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Spurious protest over free speech

Actor-activist Rahul Bose was incandescent with rage, as were many others who had gathered at Diggi Palace last Tuesday. Salman Rushdie, who had been prevented from attending the Jaipur Literature Festival through a combination of threat and deceit crafted by the maulanas of Darul Uloom Deoband and their patrons in the Congress, was scheduled to participate in a discussion via video link.

But that too had to be called off after Muslim fanatics threatened "rivers of blood will flow" if the writer of The Satanic Verses made his presence felt any which way. In the event, JLF's loss became NDTV's gain -- the planned video-linked t te- -t te was swiftly converted into a nationally-televised interview. Nobody, least of all the mullahs, would have bargained for that.

But that was small consolation for those who, like Bose, were looking forward to a winter afternoon of exclusive adda with Rushdie in the agreeable environs of Diggi Palace. Hence their disappointment, which left them sputtering with rage over such gross denial of freedom of speech. Bose used his BlackBerry to surf the Net to check what the Constitution says on freedom of speech and then proceeded to read aloud sub-clause (a) of clause 1 of Article 19 which guarantees "freedom of speech and expression". Since that freedom had been disallowed, he passionately argued, the Constitution's sanctity had been severely compromised.

There's a problem, though, with selectively quoting from the Constitution. And that's not limited to freedom of speech and expression, but more on that later. While clause 1 of Article 19 does guarantee that "all citizens shall have the right to freedom of speech and expression", clause 2 makes it abundantly clear that this freedom is subject to "reasonable restrictions ... in the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the state, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence."

Our Left-liberal intelligentsia is fully aware of the 'reasonable restrictions' that are imposed on the 'freedom of speech and expression'. Let it also be said that 'reasonable restrictions', which are by definition extremely elastic -- what's reasonable for some is deemed unreasonable for others -- have been invoked again and again to silence those who dare challenge the bogus consensus forged by the Left-liberal intelligentsia and forced on us as conventional wisdom, not to be questioned but to be meekly accepted.

The self-righteous champions of free speech, who are now valiantly defending  Rushdie's right to offend and seeking refuge in the Right to Freedom guaranteed by the Constitution, have not hesitated to deny that very freedom to those outside their charmed circle. Free speech is fine so long as you follow the lexicon of political correctness and are careful not to violate the limits set by the Left-liberal intelligentsia. For example, woe betide you if you were to call a terrorist a terrorist; he is a gunman. Terrorists didn't run amok in Mumbai on 26/11, gunmen did.

You can't speak or write in support of sending Afzal Guru to the gallows for plotting the terrorist strike on Parliament House. You must denounce the Supreme Court for framing a poor, innocent man who was denied justice. You can't mention the faith of those who plant bombs that kill and maim innocent men, women and children. You must solemnly insist, truth be damned, terrorists have no religion.

You can't criticise the oppression of women and the appalling discrimination which they suffer under medieval personal laws. You must forcefully assert, never mind the fact that the Constitution specifically prohibits such discrimination and guarantees equality to all irrespective of religion and gender, that minorities have special rights and those rights transcend the Constitution. You can't speak or write against hate-mongers. You must understand where they are coming from (whatever that means).

And so it is that Rushdie's interviewer stunningly declares that it would be fine if protesters held up placards "peacefully saying they hate you � they have the right to hate you..." The defenders of freedom of speech would be mightily displeased if you were to point out, but how can you 'peacefully' hate someone? And how can hate be a right? It can, you shall be told, ever so condescendingly. Can I then hate someone, and 'peacefully' express that hate? No you can't, because it's a privilege reserved for some.

Bose and his ilk should think twice before demanding that there should be no 'reasonable restrictions' on freedom of speech and expression. If those restrictions were to go, they would no longer be able to play sanctimonious arbiters of public discourse. Where would that leave them?

-- The writer is a journalist, political analyst and activist

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