Liberals lose the plot from Paris to Delhi
Free speech, always a precarious ideal, has fallen on hard times. In India, it is not a value defended with passion, enshrined firmly in law, or insulated from being taken hostage by politics. Quite the contrary: it has become the site at which our prejudices are expressed, our hostilities intensified and our mutual hypocrisies exposed. It is not an ideal around which to attempt a consensus. Instead, it has become a pretext for warring groups to assert their power. But the precariousness of free speech in India is also now intimately tied to an increasingly murderous global politics of free speech. The execution-style terrorism at the offices of Charlie Hebdo has reignited a debate on the threat to free expression that some brands of militant Islam pose. It has also exposed deep fault lines in the European discourse on free speech.
In India, the threat to freedom is serious. It is denting our reputation as a liberal democracy. This is a democracy where artistes are forced into exile, scholarly works are taken off the shelves, investigative journalism is in serious peril, historical inquiry is curtailed, political films are censored, and authors have to announce their own death. There is a sense of foreboding about free expression. But the roots of this foreboding run very deep.
Free Speech has always been attacked. Most societies have also placed some limits on speech— whether in the name of regulating the expression of hate, preventing violence, protecting individuals against libel and slander, or outlawing obscenity. There have been vigorous philosophical and constitutional debates about the boundaries of such regulation. Many of these will continue. This essay will not go into traditional legal and philosophical questions about the boundaries of free speech. Instead it is going to ask questions about the cultural politics of free speech. The idea is not to resolve issues, as much as it is to provoke a deeper discussion about the politics of speech. Why does it feel as if the ideal of free speech is now so tied up in knots that pulling any string seems to imperil it even more?
THE ASSASSIN’S VETO
The attack on Charlie Hebdo was of course a classic and murderous illustration of such a trap, where every response can be seen by the perpetrators of this attack as a vindication. It is, like most terrorist traps, by design, a ‘heads we win, tails you lose’ strategy. In a sense, calls to respect people’s religion and not be provocative in the aftermath of an attack have earned the attackers a kind of victory; they have induced self-restraint. If, on the other hand, such an act inflames anti-Islam feelings, as despite best efforts it might, then also a purpose is achieved. It produces the kind of polarisation Al-Qaeda would like. States might use the language of bringing the killers to justice. But in the era after 9/11, it has invariably led democratic states to commit all kinds of excesses in different parts of the world to the point where their moral self-confidence is dented. Again, Al-Qaeda achieves its purpose.
Sometimes we respond to such attacks by saying that the perpetrators are not representative of a religion. What we are in fact saying is that the religion could not be behind the instigation of a wrong. The act is a betrayal of piety. We make claims like ‘This is not real Islam’. The sentiment behind that claim is understandable. And it does capture the fact that violence might be the desperation of a minority rather than the sentiment of a majority of believers. However, it again traps you in a zone of the unthinkable: you are not allowed to think that Islam might have something to do with this. One of the grounds on which we condemn the perpetrator—he is not a representative of Islam—becomes a ground of his victory. It rests on sequestering the religion from criticism. We think we are distancing the perpetrator from the religion; but in doing it, we are also distancing religion from criticism. Charlie Hebdo might have wanted to mock religion. But by saying, with good intent that, Islam could not do wrong, we have implicitly acknowledged the sacredness of Islam. A victory for the perpetrators.
Sometimes attacks on free speech are designed to provoke a response: suppose we now publish the cartoons, not as an act of disrespect for Islam but as an act of defiance against violence. The perpetrators can confirm their narrative: what we see as defiance can be construed as further evidence of the impunity that warranted the punishment. The insidious trap is to suffocate us by making every response feed the perpetrator’s intent. This is the logic of violence against freedom of expression.
