FORWARDS OR BACKWARDS
India Abroad February 27, 2015
Let’s be clear about one thing about freedom of expression. It ain’t pretty. It never was and it never will be. For freedom of expression to be worth anything,
it has to be about standing up for the right
of someone else to say what we don’t
believe and in fact, find offensive, insulting
I disapprove of what you say but I will
defend to the death your right to say it.
Whether or not Voltaire actually said
that, it remains the simplest and clearest
line in the sand when it comes to freedom
But we just don’t get it.
We keep mistaking freedom of expression
as being the freedom to say what we agree
with. So someone stands up for painter M F
Husain but not for Charlie Hebdo. Or
Shirin Dalvi, (the Mumbai editor of an
Urdu-language newspaper who was fired
from her job, had criminal cases slapped
against her and has gone into hiding after
being threatened for publishing a Charlie
Hebdo cartoon). But the same rules apply to
Husain and (novelist) U R Ananthamurthy
and Salman Rushdie. And for that matter
the AIB roast.
It’s a little bizarre that a roast (a recently
hosted live show that made fun of
Bollywood folk), that’s meant to be rude,
crude and obnoxious, has suddenly become
our litmus test for freedom of expression.
(Comedy group) AIB was not set up to test
the limits of freedom of expression. It’s not
pretending to be avante garde art. It’s a
roast that wants to skewer everything in
sight and within reach. It’s potty-mouthed,
scattershot, offensive. And that’s by design
Actor Aamir Khan, like millions of others, don’t find that kind of profanity-laced
humor that targets every group from gays
to the dark-skinned to women to college
dropouts remotely funny. He does not like
the “violence” of the verbal abuse dished
out on the show. He said he’s not 14 years
old that he’d be impressed by bad language.
And he did the right thing. He chose not to
Here’s another rule we keep forgetting.
Don’t like the book? Shut it. Don’t like the
movie? Don’t watch it. Don’t like that
painting? Walk away.
But Khan who has become a bit of the
nation’s self-appointed conscience-keeper
had his two paisa to add.
“I completely believe in freedom of
expression. No issues. But we have to
understand we all have a certain responsi-
But what is that responsibility? Khan said
as far as he is concerned if you want to
make him laugh, do it without hurting
someone. But that’s his yardstick for humor
— not one held by AIB. Different strokes
for different folks.
“As a creative person do I have the liberty? I also have the responsibility,” said
Khan. But that is always easier said than
done when it comes to striking the balance.
That balance is the classic liberal dilemma.
What is that responsibility? Is it about not
doing offending any one? Or forcing AIB
not to do it?
Khan clearly knows that’s not the solution. He says his response would be to fold
his hands and request them not to do it
again, appeal to their good sense. But what
if they shrug and keep roasting?
Karan Johar took the high road
when responding to the entire controver-
sy: “Silence can mean several things...
strength... weakness and indifference... to
me it always signifies dignity... which is
above everything else!”
Full marks to Karan Johar for having the
guts to be the butt of jokes on that roast,
and dishing out as good as he got, but “dig-
nity” is probably not the word to use when
talking about the X-rated humor of that
roast either. Let’s not make it something
more grand than the lockerroom humor it
was meant to be.
Charlie Hebdo too had once been
“requested” by the French authorities not to
publish one of their incendiary cartoons.
They listened but chose to do so anyway.
The French authorities requested them to
think again but chose not to force them to
stop. That in the end is the only way, imperfect as it is, a liberal democracy can work
when it comes to protecting freedom of
No country, not France, not USA and certainly not India are actually 100 percent
freedom of expression-safe zones. They all
have their Lakshman rekhas. If it’s the picture of the Prophet somewhere, it’s
Holocaust denial somewhere else. But that
kind of freedom is what we should be aspiring to that.
India unfortunately seems more intent on
If Aamir Khan is merely “scolding” his
good friend Karan Johar for being part of
that roast, Vinod Tawde, Maharashtra’s cultural affairs minister is going a step further.
