historically enjoyed the highest credibility—armed forces and the courts—beginning to resemble the political class. There is no simple solution to this and it would take years—if not decades—before India can rebuild her institutional credibility. The political and intellectual discourse in India tends to focus mainly on individuals—it should instead emphasize the role of the institutions. If they are compromised and weak then it matters little whether the Communists are ruling in Bengal or Mamta comes to power. They would both behave in exactly the same manner.
In this environment, if Mamta is allowed to get away with her actions, then it is only likely to embolden her further. Watch out for assaults on intrepid journalists or on newspapers who are even mildly critical of her. Or may be the citizens of Bengal will suddenly discover that their access to social media has suddenly disappeared. In that light, it is certainly heartening that many newspapers have published the impugned cartoons. Clearly, the cartoons are so inoffensive that even the usual pliant media is prepared to take a stand.
But that’s precisely how we have reached this sad state. Newspapers may publish opinion columns supporting free speech but the slightest whiff of controversy—especially if it offends the perpetually offended religious folks—and they are scampering for cover. Only recently, The Telegraph published an apology for mentioning a completely innocent picture which offended some Muslim groups; at that time too the Bengal government was quickly off the blocks in threatening the newspaper. And that was hardly the only case.
Now, it is understandable that the media does not wish to risk mob violence. Ordinarily, it would expect the instruments of the state to protect it but in a country where victims of an assault are frequently the first to be arrested, it is difficult to retain that faith. Nevertheless, if free speech is to be defended then someone will have to take a stand. That someone may even pay a severe personal or professional price for his intransigence.
Perhaps, India awaits her 21st century Ramnath Goenka.