Sometimes attacks on free speech are intended to draw attention to double standards. If there are restrictions against Holocaust deniers, why not against those who defame the Prophet? In India, this is the standard trope of all free speech politics: if cartoons lampooning Muhammad cannot be published, why should images that lampoon Ganesha or Saraswati? If Salman Rushdie can been taken off the shelves, why not Wendy Doniger? These comparisons are often mischievous. But they serve the purpose of making one essential point that every critic of free speech wants to make. No one, not even the most ardent supporters of free speech can articulate the limits of freedom without entering the messy terrain of history and identity politics. Like so many post- modern movements, they want to emphasise that all free speech has always had boundaries defined by particular histories. Older defenders of toleration like Milton excluded Catholics from the ambit of toleration. Current defenders of free speech often also balk at the thought of protecting rabidly vicious speech. In Europe, it might be anti-Semitic speech. In India, the Prevention of Atrocities Against Scheduled Castes and Tribes Act, for example, makes certain classes of demeaning speech prosecutable. What those who seem to attack free speech want to do is not attack the value of free speech. What they want to do is renegotiate the boundaries that have always marked free speech. Which is why, when free speech is attacked, merely invoking the ideal of free speech, as if it were some neutral value with no boundaries, often proves politically beside the point.
Indeed, one of the arguments for a kind of free speech absolutism is precisely this: it is one of the ways in which defenders of free speech can avoid the charge of hypocrisy. But very few liberals have had the courage of conviction to go there and to assert that there are never going to be any boundaries to speech, no matter what the costs. But once we shift from the absolutist ground, the arguments will move to the zone of concrete identity claims. If some caste slurs can be prohibited—given India’s history of discrimination— more castes will demand that speech that demeans their caste be prohibited. We can get into historical detail and fine distinctions. Surely, we could argue that what matters are the slurs that undermine the civic standing and dignity of particular members of society, specially oppressed groups. Surely, we will argue there is a difference between protecting ‘lower’ castes from speech designed to humiliate them and the demand of some dominant castes that works of literature be banned because they portray their caste in an unflattering light. Surely, we might argue, we can make a distinction between the civic significance of rabidly anti-Semitic speech in a continent that has experienced the Holocaust and the lampooning of Prophet Muhammad. But this raises two questions. First, how are these distinctions negotiated? Are they themselves more a product of the power of certain groups than we recognise? But most importantly, no matter how much we assert that the purpose of restrictions on speech is always to protect individuals, not groups, in practice the boundaries of speech have always been negotiated through group identities. The demand for censorship is a demand for this renegotiation.
Free speech does not appear precarious to a lot of people for two different sets of reasons. In this sense, censorship seems caught in a dialectic that, paradoxically, signifies the opposite of what it appears to be. When JS Mill’s still incomparable defence On Liberty was published, Macaulay wondered in a private journal whether Mill’s worries about freedom were a bit like crying ‘Fire!’ in the middle of Noah’s Flood. Despite occasional interdictions, society seemed to be full of speech. We are in a similar situation. Surely, the Argumentative Indian marches on. Society seems full of contention and argument. The occasional bans may be bad, and often a gross injustice against particular authors. But, so the argument goes, it does not seem to deter the production of speech. Indeed, even those asking for legal injunctions against particular materials in effect draw more attention to it: they provoke more circulation of the images they seek to ban, incite more reading of the material they seek to proscribe. There is, in modern society, something of a performative contradiction in seeking to ban material: it is often the surest way of making it more visible. More images of MF Husain’s paintings, for instance, circulated after there were protests against it. And often those asking for bans know it. This is small consolation for those artists whose lives are grievously burdened by these assaults. But it is easy to see, why, despite these episodes, society does not quite see a crisis of censorship. In addition, in a society where every crackpot has their say, where there seems to be no accountability for what is said, surely the greater anxiety must be the corrosion of public reason by a diminishing sense of discrimination. It is Plato’s anxiety about debasement of speech that worries more people rather than Mill’s anxiety about censorship. Hence, a complacency about censorship.
The second paradox about censorship is this.
