April 22, 2021
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Cry, Freedom, Again

Cry, Freedom, Again

In a public appeal, carried by this website, a number of individuals have come together ostensibly to protect Famous Person Arundhati Roy from being arrested by Chattisgarh police, who it is said, are readying a jail cell for the lady, allegedly for the crime of  writing, at length, in praise of the Maoist enemies of India. On its meandering way to the point, the appeal gushes for a while about the various virtues oozing out of Ms. Roy's now-famous paean  to the people's pistol-packing pol-potist potentates, including honesty, sensitivity, and, astonishingly, being more or less India's secret weapon in the war against the Maoists. Here is an excerpt:

It is a detailed, sensitive and honest account of their history, their motivations, their thinking and their methods. Precisely because the account provides the perspective of the Maoists, it is a very valuable account, one that the people of the country need to hear. It is after all a phenomenon which has been described as the most serious security threat to the country. It is important for the people of the country to be as well informed as possible about the phenomenon of Maoism and how it has arisen so that a properly informed decision can be taken about how to deal with its challenges. In our view, the authorities on their own should have elicited inputs on the Maoist activity across the States, from as many diverse sources as possible and formulated its strategy to deal with the problem in a holistic and sensitive manner, essentially keeping the interests of the tribal central to such a strategy. Arundhati Roy's inputs need to be viewed in this context.

Here is the full article.

The problem with appealing to the presumed high utility and righteousness of Ms. Roy's article to save her from a possible lifetime of penal servitude under the tender tutelage of the Chattisgarh constabulary (who, all the right kind of people seem to agree, are unspeakable savages to a man, perhaps barely even human) is that its logic condemns our heroine to the very fate from which it strains so hard to save her. 

First, consider that in free India, it is perfectly legal for a person to be persecuted, prosecuted, and even locked up for saying nearly anything; all it takes is for the authorities or even some random busybody to decide that such sayings harm society in some unspecified manner. It then falls to the now-alleged criminal to move heaven and earth and expend all their resources and energy to rid themselves of the charge. The actress Khushboo, for instance, spent a miserable 5 years hunted by the law, chased all the way to the Supreme Court, for saying a very reasonable and wholesome thing: consenting adults in a free society are free to own their bodies and share the same with anyone they please, and when and how this freedom is exercised has nothing to do with marriage.

Given this legal and social backdrop, Ms. Roy's protectors committed two errors that stand their case on its head. First is an error that is commonly seen in self-important people--they failed to distinguish between their own subjective opinion and undisputed universal fact. While they do acknowledge that it is possible to disagree with Ms. Roy's views expressed in the article, they praise the article's virtues (as they see them) and remain oblivious to the possibility that that there may be other evaluations that go beyond mere disagreement, falling into the emphatically not-praise category. Just the fact of the Chattisgarh policeman's zeal to prosecute Ms. Roy should have told them that, for instance, the article could be regarded (by, say, the policeman in question) as a piece of pernicious enemy propaganda aimed at breaking down the morale of the hardworking people of India by inducing self-hatred and a contempt for the very democratic rights which they exercised in electing their lawful government (an entity which Maoist supporters generally tag with the ominous-sounding moniker of The Indian State).

The second, related error of Ms. Roy's advocates is to have based their argument for  her impunity on their own idiosyncratic opinion of the quality and utility of her article. Since prima facie, one opinion is as valid as another, and India has a legal system and a public culture that allows it suppress and even punish free speech, all that the authorities have therefore to do to justify locking Ms. Roy up is to simply reject the appealers' glowing opinion in favour of their policeman's. That, incidentally, would be a value judgment that might win the hearty endorsement of many objective readers of the article in question, not to speak of the legions of non-fans which Ms. Roy has gathered in her lengthy career as a Famous Person.

The door is thus wide open for the incarceration and elevation of Ms. Roy to the status of martyr which would no doubt have followed in short order. But, unless they are even stupider than widely believed, the authorities are not about to frog-march Ms. Roy through that door to lodge her in the hoosegow anytime soon. The Indian establishment harbours a healthy if abject terror of all bullies, domestic and foreign, and it knows perfectly well that there is no way it could stand up to the cacophony that would ensue, were it to give in to what must be an exquisite temptation.

So, Ms. Roy is safe, but not, as we would wish, due to a grand and principled commitment of a free people who consider it their sacred and and uncompromising duty to protect freedom of expression, even of a variety that might seem distasteful and fatuous, or borderline anti-national for that matter.

Now, we don't know whether Ms. Roy's supporters in this instance are genuine votaries of freedom--who inadvertently allowed their eloquence to lead them into a logical trap--or simply garden-variety political bully types who are always loudly demanding freedom for the "right" kind of expression, by the "right" kind of people, and are perfectly content to acquiesce or participate in the suppresssion of the freedoms of those "others". What we do know is that this appeal of theirs was hardly a feast of reason and logic to gladden the hearts of just and upright free men and women everywhere. 

It is also a safe bet that few, if any, of their number have troubled to take out a similar moving appeal in support of Khushboo's rights during the long ordeal that the courageous woman endured, ultimately to prevail. As it happens, it is my own opinion that Khushboo's candid remarks on the moral acceptability of pre-marital sex, and her subsequent fight against her persecutors, are a far more profound contribution to the Indian people's freedoms and human rights than the turgid blatherings of all sorts of pompous blowhards and has-beens that the media never seems to tire of foisting on the hapless Indian people in the guise of, well, people whose opinions we should actually give a rodent's rear about.

But then again, my value judgment in these matters is irrelevant to the case at hand. Ms. Roy's freedoms and liberty are just as sacred to me as those of Khushboo's.

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