As chill sets in
It is an irony likely to be lost on purveyors of manufactured outrage that on this Republic Day, once again India was intimated about the precariousness of the freedom of expression guaranteed in the Constitution. An FIR has been lodged against social theorist Ashis Nandy under sections of the IPC and the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act for remarks made during a panel discussion at the Jaipur Literature Festival. Nandy later clarified that he was making a larger social critique of an unjust hierarchical order, that in fact he was seeking to highlight the elite’s ease in getting away with corrupt practices. The specifics of Nandy’s argument aside, this incident should be taken for the warning signal that it is. It frames in the starkest coordinates the shrinking distance between taking of umbrage and provoking invocation of the might of the state’s machinery, leaving no space for the healthy conduct of a debate.
Together with the Tamil Nadu government’s curbs on the screening of Kamal Haasan’s new film, Vishwaroopam, this episode must focus attention on the intimidatory application of what are meant to be reasonable checks on the unfettered freedom of expression. Though the film had been cleared by the Censor Board and the Supreme Court has earlier cautioned against the threat of protests to block the screening of a film, the state government succumbed to pressure by a few groups, alleging that it hurt their sentiments. Similarly, the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act is meant to address the prevalence of ritually embedded discrimination that continues to perpetuate the social and economic marginalisation of groups. It is not an instrument to fell complex arguments, let alone one that details an unjust social order.
The courts have read the law in a most progressive way — therefore there is little fear that bans and possible police action will eventually be upheld. What must, however, concern everyone is the consequence for public discourse when the administrative and political class succumbs so easily to the contrived outrage of a few, and then by its actions, gives succour to that outrage. When the Tamil Nadu government applies the blunt instrument of a ban, when a politician like Mayawati, in many ways the symbol of the success and promise of a progressive politics, seeks the arrest of an academic for his arguments, they serve to intimidate those inclined to participate in nuancing important debates. The threat of state action has a chilling effect on the average citizen. And when politicians abdicate the responsibility of standing up for the average citizen in the face of such action, when they become cheerleaders for intimidation in fact, the republic is in trouble indeed.
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