Paradoxically, does the pressure for more legal censorship arise at the moment that social censorship is diminishing? A standard narrative is that we are growing more intolerant. But there could be a deeper dialectic at work. Alexis de Tocqueville claimed that freedom of expression in the United States was sustained by a puritanical self- restraint politics that could dance lightly on the surface precisely because common mores like religion exercised a form of self-control. This is famously captured in Mark Twain’s quip that “Americans have the perfect freedom of expression and the good sense to never use it.” So part of what is happening is that social control is breaking down. What was formerly managed by social constraint, social inhibition or social coercion can no longer be so managed. The demand for legal prohibition may reflect, paradoxically, the loosening of social control. So again, the demand for censorship is not so much a crisis of censorship as it is a loosening of social control. This loosening of social control has been exacerbated by two tendencies. The first is obviously globalisation, where images and words can circulate, not just with rapidity but also in ways where the context of any utterance spills across all boundaries. The second is rapidly dissolving social boundaries. It has been rightly pointed out that Indian texts from Mricchakatika to Agamadambara provided ample space for lampooning religious practices and even dominant castes in ways that would now elicit protest. However, there is a difference.
Many of these texts still operate against the backdrop of a presumption that the basic contours of social order can be managed through the operation of power; like ritual lampooning of elites, the consequences of speech can be contained. It is a paradox of free speech that we are more likely to put up with it when we think we can control its consequences. But a consequence of the loosening of social control is precisely that this containment is no longer possible. This is particularly true in the sphere of caste, where traditional forms of social control are breaking down. The social dialectic is not towards a one-way call for repression. Rather, the underlying tendency is actually moving in a more liberal direction, and it is precisely that which is generating more anxiety in some groups. I suspect this is why society is seeing more conflict, but not a deep anxiety over censorship—individual victims notwithstanding.
THE LIBERAL BETRAYAL
The deepest tragedy of the politics of censorship in India is that it is India’s supposed liberals who have done immeasurable harm to the cause of free speech. This harm needs to be catalogued to restore a measure of credibility to the liberal cause. Indian liberals made three mistakes that are still haunting the politics of free speech.
First, there was the liberal construction of the citizen, which reeked of paternalism through and through. I have argued elsewhere that India’s elites firmly believed that India was not ready for free expression, particularly in relation to speech regarding religion. Take three seemingly different areas of law: Article 295, offences against religion, laws regulating conversion, and 123 (2) Repre-sentation of People’s Act, which prohibits religious appeals during elections. All three share the same premise, that something about appeals to religion immobilise the capacities of citizens. There is a Hobbesian dread that religion unleashes passions in ways in which the agency of citizens is impaired: they are controlled by religion, rather than their controlling it; so it is to be the object of some regulation. The object of regulation constructs religion almost in sublime ways: both an object of respect and fear. Indian citizens are not self possessed enough to resist the temptation of violence if their religious sentiments are offended. They cannot manage speech; indeed, they can never treat speech as mere speech. Hence, offences against religion need to be regulated. Conversion needs to be regulated because Indian citizens need to be protected against inducements, as if the Government could save the souls of citizens better than they could themselves. In Yulitha Hyde vs State of Orissa (1973), the court wrote: ‘Threat of divine displeasure numbs the mental faculty; more so of an undeveloped mind and the actions of such a person thereafter, are not free and according to conscience.’ And even in a benign provision like the Representation of People’s Act, appeals to religion are prohibited because appeals to religion impair reason. What is prominent is the idea that ‘religious speech’ appeals to the emotions, unleashes uncontrollable passions, and impairs reason. It controls people rather than their controlling it.
Self-justifying paternalism constructed an unruly demos to justify its own power. It could be argued that in the shadow of communal violence, the idea that the demos was unprepared to handle freedom was not implausible. In hindsight, however, it is clear that this construction was entirely self-fulfilling; a way by which progressive elites legitimised their power over the people. It is worth remembering Edmund Burke’s warning, “You will smile here at the consistency of those democratists, who, when they are not on their guard, treat the humbler part of the community with the greatest contempt, whilst, at the same time, they pretend to make them the depositories of all power.”