He wants to act against Salman Rushdie
for using “objectionable language” against
Bhalchandra Nemade, a Marathi writer
and recent winner of India’s top literary
award the Jnanpith.
Nemade had called English a “killer lan-
guage” and suggested that like footwear, it
be left at the door. And he’d dismissed
Rushdie and V S Naipaul as “pandering to
the West” and questioned the literary merit
of his works after Midnight’s Children.
Rushdie retorted in a tweet “Grumpy old
bastard. Just take your prize and say thank
you nicely. I doubt you’ve even read the
work you attack.”
“All literature lovers must object to the use
of language,” Tawde responded as if politi-
cians in India are the finest upholders of
parliamentary language. Aaptard. Maut ka
saudagar. Khujliwal. Butcher. Chor. All of
these fine terms buzz around our political
discourse routinely, many of them bandied
about by Tawde’s own peers. Politicians who
live in glass houses should really not throw
stones just as film stars who act in films
with jokes that substitute balatkaar for
chamatkaar — as 3 Idiots did — should
really not act more righteous than thou.
If we step back from our hysteria and
hand-wringing for a minute, we might pay
a little closer attention as to what is said —
and what it says about ourselves. Freedom
of expression’s greatest virtue is that it
brings everything out into the open — the
good, the bad and the ugly — and allows us
to take a good look at who we are. Offensive
speech is valuable not in itself but because
it spurs a deeper and more important
debate about itself and the issues it raises.
The Rushdie-Nemade spat left to its own
devices, for instance, should have sparked
an open discussion about English versus
vernacular writing in India. Salman
Rushdie’s attitude towards writing in the
“vernacular” is well-known. In his
Mirrorwork anthology of the best Indian
writing from 1947-1997, he cavalierly swept
aside almost all Indian writing that was not
in English — or having English translations
that were up to the mark — as not being
worthy of being included in his anthology.
While Nemade struck the first blow against
Rushdie in this case, Rushdie’s retort carries with it the baggage of that old dismissive attitude.
Nemade, on the other hand, was being
ungracious. There is a huge and valid
debate about the privilege English still
enjoys in India. But that does not mean
writers like Rushdie or Naipaul, who write
in English because that is the only language
they can write in, should feel guilty about it
or be singled out for reprimand. Nemade’s
“grumpy” comment at the moment he was
being honored showed starkly the difference between a champion of the local versus the unpleasantness of being simply
As for the AIB roast, it revealed how
much of what passes for cutting
edge humor is often simply gross, insulting
and has not graduated from the gutter
minds of, as Aamir Khan puts it, 14-year-
old boys who get a kick out of hearing bad
words. It shows that humor for them still
comes with a fat suit, that gays and women
are the butt of jokes just for being gays and
women. And for an added special India
touch, we make being dark-skinned into
comedy fodder as well (and they aren’t Fair
and Lovely jokes either).
Even as the debate is about the high-minded idea of freedom of expression, all
of this just reveals the worst in us. These
are our thought-molders and culture-shapers - all at their pettiest best. But
that’s a good thing. There can be no
progress in a democratic society without
airing our ugliest selves.
India, however, seems intent on rolling
backwards. Our great debate around freedom of expression has come down to a clip
on You Tube and a tweet. We live in an age
when the state is gearing up to do battle in
full legal armor against a tweet! At least
Satanic Verses was a full-fledged book.
Now we are down to 140 characters.
Freedom of expression itself feels down-sized thanks to these spats in the age of
short attention spans. n
Sandip Roy, a senior editor with Firstpost.com and editor with New American Media, is the author of Don't Let Him Know. He is currently based in Kolkata. This article first appeared in Firstpost.com
to do battle
Sandip Roy takes a look at
the free speech controversies
rocking the country
Illustration: Uttam Ghosh