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A Shrinking Space for Dissent

And the futility of prosecuting hate speech

Eminent sociologist Ashis Nandy has landed in a bit of soup for alleged casteist remarks at the Jaipur literature festival. Without getting entangled into exactly what he said—only an edited video of his comments are available online—based on his prior work, it is hard to believe that professor Nandy is given to casteism. One can argue that even without fully agreeing with his purported remarks. For instance, he appears to have endorsed corruption as an equalizing force for India’s marginalized.  While one can understand that corruption is often the weapon of the week, it is hardly an ideal without which there would be no ‘hope’ for the Indian republic.  Can anyone seriously argue that Singapore is worse off than India?

What this episode truly underlines is that free speech is an endangered species in India. What India demands now is a vacuous conformity where views even mildly unsetting must not only be deliberately delegitimized  but should be prosecuted by the state in a heavy handed manner. For instance, that professor Nandy is facing charges which may lead to a ten year jail sentence is ridiculous to an extreme. Every community demands that the Indian state must not only ensure  its wellbeing but also prosecute those who hurt its ‘feelings’ are not hurt. By acquiescing repeatedly to the religiously inclined, India is only encouraging this dangerous game of competitive communalism. At every step, individual freedom in India is now subject to whimsical communitarian concerns. Witness the sad state of Kamal Hassan in Tamil Nadu. Merely the threat of violence by minor Muslim groups is enough to send the government scurrying for cover and for the Chennai High Court to act as a super-sensor. And that too in one of the more economically and socially developed states with a long tradition of religious mocking.

Some of the blame for this sad state of affairs must be laid at the doors of the intellectual elite of India. Those who are enamored with prosecuting online ‘hatred’ and argue that free speech may lead to fascism should hardly be surprised that the same logic is extended to the likes of Nandy. Essentially, this is free speech for me but not for thee. Normally, moderation may be an ideal goal but free speech in India is so threatened that ‘extremism in the defense of liberty’ is not anymore an exotic idea but an essential goal. That may not immediately affect the Indian state’s basic instinct of suppressing speech but would at least deprive it of the intellectual cover which the elite often so readily and meekly provides.

The gulf between Akbaruddin Owaisi and Ashis Nandy may indeed be a wide one. But bluntly put, unless you are ready to defend Owaisi’s right to hate speech, you have little chance of protecting Nandy from the ranks of India’s perpetually offended. Sooner India realizes that, better off all of us would be.

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