Monday, 30th October 2017

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Lost in translation - Why free speech gestures don't travel well

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By Mukul Kesavan
  • Published 19.01.15

The successful persecution of the Tamil writer, Perumal Murugan, is an individual tragedy and an illustration of the limits within which writers, film-makers and artists work in our country.

These limits aren't imposed by "fringe elements" or political extremists (though these might lead the charge), they prevail over the right to free expression because they are embedded in a broad public consensus. This consensus holds that the breaking of known religious and cultural taboos is undesirable for two reasons. One is normative: communities have a right to have their sensibilities respected. The second is prudential: offending group sensibilities can lead to violent disorder, and the pressing need for social peace trumps any abstract argument about free expression. To protect the right to offend or provoke, according to this consensus, is self-indulgent recklessness that ignores the basic decencies and the consequences of playing with fire.

The arguments against these arguments are familiar. Communities defined by religion, caste and language aren't made up of identical individuals with similar sensibilities. They are internally differentiated and unequal. Religious orthodoxies and their taboos should not be acceptable proxies for all Hindus, Muslims and Christians. Religious and caste communities are patriarchal and tend to deny women agency or equality. Given the magical thinking, superstition, prejudice and all-round weirdness of all religious narratives, it should be virtually mandatory for rational human beings to lampoon faith. It is reasonable, therefore, to be polemical and satirical about a religion's shibboleths. Secondly, the argument from disorder amounts to no more than a surrender to the threat of violence. A state that won't even assert its monopoly over violence isn't a state worth the name, just an enabler of local goon squads posing as community activists.

Sophisticated spokespersons from both sides are capable of nuancing these basic stances and frequently do. Thus, outraged Muslims during the Satanic Verses controversy argued that Muslims have historically dealt with radical criticism of Islam from both within and outside the faith, without violence so long as the point of the criticism was not to slander and defame the faith's principal figures. Similarly angry Hindus will cite the openness of Hindu social reformers to harsh missionary critiques and Hinduism's comfort with heterodoxy and freedom from fundamentalism since it isn't anchored to one Book. These examples of broadmindedness are invariably cited in passive-aggressive defence of some ongoing campaign to ban, deport or denounce some offending text or author or artist... Salman Rushdie, Taslima Nasreen, M.F. Hussain, A.K. Ramanjan or Perumal Murugan.

Free speech advocates, similarly, will concede that the principle they defend is capable of causing real harm, that it often commits them to defending the writings and utterances of people whose ideas they despise. The ACLU, for example, famously formed cordons around Ku Klux Klan meetings to shield its bigots from angry protesters. First Amendment fundamentalists like Glenn Greenwald will point to the hypocrisy of Western pundits in making the blasphemous representation of Mohammed the test case for speech while never saying anything offensive about Israel or Jewish sensibilities because that would cost them their careers. But all of them will return to the irreducible importance of the principle because they believe that proscribing offensive speech and writing eventually endangers all speech and writing. As Saul Bellow memorably wrote, "Everybody knows there is no fineness or accuracy of suppression; if you hold down one thing you hold down the adjoining."

Last week, I tried to elaborate a free-speech position by arguing that we could support Charlie Hebdo's right to offend and not be killed for it without necessarily endorsing or reproducing the Mohammed cartoons that the magazine had published. I ended, blithely, by suggesting that the best defence of free expression was for each of us to be true to our original intentions by not looking over our shoulders and not censoring ourselves.

As Perumal Murugan's persecution has shown, not looking over your shoulder is hard to do when the urban community to which you belong and in which you live has organized a massive and successful hartal against you and your novel, when the police advises you to to go into "self exile", when the local administration, instead of protecting you from organized intimidation and ostracism, offers panchayati arbitration instead, that forces you to apologize and withdraw the book, in return for... the right to go on living in the place you call home.

The reason Indians succumb to intimidation is because no desi institution - civil society, the police, the local administration, the state government, the ruling party - believes that a writer's imagination takes moral priority over the dignity of a community or the threat of public disorder. The way in which this ordering is justified is this. A writer can offer temperate and constructive criticism of social and religious norms and practices, but mocking the principal figures in a community's pantheon, divine or human, or juxtaposing in any way, community beliefs and practices and sex, is, by desi definition, intemperate, gratuitously wounding and dangerous.

The standard free speech argument that people who find a book or film offensive can choose not to read the book of watch the film has no traction whatever in the Indian context. The availability of the offending work in the public domain for public consumption is seen as a continuing affront. The 'settlement' brokered by the local administration, wasn't a compromise: it was unconditional surrender by Murugan. "Sincere regret" became "unconditional apology" and Murugan agreed to change the name of the town where the novel was set, to delete the offending portions in future editions and to withdraw unsold copies.

It's almost as if Indians offended by books and films are invoking some street version of parliamentary decorum. The offending text is their version of unparliamentary language and, like the latter, it has to be formally expunged from the record. Not till it is unsaid can the offended rest. Not until Murugan agreed to withdraw the book, to airbrush it out of existence did the protests cease. Murugan went a step further; he declared his death as an author. In a Facebook post, he rhetorically withdrew his entire oeuvre from circulation, asking his readers to burn his backlist for which he offered to compensate them. While Murugan has had the support of his publisher and many writers have spoken up for him, he has also been reproached for giving up too quickly.

Murugan and his wife work in Namakkal; their livelihood depend on them being able to live there. This became difficult to do when angry caste organizations successfully mobilized his townsfolk against him in a gigantic hartal. It became impossible when the police suggested that he leave town till matters were resolved. Unlike Salman Rushdie or Charlie Hebdo, he had neither a powerful state nor an outraged public opinion to support him in his moment of crisis.

Perumal Murugan is not Charlie. Nor is Taslima Nasreen. Nor was M.F. Hussain. And the reason they aren't has nothing to do with their moral fibre or the courage of their convictions. They aren't free speech heroes in their own countries because no one believes in their cause: not the general public, not the law and most of all, not the state. The law criminalizes work deemed to create enmity between communities; the state sees all controversy as a law and order nuisance and public opinion, that fabled beast, either doesn't care or actively disapproves of anything that fits inside that hold-all category, gratuitous provocation. The truth is that till institutional actors such as the courts, the police and the State begin to give the writer or the artist the benefit of the doubt, till they start to defend his right to free expression on the ground that he is innocent till proven guilty, expecting a writer to stand up to concerted public or legal hounding or reproaching him for not doing so, is like recruiting secular martyrs. And even if someone was to be martyred in the cause of free expression, it would be a wasted sacrifice because public opinion would agree, in its heart of hearts, that the man was a reckless idiot, not a hero.

Je ne sui pas Charlie. Home grown mottos fit our world better than borrowed ones and this is mine: main hoon Murugan.