Notes from a subversive bureaucrat: The Black Farce of Jaipur
There are several voices of apology attempting to justify the conduct of the Government. The most favoured argument is to range the freedom available to a reckless writer belonging to the most privileged section of society, living in a foreign country against the sensitivities of a complex multi religious, multi cultural society. It is posed as a case of freedom of creative expression of one against the ‘sentiments’ of the masses. The second is the ‘limits to freedom’ argument. The argument is that no freedoms are absolute and romantic notions of freedom of speech borrowed from the liberal west are not applicable in our context. Restrictions have to be imposed in the interests of public order. The third argument is to make this an isolated case of Rushdie versus the Rest of India, where the focus shifts to Rushdie’s intemperance and his lack of contrition at his continued acts of blasphemy, his dubious merits as a writer and his penchant for attracting publicity to himself. The fourth argument is the one coming from the Indian version of secularism which while ostensibly treating all religions/faiths as equally deserving of deference believes that minority faiths, such as, Islam deserve a more aggressively visible demonstration of deference to protect its followers from a predatory majority.Posed in this manner it seems almost reasonable that in the case of the latest Rushdie episode the ‘larger’ interests of the nation prevailed against the interests of a minority of liberal intellectuals.
These arguments are both perverse and fallacious. Freedom of speech and expression is not just one of the Rights available in a democracy, it is its very foundation. Everything else is dependent on it. It is fundamental to democracy in the most fundamentally defining way. Safeguarding the Right, conserving it and promoting it is the foremost responsibility of the State more important than anything else that it does. It is an enforceable Right and failure to protect it amounts to the complete abdication of its most primary responsibility. Freedom of speech includes the freedom to listen, to receive information, to demand information, to discuss and debate and is therefore universal, not just the right of one individual to express himself. Limits on it can only be imposed by law and not by executive action. The limits/restrictions have to be exceptional and justified in the rarest of circumstances.
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