The construction of the ‘demos’ as uncontrollable and unruly also performed other ideological functions: it let the State off the hook when it came to enforcing the law. So when artistes are attacked or intimidated, the State does not step in to protect them. It is as if it naturalises the violence against artistes. This is what you would expect from an unruly demos, isn’t it? It also shifted the onus of causing the violence on the artistes. They had betrayed their duty to be responsible and restrained. The State steps in to restore order, not to protect the individual right of free expression. The construction of the ‘incapable’ citizen diverts attention away from the fact that assaults against free expression are always specific: they are organised by particular agents, particular groups. They are emboldened because the State does not act against them. But the justifying fiction is the naturalisation of this outrage.
Second, the Indian Constitutional imagination was always marked by statism. The ideals of liberty in any constitution are shaped by the greatest fears of that society. Where the fear of tyranny dominates, there is greater emphasis on protection against coercion. For India’s founders, the bigger fear was not tyranny, but social oppression. The State needed to be empowered to protect society from itself. This contrast is captured poignantly in the fact that the American First Amendment was passed to protect freedom of expression; in India, the first amendment was passed to curtail the freedom of expression. The creation of a liberal order required empowering the State against social inequality and forces of disorder. This impulse led Nehru and Patel to amend Article 19(2) of the Constitution to broaden the scope of possible restrictions on free speech. This is not the occasion to go into the debates over India’s first amendment. What is striking is that Nehru was in effect saying, ‘Trust the State’. Dr Syama Prasad Mookerjee, in his stinging critique of Nehru, was in effect asking him to trust the people.
Third, this contest between statism and freedom over the first amendment also created one of the most tragic splits in Indian politics. In effect, the Congress party was willing to use an oppressive legal order to further progressive social ends. While the so-called ‘Right’, many of whose protagonists, like Mookerjee who opposed Nehru on the first amendment, or KM Munshi, who called for the abolition of sedition laws, were tainted with suspicious social or communal goals. But the blunt truth of the matter is that there is not a single legal instrument for suppressing speech—from reason of state to conversion, from the protection of religious sentiments to maintaining public order—which the Indian Right has had to carve that the Congress had not made second nature to the Indian legal system. Indeed, Nehru’s record on free speech is, at moments, cringeworthy. The ‘Left’ in Bengal created a similar regime of intimidation for those exercising free speech. Groups that are described as ‘right-wing Hindu’ are often responsible for the attack on and intimidation of artists. But it is a sign of bad faith to suppose that defenders and attackers of free speech neatly align on a Left versus Right, or a secular versus religious divide. The Congress thought it was more important to expose the Right’s communalism; the Right thought it was more important to expose Congress hypocrisy. Our entire political energy is spent in exposing mutual hypocrisy. But hypocrisy, as Judith Shklar pointed out, is a good tool of psychic warfare (something we revel in). It is not a sound basis on which to advance values or sound public policy.
THE PERILS OF LEGAL PROGRESSIVISM
If our politics is marked by excessive concern with hypocrisy, then the Indian courts have let down the cause of free speech by their own excessive moralism. They have often given too much leeway to the State. Even decisions that supposedly uphold free speech have encased it in an ideology of progressivism that looks at the value of the utterance more than the right to express it. Take three examples. Justice Kaul of the Delhi High Court in Husain vs Pandey (2008) gave a ringing defence of freedom of expression. But in this otherwise wonderful judgment, you get the sense that he misses part of the point in his defence of Husain. When he ruled on obscenity charges against the artist, he seemed to be making two claims. The first was that India was never a land of puritanism, so why the fuss about a nude painting?
As he put it, ‘We have been called the land of Kama Sutra. Then why it that in that land of the Kama Sutra, we shy away from its very name? (…) Sex was embraced as an integral part of a full and complete life. It is most unfortunate that India’s new Puritanism is being carried out in the name of cultural purity and a host of ignorant people are vandalising art and pushing us towards a pre-Renaissance era.’
But, as William Mazzarella pointed out in his book Censorium, this is a non sequitur. The plaintiff was not arguing against nude images, or even sex. For all we know the protestors might not have been puritanical. What they were arguing against is a particular representation of Saraswati. Second, and unwittingly, the Court was engaging in the same manoeuvre as the plaintiff: it shifted the ground of the argument to what the best representation of our tradition is: in this case, the Judge decided it was not puritanical. And third, you cannot get away from the feeling that this judgment turned on Husain’s authority as a known painter: that there was no doubt this was a bona fide artist who needed to be protected. India’s tragedy is that the Court’s orders were not sufficient to give Husain the protection he needed. The point is that even in this defence of ‘free expression’, the Court packed many assumptions: about the correct way of interpreting tradition, for example.
