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No Balls, No Freedom?

Or Why Hartosh Singh Bal is both right and wrong 

Writes Hartosh Singh Bal in the Open magazine,

There will be the usual litany from JLF camp followers, part of the large industry around books that feeds off JLF (‘our’ corruption is indeed more sophisticated) who will write in to protest, but this really is not about JLF, it is about the intellectual life of this country. Last year Samanth Subramanian objected to my accusing the JLF organisers of cowardice and instead suggested I should have focused on the police or the government. Obviously he had not even bothered to read the article in question, but surely it must now be apparent that the defence of liberal values does not lie with the police or the government in this country. The fear that made the St Stephen’s students flee the college festival is the same fear that afflicts those who pretend to speak for liberal values today. [Link]

Bal is both right and wrong. He is right because Indian liberals—and we will not engage in dogmatic fights over how to define one—are often too accommodating towards the state. They worry too much about the effects of free speech on the Indian society and worry too less about the principle itself. They treat the Indian people with a certain degree of infantilism—-’communal comment’s will automatically and immediately result in massive riots and therefore the state is correct in quelling speech in the name of social harmony. The deference in the case of free speech is particularly striking as liberals view the state with a certain degree of healthy skepticism in most other matters. And then they act entirely surprised  when the more rabid elements take advantage of their own principle—-that the state should be able to restrict speech in the name of peace—to shut down art exhibitions and vandalize cinema halls. As Bal correctly points out, the issue at stake here was not Professor Nandy’s status as the eminence grise of Indian intellectualism or the purport of his comments but the idea of speech itself. But it is doubtful that many liberals would have protested the arrest of an anonymous blogger over similar comments. Their defense of professor Nandy was not couched in the terms of liberty but was reduced to issuing character certificates for the man himself.

But Bal goes overboard in directing his ire almost entirely at liberals and ignores the role of the state. He is not exonerating the Indian state—not at all—but he appears to have given up on it arguing that the ‘defense of liberal values does not lie with the police or the government in this country.’ Superficially appealing as this argument is, it is dangerously naive and foolish. Here’s why.

Bal quotes author Bashrat Peer who recounts how Professor Nandy was forced to issue an apology letter by a local MP and his thuggish supporters. It is heartbreaking to read how an elderly person was humiliated while the festival organizers were scurrying around trying to pacify the purveyors of permanent victimhood. But what were his alternatives when the police officers were happily sitting around trying to negotiate his surrender? Is there any doubt that his refusal would have led to physical violence and what is quixotically described as ‘vandalism’ in India while the police would have done their usual vanishing act?

Or take the case Kamal Hassan and the recent controversy over his movie Vishwaroopam.  Yes, it is easy to criticize his surrender to fanatics—and I happily did the same—but what are his choices when the state pleads its helplessness in the name of communal harmony while the courts openly defy the orders of the highest court in the land. (And the Supreme Court, usually so quick to take offense, happily ignores this insult). Sure, he could have stood by his principles and risk the livelihoods of many or he could attempt to rescue what he could from the unfolding disaster. Hassan’s ultimate capitulation was frustrating but entirely understandable.

And what about the courts who are supposed to gurantee the fundamental rights of the Indian citizens? Take the recent comments of Indian Supreme Court in the case of Professor Nandy,

Every citizen has right to free speech but not at the cost of others. We are not at all happy with the way the statement was made. Why do you make such a statement in the first place?’ [link]

This is entirely in character with the Supreme Court which is forever attempting to balance competing interests instead of debating and defending constitutional principles. So the Court protects Professor Nandy from immediate arrest but ticks him off for making ‘controversial’ remarks in the first place. Contrast that with the US Supreme Court which struck down a federal ban on animal cruelty videos—subject of sexual fetishes for some depraved individuals—because it may have a chilling effect on free speech.

In this environment, it is unfair to blame individuals like Professor Nandy or Kamal Hassan as some gutless liberal lackeys. Short of raising vigilante armies who physically confront murderous mobs, what alternatives they truly have? Yes, criticize the double-speak on free speech by all means but don’t blame it all on the lack of individual guts.

In an essentially conservative society, the Indian constitution is the repository of liberal values. And what is the role of the Indian state?: It is to defend the constitution. Merely because the Indian state is failing to do its job, it does not follow it should be given a  free pass and left alone as an impossible problem child. For all its faults, it is still far easier to negotiate with the Indian state than it is to talk with the mobs of cultural terrorism. And the state will respond to criticism if it feels that the ‘liberal center’ is sufficiently strong and principled. That doesn’t mean all battles would be won but it is the only way to advance the cause of free speech in India.

Bal’s diagnosis of the weaknesses of the Indian state is correct but his prescription is entirely wrong. Nowhere in the world has free speech survived independent of a well-functioning state. Somalia is not the heaven of free speech; US is. The European newspapers certainly showed a lot of guts in printing the controversial Mohammad cartoons but it is equally true that they had the backing of their respective states. Frustrating as it may be, the focus should on the Indian state and its failing and not so much on individual actors. It is only the Indian state acting on its constitutional instincts which can protect free speech in India. Individuals and the larger society need to push the state in that direction but it is impossible for free speech to exist if the state will not exercise its ‘monopoly of violence.’

Seceding from the Republic is a tempting option but as the Indian middle class has lately discovered, it has its natural limits. That is as true for the safety of women on the streets of New Delhi as it is for free speech or other liberal values.


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