It is no coincidence that Salman Rushdie who remains the poster child of the censorship debate in India begins his celebrated Midnight’s Children with the twin image of the birth of a child and that of a nation. The rest of the novel traces the intertwined stories of the child’s growth with the political history of independent India. But if one were to extend this allegory taking into account the kind of public sphere that seems to exist in India 65 years after independence there seems to be something amiss about this metaphor of birth and subsequent growth into maturity. A strange malaise pervades the public sphere in India today, where it seems almost as if we have turned the natural cycle of growth around and the children of midnight appears to suffer from the malady of the protagonist in David Fincher’s film “The Curious case of Benjamin Button” where a man is born a mature adult but ages backwards and slowly slides into infantile regression. If we were to consider the unreasonable response to Ashis Nandy’s talk at the Jaipur literary festival as one in a long continuum of such cases where individuals are hounded for hurting sentiments of communities, the Indian public sphere sadly appears as a weak and sickly child suffering from irony deficiency.
Consider for instance the fact that in 1922 Gandhi proudly declared that it was his duty to be seditious describing Sec. 124A of the Indian Penal Code as a prince amongst political provisions of harassment or Lala Lajpat Rai’s bold response to the Indian Cinematograph Committee (which demanded greater censorship of cinema because Indians were not mature enough) that he did not want the future citizens of this country growing up in a nursery and that they should be exposed to all influences to enable them to arrive at better judgments. This situation has largely been brought to bear by a lethal combination: the existence of draconian penal provisions that curtail speech, a criminal justice system that makes it ridiculously easy for groups to file complaints on the basis that they have been hurt and an instrumental media that profits and feeds on the eruption of scandals.
A plain reading of Ashis Nandy’s statements at Jaipur make it abundantly clear that far from making casteist slurs, he was actually critiquing a narrow understanding of corruption that did not question the unstated assumptions of upper class and caste privilege which to Nandy’s mind is a greater form of corruption. Those who are up in arms against him seem to have huffed and puffed to a point of breathlessness and shortness of breath- doctors will tell you- can affect your hearing. So it might be worth our while to pause, take a deep breath and agree that even if we disagree with what Nandy said it may at best be a disagreement about form in which case one can generously shrug the statement as an awkwardly construed statement. And if one disagrees with him in substance then lets pretend for a while that we are a mature democracy and challenge him intellectually.
Filing a case under the SC ST (Prevention of atrocities Act) and the IPC against a speech act with absolutely no malicious intent only trivializes the intent that corrective legislations like the former were meant to address. Asad Ahmad in his work on blasphemy in colonial India demonstrates how criminal cases around hate speech in colonial India became public events by way of their circulation in media and through rumours so that legal claims of emotional hurt become the basis of mobilization of affective communities centered on the public performance of emotion. This is a strategy that was perfected by the lumpen right wing which has unfortunately been adopted by all minority groups as well.
Assuming that members of the Dalit community feel upset with the form of the statement as a result of historic prejudice, this would call for a verbal or intellectual redressal rather than resorting to legal remedy or street protest. An often ignored virtue in the debate on free speech and censorship is the virtue of listening. The time has come to admit that freedom of speech and expression is highly overrated without an equal commitment to careful listening. This is particularly true when one lives in an eggshell democracy where every step we take, and every word we utter has to be carefully measured against the potential ‘hurt’ that can be caused. The true test of a democracy lies as much in the amount of speech that it willing to grants its citizens as in the amount of uncomfortable speech that it is willing to listen to. Azra Tabassum, a writer in Delhi says “Fearless Speech demands fearless listening” and while Ashis Nandy is paying a heavy price for his speech the real casualty of the entire affair will be on our collective ability to listen fearlessly and genuine speech in India will be held in perpetual ransom those who infantilise and trivialise our public sphere.
(First published in the Economic Times.)