Similarly, consider a Bengal high court order quashing a state government order banning Dwikhondito, a novel by Taslima Nasreen. A few things are striking about this case. First, there is a hermeneutical injunction to read the offending passages in the context of the book as a whole. But the context of the book as a whole that turns out to be the most relevant is this: does the book in some way promote some socially useful purpose; that is, is the purpose of criticism some form of social reform? In Sujato Bhadra vs State of West Bengal (2005), the High Court held that if it is made knowingly, but with an intention oriented by ‘clinching or revitalizing or striking a blow for the well being of society or the emancipation of women, such outraging cannot be termed malicious’— in cases the authority of the reformer is invoked. The point is that freedom of expression depends upon it being placed as some kind of utility—a step towards a progressive agenda. The text itself has to be moralised for it to have redeeming value. In short, speech is utilitarian.
This can be clearly seen in cases where courts have let bans on books stand. This squeamishness can be seen in a deeply confused recent High Court judgment: RV Bhasin vs State of Maharashtra (2010). While the judgment, based on a plausible reading precedent, banned a book titled Islam: A Concept of Political World Invasion, the normative and methodological claims in the judgment tell you how precarious free speech is. While the Court makes expansive rhetorical claims on behalf of free speech, it equally makes expansive jurisprudential claims on restricting it. Under Section 153 of the Indian Penal Code, for example, it is ‘no defence that the writing contains a truthful account of past events or is supported by good authority’. No wonder even works of scholarship can be banned. In terms of incitement to violence, it reiterates a rejection of the ‘clear and present danger test’; even a remote possibility is sufficient to invite a ban. Third, it does what a court should try and avoid. It directly engages in an interpretive battle with the petitioner over certain ayats of the Qur’an, trying to produce an ‘authorised’ interpretation. This is disturbing because it frames the issue of religion in a bizarre way. Indian courts keep going to great lengths to show that there can never be anything offensive or bizarre in a religious text (and come up with claims like no religion can ever preach violence, all religions are progressive if not the same, et al). In short, courts confirm an ideology of respect for religion that emboldens those who claim they are offended. The particular book in question has deeply obnoxious stuff in it. But the Court casts the issue in an unhelpful way. It says criticism of any religion is permitted so long as it is ‘academic’. Really? Lampooning and heaping insult are as much forms of expression as anything.
But the most instructive case is the Supreme Court’s upholding of a ban on Dharamkaarana. In Baragur Ramachandrappa vs State of Karnataka (2007), the author appealed a Karnataka High Court order upholding an order of forfeiture of his historical novel by that title. The novel, which won several awards, was a fictionalised life of Basavanna. The psychological pathos of the plot turned on unclear parentage of the saint. The author was clear that this was a novel. The Court asked the novelist to remove the offending chapter. He refused to do so because it compromised the artistic integrity of the work. The Court upheld the ban.
This case is instructive for several reasons. First, it shows how precarious artistic expression is. Artistic expression does not get protected when it cannot be framed in redeeming moralising or political narratives. Liberals have never rallied around authors who did not carry artistic halos or whose works could not be appropriated in some ideology of Progressivism. Second, it again subverts our usual assumptions about Left and Right. The case against Dharamkaarana was brought by Congress politicians who were acting more censoriously than Dinanath Batra. Third, this case highlights the peculiar dynamics of community mobilisation in India. It turns out that figures that are central to the creation and maintenance of particular caste identities, like Basvanna is for Lingayats or Shivaji for Marathas, are the hardest to write about. There is more censorship or self-censorship on these figures than almost any other. This is a cultural fact that calls for some reflection.
