Saturday 21 April 2018

Unite to defend, not deny, freedom of speech (Sunday Guardian)

M D Nalapat 

India will remain less than a complete democracy until laws such as criminal defamation are removed.

In a city 3,800 kilometres away from Delhi, and where Gmail is very difficult to access, around midnight local time on 16 April, an Apple iPhone showed questions from two publications relating to an item carried in this newspaper. The item was by an exile from Kashmir, Sushil Pandit, who was explicit that it was a fictional account. His literary effort nowhere belittled the act that was described, nor justified it. However, being fiction rather than real life, the scenario presented in the story was different from the J&K police charge-sheet in an incident detailing a pack of animals who allegedly fell upon a little girl, snuffing out her life in a gruesome manner. It is always dismaying to come across accounts testifying to the brutality of men against women, especially those who are just a few years distant from being babies. This work of literature, which was explicit that it was unrelated to any real life incident, was unpleasant to some and offensive to many to read. However, the author nowhere justified the crime described nor sought to pass it off as trivial.
The Sunday Guardian often carries items with which the editorial team disagrees, yet publishes them on the axiom that a publication should not be an echo chamber for its editors. There was a period of over a decade when it was impossible for this columnist to get his writings published in mainstream newspapers. During this period, only two publications showed willingness to publish his work. These were Organiser and Radiance, and to both the present writer will remain grateful. None of those who nowadays speak out in defence of free speech emitted even a disapproving cough in support of a journalist colleague suddenly deprived of outlets to write for, a situation that changed only in 2011, when it became evident that the Manmohan Singh government was on its way out. “Freedom of speech” should not be restricted only to those views which those claiming to be its champions agree with.
Two decades ago, a contrived and hurtful charge was made against this columnist, that he motivated the Chief Minister of a southern state to make some incendiary statements about the chairman of the media company in which he was then working, and with whom he had an excellent rapport. Indeed, the chairman had asked him in 1994 to come to Delhi from Bangalore to (successfully) assist in defeating an attempt by some within the editorial team to empty the newspaper of much of its senior staff. Such assistance was, not surprisingly, looked upon askance by the venerable journalist who was leading the “Quit the Media House” movement, and the chance for revenge came within less than five years, when he was brought back with pomp into the editorial chambers. This “Ghar Wapsi” journalist was a maestro of networking, being as close to the A.B. Vajpayee PMO as he was with 10 Janpath. The venerable journalist’s revenge included the publication in a fortnightly newsmagazine through a friend of his that Yours Truly, helpfully identified as a “disgruntled employee”, was responsible for the statements of a Chief Minister who was known to often not even listen to herself, much less to others, in what she said or did. Seeing that the smear was being expertly spread, and was rapidly being taken as fact even by those who ought to have known better, the offer of one of Asia’s finest universities to create (for the first time in India) a chair in geopolitics was accepted with relief. The university has since proved to be a haven for this columnist, as its top level remains uninfluenced by periodic efforts from politicians and officials to make the institution withdraw its welcome to this columnist.
Over the past few days, ever since Sushil Pandit’s effort at detective fiction got printed in The Sunday Guardian, there has been a barrage of missives to institutions with which this writer is connected, demanding that he be removed. Less than flattering descriptions of him, including as an accessory to hate and other crimes, have been appended to such advice. Fortunately, the youthful Proprietor of The Sunday Guardian did not accept the bait tossed in his direction by so many to dismiss the Editor or the Editorial Director, but instead stood by his team. Messages were even sent to UNESCO in Paris warning that a “neo-Nazi”, no less, was among their Peace Chairs. Similar missives have presumably gone to the Editors Guild and to other entities. Each is welcome to take whatever action they deem proper. This columnist has throughout his career opposed curbs on free speech, which includes speech that is offensive to himself or to others. Those unwilling to accept even a fictional scenario detailing a bestial crime need to consider whether such an approach squares with a commitment to freedom of speech.
India will remain less than a complete democracy until such laws as criminal defamation be removed, Until it ceases to be easy as making mud-pies to drag a person to court to face charges such as those relating to “hate speech”. This columnist has written and spoken against the way in which some youths in JNU were prosecuted. He has written and spoken about the way in which the internet is being sought to be policed, or about the way in which matters such as diet or dress or lifestyle have been sought to be regulated the way they are in Iran or Saudi Arabia. Whether it be the central campaign against the AAP government or measures such as demonetisation, there has been far from an automatic endorsement by this columnist of several of the policies of the present government. Those in power during the UPA years created the very laws that are now getting used against a few of them. Those in the NDA who are adding to rather than eliminating such democracy-diluting laws will soon be at the receiving end of their own legislation and practices. In a context of the Rule of Colonial Law, instead of seeking to muzzle a publication and deny an individual exiled from his home province the right of freedom of speech, those appreciative of the need for free speech in promoting democracy need to unite to ensure that the journalistic profession become much less risky to life and liberty than is the case at present.

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