Walking the talk

A lot of you may be wondering what happened at the talk I was supposed to give on the Broadcast Bill and freedom of expression. I apologise for updating you a week late.

I chose not to read from a prepared text, speaking extempore instead. I’m glad I did because the gathering wasn’t looking for oratory; it wanted to be made aware.

Let’s put aside for a moment the issue I spoke about; my views on it are clear from the earlier blog. What struck me was that maybe there is a growing fatigue — even irritation — among Muslims about secularism and bias being the only topics of debate as far as they are concerned. Maybe, just maybe, there are other things to talk about. Maybe there are other issues on the community’s mind — employment, education, per capita incomes, housing, being part of the mainstream and the debates that are so much part of it, like freedom of expression.

I know I cringe every time there is a photograph of Muslims celebrating Diwali, Ganesh Chaturthi or Holi. Or of Hindus celebrating Eid. As if the media feels the need to keep giving evidence of inter-faith tolerance, as if it is afraid it doesn’t exist at all. 

If that  is the media’s fear, then let me assure it that is not the case. I am convinced the so-called divide doesn’t exist at all in the minds of an overwhelming majority of Indians. Inter-faith tolerance, in fact the celebration of our vast diversity of faiths, is a done deal, it’s cast in stone. We don’t need anybody to keep underscoring it  with cliched visuals. What we need is to move on to real issues, the kind I mentioned above.

The Jamaat-e-Hind Islami’s Maharashtra unit, which hosted the talk I gave (there were two other speakers too), is doing well to organise such events. It ensures Muslims talk about more than a sense of victimisation (justified in very many cases, but the only way the community can break out of it is to have more on its mind).

I do hope there are more such talks. And I hope the Jamaat invites me to them.

My speech

 A few days ago I had said I was invited to speak at a meeting on freedom of expression. Here’s the speech I came up with. Is it any good? I’d really like to know what you think. Here it is:


I don’t believe in selective freedom. You either have it or you don’t. It’s like being pregnant — you either are, or you aren’t. You cannot be a little pregnant.

That’s exactly why it’s a matter of concern, and dismay when you see publications or films being blocked. We’ve seen problems over the film Fire, the play Mee Nathuram Godse Boltoy

In fact, the state government, if I’m not mistaken, actually banned the play. To me, this is the worst kind of curtailment of freedom of expression. While I may never ever agree with Godse, I do believe that if there is an opposing point of view, there must be freedom to express it. There were all kinds of arguments — how can we have an assassin’s point of view, he killed the Father of the Nation, he was among the most misguided men in history, etc. But, I think, Gandhi himself may have disagreed with all the naysayers.

Also, I believe, suppress a misguided voice and you drive it to radicalism. To some, it may even become a voice of heroism.

The point is, the more you suppress something, the more people want to know about it. The more you push something down, the greater the will to fight back. Forced silence may create the loudest bang of all.

An idea has enough strength to hold its own. So, ban a play, a book, a film, and you only land up giving it the kiss of life. A point of view that may have run the course of a debate and eventually died out, is kept alive and even strengthened by a ban.

Wouldn’t the government actually be far better off by staying out of it and letting the people decide for themselves?

We are all entitled to our choices — political, cultural, sexual.

I chose to speak about the Godse play to highlight exactly how the freedom of expression we pride ourselves is really not absolute. We are all capable of understanding what is right or wrong and choosing for ourselves. But it’s almost as if we are afraid of choice.

In the Broadcasting Bill, the Information and Broadcasting Ministry talks about a ‘content code’. It says it is to regulate the “quality” of programming and to ‘protect consumers’ interests”.

It sounds innocuous on the face of it, so why is the media so upset?

The big problem is that it seems the government is intent upon controlling what broadcasters can and cannot show. It is seen as an infringement on the rights of the media.

How? A stringent content code, and the reference to “national interest” could actually be translated to mean, “We will block many forms of investigative journalism, like, say, sting ops.” It could also be interpreted as “toe the line or we’ll crack down on you”. The right of the media to question, expose corruption, etc, could be severely curtailed.

Theoretically, the government could retaliate to an expose by, say, claiming that the content code was violated, privacy was violated. It could yank away your licence, it could put your ownership structures under scrutiny.

We’ve already had one such case of a government crackdown — Tehelka faced probes about financial irregularities and almost shut down after Operation West End, which forced George Fernades to resign as defence minister after an expose about irregularities in defence spending.

The question is, why is freedom of expression such a big issue?

It is, because it guarantees that a universe of ideas will always be part of our society. The universe of ideas is important for opinions to be expressed, debated and eventually a path to the truth found.
Why should we have limits on what to discuss?
If multiple parties disagree, then the very fact that that disagreement can be expressed, heard and one point of view either dismissed or accepted is the very lifeblood of society.
Huge changes are often sparked off by a single voice. It may meet with a wall of opposition in the beginning, but eventually others join this first brave voice. In time, the minority could even become the majority.

But you can’t have all this by suppressing expression.
Political and social movements, say, civil rights, women’s rights, etc, all started small. Today, those tiny voices have created enough awareness for these issues to occupy a large part of our bandwidth.
Repression of an opinion you don’t want is censorship of the worst kind.

It was the American historian Alfred Whitney Griswold who said: “Books won’t stay banned. They won’t burn. Ideas won’t go to jail. In the long run of history, the censor and the inquisitor have always lost. The only weapon against bad ideas is better ideas.”