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India’s politicians don’t believe that free speech is worth fighting for

On Tuesday, after a concerted and often abusive social media campaign, Tanishq, a Tata company withdrew an ad film that showed an inter-faith couple.

The film itself was so tastefully made that only a bigot would find it offensive. And indeed, the protests were not so much about the content of the film as about its central theme: a Muslim man married to a Hindu woman.

 

In a statement, after it pulled the film, Tanishq noted that while the ad had drawn “divergent and serious reactions”, it was acting also to protect the “well-being of our employers, partners and store staff.”

 

   As the statement was being circulated, Tata spokesmen and officials said informally that Tanishq had only acted after threats of violence were received at its stores and showrooms. Apparently, there had been a danger of physical assault and damage to property. On Wednesday a violent incident (or a serious threat of violence) was reported at a showroom in Gujarat.

 

   The Tatas want it known that while they will not be fazed by abuse or social media trolling, they care too deeply for the safety of their employees to allow them to be harmed as a result of the controversy. They were not giving in to commercial pressure or the threat of a Diwali boycott.

 

   This should be noble ---- and perhaps it is --- but it is a familiar argument, employed time and time again to justify censorship, restriction of free expression and sometimes, cowardice.

 

   In the late 1980s, when the government of India banned Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, I interviewed the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. He justified the ban using a variation of the argument that the Tatas are now trotting out. Yes, he was all for freedom of expression, he said. But didn’t I realize that if the book was going to be distributed in India, there would be riots? Property would be damaged and people would lose their lives. He was banning the book, he said, not because he thought it was offensive (he hadn’t even read it) but because he wanted to save lives. It was his job to weigh the consequences of allowing the book to be sold and letting people die versus the government’s adherence to the principle of free speech.

 

   It is a familiar argument, at least in the Indian context. It is used again and again to ban book, movies, speeches, meetings, plays etc. The thrust of the case is: it is all very well to talk about high-minded principles in theory but in the real world, when lives are at stake, a ban is often the best option.

 

   We don’t always realize this but as much as we in India think that this is a reasonable argument, few people in the West agree with us. The protests against The Satanic Verses were global in scope. They did turn violent in many parts of the world and lives were lost. Bombs exploded in bookshops in America and England. The book’s Norwegian publisher was shot. Its Italian translator was stabbed. Its Japanese translator was shot and killed. And overall, more than 60 people died as a consequence of the controversy.

 

   And yet, at no stage did the American or British authorities, among many others, seriously think of banning the book. In most Western democracies (and especially in the US, where there is a First Amendment Constitutional protection for free speech), banning a book is hardly ever an option.

 

   Western Governments recognize that freedom of expression involves risks and they accept that there will always be the bigots and whackos who will resort to violence in an effort to stifle free speech.

 

   The job of the government is not to assist the bigots by going along with their agenda and ordering bans. It is to fight them so that free speech can be protected.

 

"I imagine that the Tatas went through their own Satanic Verses moment. At some stage, on Tuesday, somebody must have asked: is this ad film so important that it is worth our people getting hurt?"

   In India, nobody seems to think that the government has any obligation to preserve freedom of expression. We take the line that as long as a government does not itself censor a book or a film, it has respected free speech. Should anybody else want to stifle freedom of expression, well, that’s nothing to do with the government. And in fact, if the objections threaten law and order then, the government will be happy to help the protestors by obligingly issuing a ban.

 

   We know the consequences of this. Any organization that wants to get a little attention knows that the best way to hit the headlines is to protest about a movie, to claim that a book has insulted the Prophet, to argue that a Bollywood blockbuster offends the heritage of its caste and so on. Theatres are attacked. Posters are torn down. Bookshops are vandalized. Film shootings are disrupted. And most of the time, all that the government will do is to ask the authors/ film-makers etc. to cut a deal with the protesters.

 

   In effect, the right to free speech in India is governed by anyone who can throw a stone. Or at the very least, by those who can threaten violence. If the threat is credible and serious the person or organization that is targeted will probably have no choice but to crumble and give in.

 

   I imagine that the Tatas went through their own Satanic Verses moment. At some stage, on Tuesday, somebody must have asked: is this ad film so important that it is worth our people getting hurt?

 

   And as all governments have done in such cases, they must have decided that it is not.

 

   I am bitterly disappointed with the decision by Tanishq to withdraw the film only in response to the worst kind of bigotry. And I said as much on Tuesday. But I hesitate now to issue too many moral judgments because I imagine that many of us might have reacted in the same way in that situation if there had been credible threats of violence.

 

   So what makes India so different? Why do we, despite calling ourselves a liberal democracy, cave in so easily when free expression is threatened.

 

   Eventually, the answer has to be: the government. And by that, I mean all governments from all parties.

 

   Simply put, India’s politicians do not believe that free speech is worth fighting for. The government of India could have said, in the 1980s, when there was the prospect of riots breaking out over The Satanic Verses, that it would protect bookshops and publishers and prosecute the bigots who were inciting the violence.

 

   It did no such thing, a pattern that has been repeated again and again, every year since I can remember.

 

   If we were a society that was committed to protecting free speech then the Tatas would not have been able to say that they withdrew a perfectly good ad film because they were worried about the safety of their people.

 

   But we are a society at the mercy of every bigot with means, every fanatic with a stone to throw. Worse still, too many of these bigots are politically well-connected. All too often, politicians stand by and do nothing because they are not unhappy about controversies that polarize public opinion or target a particular community. They know that they will gain from the polarization.

 

   Is there a way out? In the eighties, when The Satanic Verses controversy raged, I was optimistic. I believed that as education spread, as a new generation came of age, Indians would recognize the virtues of free speech and tolerance. We would be less willing to be manipulated and less prone to hatred.

 

   Sadly, I was wrong. Things have actually got worse and politicians have become enthusiastic partners of those who would curtail expression, subvert shows of tolerance and discourage any celebration of diversity.

 

   So yes, I think that the Tatas should have held firm. But I can understand why they gave in.

 

   They live in the India that we have created.

 

 

CommentsComments

  • Siddhartha 19 Oct 2020

    Very nice. No govt. ever tried to clean the dirt from our society,rather they always exploit it to their advantage and anybody who attempted to do so,the state became their enemy. Govt is the main inhibitor in making of nation by corrupting the society.

  • Kk 19 Oct 2020

    I think it’s a tit for tat case hence the average Hindu low key doesn’t mind .
    ‘ Could Tata even imagine showing a Muslim girl marrying a Hindu boy ?’ Could this thought even reach the table let alone materialise . Can they simultaneously show two marriages with role reversals ?

    The reason for an average person is if they don’t tolerate why should we not the other way round for the majority .
    If the groom was any other religion let’s say a Christian there wouldn’t have been noise .

  • zubin Millwala 16 Oct 2020

    dont forget Jesus Christ Superstar the musical was pulled down - from IIT Madras to Alyque padamsee - no one was allowed to perform after all preparations and announcements had been carried out.
    In the case of Tanishq the employees identity was shared publicly - and the person who did this should have been ideally arrested, but then again it would only harm the employee and put him the centre of public eye
    sigh

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