Religion and the curious death of free speech

Religion, if you look at it, is ultimately just an idea. One, admittedly, that has the support of a large number of people. But as an idea, it is by itself not sacred. The illusion or reality of its sacredness is driven wholly by how it is perceived by those who believe in it and put it on a pedestal. Unlike people however, an idea doesn’t have any rights. When someone has a very emotional response to an attack on an idea they believe in, it does not in return give them the right to defend it with violence. They may at best have the opportunity to provide counter arguments, engage in constructive criticisms of the discrepancies in their opponent’s claims, or even completely disconnect themselves from said opponents. But never through violence.

Whenever the concept of free speech is mentioned in most contexts, religious or otherwise, Voltaire’s quote is pretty hot property. To defend till death someone’s right to express themselves even if you didn’t personally agree with them? A remarkably romantic concept. If death is the ultimate price to pay to protect someone’s freedom of expression though, as the Charlie Hebdo attacks so tragically illustrated, why go down the road of even provoking someone to the point that they would bay for blood? What’s wrong with just expressing opinions that don’t hurt anyone? Shouldn’t the creatively inclined have an unofficial motivation – or even an official regulation – that should make them responsible for their content, given the volatile times that we live in and where trigger happy adherents are more than eager to mow down anyone mocking their ideas?

Questions such as these have resurfaced time and again in my mind, in the Indian context and otherwise. As a country that purportedly guarantees the freedom of speech to its citizens, it has for a very long time – due to action and inaction – diluted the ability of its constitution to do so.

I have always found it surprising that whenever a major event happens at the world stage, Indian leaders are almost never quoted in the many statements of consternation or condolences that eventually get broadcast around the media. Imagine my surprise then at the spate of statements from not only the government, but also the Hindu right wing against the Charlie Hebdo attacks. Because in that week, an attack on free speech that was barely covered by the world media was going on in Tamil Nadu in southern India and had some wide ranging repercussions.

Because of incessant threats against him, with his books being publicly denounced in the streets by right wing Hindu groups,  and with no governmental organization supporting him, one of India’s most revered Tamil language authors, Perumal Murugan resigned from writing and went back to being a school teacher. Not only that, he took the rather extreme steps of having copies of his books recalled, asking literary festival organizers not to invite him, his readers to dispose of the copies they owned, and publishers to stop printing any more copies. Apart from the usual buzz in the liberal media, this event went mostly ignored – and the petitions filed by none other than the ruling BJP and its allies resulted in a complete shutdown of the author’s hometown for a week. And not a single statement was heard from the government about it.

Romila Thapar, the famous Indian historian put it very eloquently last year,

It is not that we are bereft of people who think autonomously and can ask relevant questions. But frequently where there should be voices, there is silence. Are we all being co-opted too easily by the comforts of conforming? Are we fearful of the retribution that questioning may and often does bring?

Why then should we defend the deliberately provocative?

Because ultimately, if we want to live our lives in a meaningful manner, in a way that we are not censored, our voices are not muffled or our actions impinged upon, we must all have the ability to provoke. And a mindset to rationally support others who do.

Because if we do not, then the rights and freedoms that we have left will be throttled even further than they already have by the treacherous cocktail of state actors, non state actors and the skirmishes between them. It is important to understand that religion, just like other human ideas, is open to satire. That it is dangerous to put any icons, institutions or figures that are ultimately a human creation, over and above satire.

Respect should be accorded to them yes – but not at the expense of the liberties and rights that are accorded to human beings.

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