Political inertia, cultural indifference make us a ‘fear society’

Political inertia, cultural indifference make us a ‘fear society’

By Himraj Dang | NEW DELHI | 28 October, 2017

There is No Such Thing as Hate Speech: A Case for 

Absolute Freedom of 

Expression

Ravi Shanker Kapoor

Price: Rs 399

Ravi Shanker Kapoor’s latest book, There is No Such Thing as Hate Speech, published recently by Bloomsbury, is a timely and important contribution for modern India. The book distils many years of the author’s intellectual struggle for free speech and expression. The story begins with how nationalism has pushed back the ideals of European Enlightenment brought to India by the British. Macaulay and Raja Rammohan Roy are defended for their support for Western education. Subhas Bose is derided for his contempt for individual liberty and unabashed admiration of fascism. Rabindranath Tagore’s wise reminders of how nationalism can blind us to social evils are quoted extensively.

And then with political freedom comes the original sin—the First Amendment to the liberal Constitution, via Article 19(a), putting restrictions on the right to speech and expression, and later successful in the removal of the Fundamental Right to Property. Ravi Kapoor is at his polemical best when he makes a detailed effort in demonstrating the ill-effects of these restrictions via 19(a), as also how private property is linked to human freedom. He accepts the “harm principle” and so, hate crime as the only limitation on free speech and expression. 

The arguments, divided into short chapters, are crafted as debates into various facets on how and why freedom of expression is undermined in India. The windmills the author tilts are varied: leftist politics and expansion of state power, the shenanigans of politicians in Maharashtra to suppress James Laine’s work on Shivaji, the troglodytic censor board and its long history of really stupid decisions, the anti-tobacco warnings inserted in films by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, legion cases of hurting of sentiments by literature, the link between science and freedom and why the West succeeds in scientific breakthroughs, how Hindus and Muslims revile Valentine’s Day, how the fear of defamation is used to undermine freedom, Rushdie at the Jaipur LitFest in 2012, the scandalous Facebook arrests of two young girls in 2012, the link between pornography and freedom—a long list of India’s political pushbacks to freedom in Independent India.

Another hit on freedom came in the form of Section 66A of the UT Act 2005. Though it has been struck by the Supreme Court in 2015, failing even the test of reasonableness, this has done enough damage to freedom of expression in its short existence, and threatened to be even worse than 19(a) in its scope and intrusiveness. Naturally, the two largest parties supported it when in power, and were both pleased when it was struck down.

The author eventually concludes that India fails in comparison with the US and the West in protecting free speech, by comparing the responses to the Rangila Rasul case and the Katherine Mayo book, with how the West reacted after the Charlie Hebdo massacre.

I would ask the author to explore further his particular angst towards Islam (inconsistent), liberals and socialism. Surely the experience of Hindutva in glorious power and Donald Trump in the White House, teach us that illiberalism is not the exclusive or even preponderant preserve of any particular group.

In an ideal world, I would agree with the author’s support for unlimited freedom (or only constrained by the “harm principle” or “hate crime”). In India, unfortunately, I do not really see a constituency for liberal thought of freedom of expression. Till such time as “Law & Order”, which the author extols as a key priority for good governance, is strengthened, even unlimited freedoms today, do not mean much, as they cannot be defended. 

As a result, this book, with its long list of well-reasoned arguments, is not likely to by itself push us to change. There is too much political inertia, cultural indifference and a confused inheritance from history, which together enchain us to remain a “fear society”, as opposed to a “free society”. Only a reverence for the original Constitution could have helped retain its pristine character, without dilution by 19(1), but we have had a hundred amendments since, and there is no going back. 

It may be, like the striking down of 66A, that we have to fight back for each book, film, cartoon, till we create a coherent philosophy to underpin liberty in India. The rulers of this country will not gift us this.

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