THE MUHAMMAD PARADIGM
The censorship debate in India has a complex history with many layers. A pivotal moment in it was the Rangeela Rasool case that both transformed India cultural politics and Indian law. It is also a case that, in a sense, connects Punjab to Paris. Rangeela Rasool was an awful pamphlet on Muhammad, ostensibly written in response to a derogatory representation of Sita. It led to massive public mobilisation; the publisher of the pamphlet was assassinated; and we had a far-reaching transformation in our law with the introduction of Section 295A of the penal code that governs offences against religion. It also, in turn, unleashed a politics of competitive intolerance and double standards. All groups, except partisans for liberal democracy achieved their objectives, by linking the taking of offence and violence in one chain.
As Neeti Nair has argued in a brilliant history of Section 295A, it would be a mistake to think that these laws were simply the product of a colonial legacy. They were negotiated in the Punjab Legislative Assembly with a committee that had members as distinguished as MA Jinnah, Lala Lajpat Rai and Madan Mohan Malaviya. I do not want to dwell on the complex drafting history of the law. This clause made ‘deliberate and malicious intention of outraging the religious feelings of any class of citizens of India’ or ‘insult’ to ‘religion or religious beliefs’ essential to conviction of the offence it defines. This was, to use Neeti Nair’s excellent phrase, a ‘triumph of legislative pragmatism’. The debate over Section 295 created the template for subsequent discussions on free speech. Jinnah and Lala Lajpat Rai were more wary of curbing free expression than Malaviya. Jinnah had expressed his concerns thus: ‘I thoroughly endorse the principle that while this measure should aim at those undesirable persons who indulge in wanton vilification or attack upon the religion of any particular class or upon the founders and prophets of a religion, we must also secure this very important and fundamental principle that those who are engaged in historical works, those who are engaged in the ascertainment of truth and those who are engaged in bona fide and honest criticisms of a religion shall be protected.’
But this passage lays out the contentious politics of censoring offence. First, it makes special mention of ‘vilification of the founders and prophets of a religion’. There is somehow the claim that vilification of founders of a community—usually done through sexual representation or questioning parentage—should be especially protected. This is exactly how the ‘Muhammad paradigm’ then is invoked in cases like Basavanna or Shivaji or, these days, founders of various Sikh sects. Second, as a society, we made the determination that protection against vilification of founders was somehow important to affirming the civic standing of particular communities; somehow, their dignity could not be conceived of apart from respecting their founders. This role of ‘founders’ or key figures is particularly interesting, since underlying it is a whole theory of community formation. It is as if we are saying that a community becomes a community by virtue of rallying around particular figures, who become totems of sacredness that holds the community together. It is interesting that people object to vilification of sacred totems more than they do to group libel. In some ways, claims that stereotype communities—of any kind—do far more damage to the civic standing of those communities than vilification of their founders. Yet, the latter generates the politics of censorship. It is as if we were saying that by attacking what is sacred to a group, you are taking away the only thing that gives the group the identity it has. Finally, how is the line drawn between bona fide criticism and useless history? This very question takes us into the messy terrain that a complex regime of truth and power is required to police these boundaries. Part of the politics of censorship arises precisely because groups want to use censorship to challenge the institutional power to define genuine knowledge. What is it that makes a ‘Freudian’ reading of various gods more acceptable as knowledge?
Indeed the point of challenging scholars like Wendy Doniger or Paul Courtright is precisely to open up this debate. Liberals fall right into the trap by again thinking that somehow the claims of these scholars to speak more than the Bhasins or Sita Ram Goels must be defended because of their superior authority. We want to say they are genuine scholars. They may well be, but that is not the ground on which to mount a defence.
RESCUING FREE SPEECH
How do we rescue free speech from the assassin’s veto, the mob’s street power, and our own hypocrisies? One path is a sure dead end. The idea that we should respect all religions and be mindful of the sentiments of believers seems like good counsel of prudence. It might even teach us to value a diverse range of resources upon which members of different cultures and faiths draw to understand the world and give their lives meaning. Misrepresenting a religion both insults its adherents and turns a blind eye to immense cultural achievement. However, we must have no illusions that counsels of restraint and respect are insidious. The demand for respect has itself become a source of discord, because it is an impossible one to meet.
