Few days back, a cartoonist- Aseem Trivedi became a celebrity overnight. And the whole country entered a debate on freedom of expression. It was interesting to see how the cartoons made by him which showed rape of Mother India and Kasab urinating on indian constitution brought a bit of fame and lot of hatred for him. This thought is essentially the same that most indians carry and we hear so many times, from almost everyone, and almost every other day. Therefore the question here is- how does one justify themselves when their words, expression or creation offends certain people? Or do they really need to justify?
Innocence of Muslims- a video which was uploaded on YouTube earlier this month, and costed few Americans’ lives including their Ambassador to Libya. The worldwide protests by the Muslim community, which were quite obvious, again heated the freedom of expression debate. The video portrayed prophet Mohammad as a fool, a philanderer, and a religious fake. Keeping it simple, the case here was about few people from a religion cursing some other religion and people of the latter group ended up killing few from the former. Let’s come straight to the point. It is absolutely right that Muslims have faith in their religion and stick to their beliefs. It is also right that Muslims protest against discrimination whenever and wherever they experience it. However, it is absolutely wrong of them to demand that- their belief system should be immunized against criticism, irreverence, satire, even scornful disparagement.
24 years back, Salman Rushdie– indian born British author was in news when his then forthcoming novel The Satanic Verses received outrages by the Muslim community. The novel was banned by the Finance Ministry of India under section 11 of Indian Custom Act. That was just the beginning of the hatred from Muslim world for Rushdie. On 14 February 1989, a fatwā requiring Rushdie’s execution was proclaimed on Radio Tehran by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the spiritual leader of Iran at the time, calling the book “blasphemous against Islam”. The fatwa for Rushdie is still valid; ironically the person who had issued it, died in same year -1989.
The issue comes again and again- in movies, news channels, print media – almost everywhere. And the problem is sustained. Freedom of expression – is it just a statement in our constitution, or an idea which is on papers but our conservative society quietly shies away from it. Policy makers in this country had tried their best to provide the necessary freedom of expression in the context of law. The right to freedom in Article 19 of Indian Constitution guarantees the Freedom of speech and expression. However the law also has certain restrictions on the grounds of – security of state, public order, decency and morality, contempt of court, defamation. The point here is that even though the law makes sure that individuals get every right to express their views but at the same time it also ensures the sovereignty and integrity of the nation. However in most cases, even though the accused person hasn’t done anything unlawful yet the controversies erupt because the person has hurt the sentiments of a group or community.
There are two things that every one of us need to understand when such controversies arise. First is – need of an open society. When we talk about open society- it means we need to take the criticism and humor in a positive manner. If something hurts our sentiments, we need to take the shelter of law. No one gives us the right to take the action without considering law and order. It’s also important to understand that just because we find something offending doesn’t make it so. There are a lot of things that we do everyday can and they do offend certain people. How positively does one respond to such mockery, shows the freedom of their thoughts. If a religion is threatened by a group of atheists trying to ridicule it, the religion is weak in itself. Coming back to Islam’s defamation by YouTube videos, burning few men will not add to the glory of the religion. It will however continue to carry the notion of violence and terrorism associated with the religion. A silent protest could have had a much better impact. Disagreements are important for well being of a country and similarly protests. The clash of ideas help societies to grow further and develop new cultures. But how does the clash take place, that’s important.
Secondly, it is important that no one takes the advantage of the weaknesses in our society or system. What if Salman Rushdie’s bodyguard was right and Rushdie had actually written The Satanic Verses to create controversy and get fame out of it? What if Aseem Trivedi’s only purpose was to get popularity and nothing else? How do we keep a check on it? The answer lies on the same lines- let people speak. Do not make an issue about it. If an artist creates a work which might not be suitable for minors or a section of society then it is not artist’s problem. This is a natural situation which any society would face and only with dialogues such problems can be resolved, not by cutting artists’ hands. The day we learn and implement this tact, there won’t be any fame crazy artist doing such things. We don’t want people like Rakhi Sawant to become stars just because they say and do stupid things to come in headlines.
The world would be a far better place if we leave our egos and prejudices behind and give everyone around us – a freedom to express themselves. Then only we can better differentiate between what’s right and what’s wrong.