Perhaps the best single word to describe India's collective attitude towards free expression, and civil liberties in general, is 'confused'. Just like, one might say, India's attitude towards the United States, where the right to free speech is virtually absolute and positive. There, you have the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) gritting its teeth and going to court to protect the right of leather-clad lesbians to parade on the streets one day, and--presumably holding its nose--fighting to defend demonstrations by Neo-Nazis the next. The principle is quite clear: it does not matter how you feel about what is being expressed, who is doing it, or who is gaining politically by it; .the right to free expression itself is sacred and a common good and nothing can be allowed to do anything even remotely like abridging it.
It is telling that, India's public sphere is full of high-minded rhetoric about freedom, but the energy of social activists in this realm is focussed on exactly the opposite goal--namely to crush free speech whenever and wherever it suits them. We have, of course, fundamentalist Muslim leaders chivvying the faithful to lynch Taslima Nasreen because she told what she thought were a few home truths; and just to balance the scales, there are Hindutva activists filing suit in court (and throwing in a little vandalism to spice things up) to prosecute M.F. Hussain because he, a presumed Muslim, trespassed on Hindu territory as it were when he drew pictures of naked goddesses.
Taslima and M.F. are of course merely the most prominent of the lot that have been told aggressively to shut up or else. There are random people who go to no end of trouble, it seems, to monitor every perceived transgression against their sense of propriety, however casual or unintended the offence may have been. The honour roll is much too long to list, certainly long enough to establish that "freedom fighter" has a whole new meaning in Indian culture.
In drawing this conclusion, there is, sadly, no rhetorical refuge to be had in comforting bromides about education, modernity and so on. The usual pat explanation offered by the media commentators, academicians, and other thought leaders and interpreters of society is that a combination of pre-modern social values, and the crass greed of the post-socialist era is at the root of our repressive urges. The obiter dicta of this class are, by turns, wistful and stern, but the gist, more or less, is that if only they--the good and the great--were to have India to run as a sort of benevolent dictatorship, they would then clamp down on the unsightly exhibitions of intolerance by the less well-schooled hoi polloi, and that would be that. At best, this elite class might let a thousand carefully vetted flowers bloom once in a while, but God help the thousand and first, especially if it dared to challenge their authority.
Aside from its obvious--if unrecognized--irony and presumption, this message by the intelligentsia is founded on a factual untruth. The Marxists of politics and academia are perhaps the nearest thing India has to modernist thinkers and activists. In name at least, the People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) and allied organizations are the Indian counterpart of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Unlike the ACLU, the PUCL makes no secret of its selectiveness in defending only the kind of expression deemed beneficial to the Marxist cause. The left-leaning liberal intelligentsia mostly follow this party line, and quite openly at that. They reserve the bulk of their energies for denouncing threats to free expression seen to originate from the Hindu Right. They are also earnest and unsparing of their indubitable learning and cleverness in debating the case of the Hindu side to exhaustion: Hindu culture itself is far from blameless, and anyway what do commoners understand of high art, and so on.
The departure from this one-sided fervour in the case of Taslima Nasreen is more apparent than real--the Left's defence of that poor battered woman was lukewarm at best, and any left-wing voices that spoke for her emerged only when their indifference and disinterest were coming to be seen to be a political liability. All in all, it is completely fair to conclude that free speech activism by civil society in India is actually a political campaign in camouflage, and therefore most of it deserves to be discounted.
The picture that emerges, then, is that of a people with various political and personal axes to grind, but all united in their authoritarian drive to use any handy tool--administrative, civil, political, or the lynch mob--to suppress any expression that they find inconvenient, distasteful or dangerous. And it's no use blaming politicians either: there has been no politician in history with the ability to exploit an urge that is not already present in the people. We're all perverse freedom fighters, in brief.
This conclusion, while distressing on the face of it, is not entirely a cause for unremitting despair. While it might be embarrassing to admit that we are not really a free people at the core, there are definite mitigating factors.
For one thing, the ability to crush dissent, when used wisely, can be used to realize various long-lasting conspiracies of silence, for example on matters such as the Hindu-Muslim dichotomy. Getting at the truth of such matters is all very well, but implications of such truths could be fraught with grave dangers for the state. There is something to be said for suppressing some truths, and getting on with life, in the hope that in time, the relevance and impact of those truths might fade.
Also, the existence of competing political interests in a population dedicated to the suppression of free speech generates a natural constituency for that same free speech. The secret here is the Indian--perhaps human--urge to be seen as being better than what one actually is. Thus, if the Left can use the suppression of M.F. Hussain as a stick with which to beat the Hindu Right, the latter can gleefully turn that stick around and use it to beat the Left when it comes to Taslima Nasreen. While this wouldn't achieve the ideal of everyone acknowledging the innate rights of Taslima or M.F., at least the two individuals are arguably better served than they would have been if they had no one at all to speak for their rights.
Ultimately, however, this sort of balanced intolerance still isn't good enough for India, even if one were to discount the urge to get the West (mainly America) to tell us that we are as free as they are. A national commitment to let the truth out is essential if we are to build a stable, growing and sustainable economy that doesn't actually eat India's people alive and perish under its own contradictions. By tolerating a culture of authoritarianism and suppression, we put at risk the integrity of things like accounting, market valuation, product quality, and so forth. If that integrity is violated, there goes consumer and investor confidence. Then there is the increasingly better-understood key role of active pluralism and the marketplace of ideas, for which free expression is a prerequisite.
Perhaps it was due to considerations of this nature that prompted, in part, the bourgeois-kulak founding fathers of America and their successors to insist on uncompromising adherence to the protection of free speech. We might, after all, be on to something in our national obsession with America--while it may feel humiliating at times, it is probably indicative of an underlying cultural affinity that both attracts and repels us. It is not as though the American people, or any other people, would have been inherently more prone to supporting free speech than the Indian people. The genius of America's founding fathers was that they codified their vision of historical and economic forces into a principle.
The fact that this worked, more or less, for America suggests that it could work for India as well. America has had two centuries for the forces of history to play themselves out and validate the free speech principle. Because India will have much less time than that before its destiny will be determined, we should pay less attention to empty moralizing and focus more on developing a systematic approach to managing intolerance and promoting freedom
K.V. Bapa Rao is a long-time NRI professional and student of India.