Religions must recognise four facts. First, as glorious as religious heritages might be, most organised religion comes with unsavoury baggage. All kinds of oppression and violence have been licensed in their name. We can debate whether this constitutes the essence of a particular religion. But it is near impossible to debate historical religions without representing any in a way that does not offend some of its adherents. These representations should not be malicious or undertaken with impunity, but will be discomforting nonetheless.
Second, despite calls for respect, the blunt truth is that almost no religion can, from within its own theological premises, grant parity to other religions in some deep and meaningful sense. In this way, religious speech intrinsically creates hierarchies of one kind or another.
Third, belief is not a matter of will. We cannot oblige other people to think about history or theology in a particular manner. All we can hope is that their conclusions about religion are made in good faith, not a product of wilful misinterpretation. But the line between good- faith inquiry and demeaning conclusions is very thin in the eyes of most adherents.
Finally, the form that the demand for respect takes is inherently competitive in two ways. First, it constantly escalates. We have gone from a state where outrage used to be expressed against grossly malicious representations, to a state where ordinary historical discussion can occasion outrage. Religious groups are quick to protest against any offence, but are silent when others are offended. Muslim groups rarely protest appalling representations of the West or of Jews. Hindu groups, normally quick on the uptake when the Pope is deemed to offend their co-religionists, remained silent on the previous Pope’s remarks on Islam. In short, the politics of respect is not a universal ethic. It is instead a competitive game where different religious groups show how much power they have by demanding respect. Respect is a non-starter.
We need to rescue free speech from a moralised politics and ideological division. The gesture that says ‘Je Suis Charlie’, or ‘We are all Perumal’, is understandable when free speech is being attacked. However, it produces its own insidious politics. For one thing, there is a pretence involved in these identifications. The essence of free speech is the protection of individuality, not the production of false identifications. There is a danger that these identifications expose the limits of our own moral sympathies more than they defend the cause of free speech. If liberals are to truly have any credibility in a country like India, they will have to live up to the ideal of defending the obnoxious. It is easy to identify with Doniger or Perumal; harder to carry that same identification with PV Narayanna, the author of Dharamkaarana.
We need to review all laws and institutions that regulate expression. In some cases, even when there is a case for retaining the law, there is a case to be made for more robust judicial standards of interpretation. This is going to be an uphill battle. We are still in the grip of a psychological complex marked by paternalism and statism. Just also think of the asymmetry in the political energy that is expended on the important topic of economic reform on the one hand and that expended on protecting civil liberties on the other. India is the only country in the world where the idea of ‘minimum government’ means everything else but the protection of civil liberties. We need to articulate a new social contract around freedom of expression. It is hard to imagine Mr Modi, or for that matter any other political leader, using his bully pulpit to politically articulate such a new consensus.
We need to protect those who challenge the boundaries of free expression. The State has singularly failed in this task. It has consistently shifted the onus of protection on artists and publishers.
Finally, we will need a more subtle moral psychology. It is easy to pretend that we understand what drives people to attack artists or cartoonists or writers. Why is it that so many different groups feel that their standing is impugned when something they hold sacred is vilified? We give many pop sociology explanations—in some cases, there is a real feeling of marginalisation; in others, the anxiety over identity brought about by deep forces of modernity. We can psychologise: believers have fragile egos (as if non-believers often don’t). Strong identification with groups gives people’s lives meaning; but it also fuses their ego with groups in a way that sometimes makes criticism of the group intolerable: your self is at stake. Understanding these processes of identification is important, because the challenge for liberal societies is to understand the allure of illiberalism in the first place, with far more honesty and subtlety than we muster.
Freedom of speech has to be defended, not because it is more sacred than faith. Rather, because freedom is the only security we have that no faith will be trampled upon in the name of someone’s convictions. If, in the process, some odious stuff passes through, this is the price we pay for ensuring that the great can be expressed as well; and that the State will not use its powers to target people at its whim. Instead of building a bridge around freedom, we want to slug it out under so many banners, as ignorant armies clashing by night.