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Defending Free Speech and Defying Fundamentalists in India

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By Chris Emmanuel D'Souza [ Published Date: February 22, 2012 ]

By Chris Emmanuel D'Souza

The legendary French philosopher Voltaire, demonstrating his solidarity with the right of free speech, wrote: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to death your right to say it.”

He didn’t stop there, he proceeded to write: “Men who believed in absurdities committed atrocities”. And, apparently on both these occasions, Voltaire was referring to amazingly uncultured men affiliated to bullying gangs, who hauled with ire every time their feelings were hurt.

Temperament is an unusual frame of mind; it can boil up to a certain limit, and at break even, when the very reason it purges seems skirmish even to the point of a debate, it deviates its direction and cools down abnormally low, where it takes a humorous position. 
That’s precisely what happened with some of the literary masters over the years. During the dark ages of Europe, when societal stigmas, taboos, beliefs, practices, rites, customs and its effects transcended into a firestorm, leading to complete debacle of the European society, the only rescue mission emanated from the fraternity of artistic brilliance. The dogmas were too bitter to consume, as they went over the heads of the literary world, tempting them to use provocative satires against it. The fanatics, unlearned and hardliners who couldn’t wait to handle any criticisms against their cults, turned themselves as self-styled crusaders and sought the heads of the literary world terming them as ‘Blasphemers’.

And thus arose a disturbing phenomenon of Sacrilege and Blasphemy, raging out from the veins of despicable extremists, who made it habitual to cry foul every time they felt like feeling offended.  The weirdness attached to the term offensive is so great, that it erupts each time it feels pinched. This occurred as early as 500 years before Christ, when an admirable Athenian philosopher was sentenced and poisoned for his thoughts. The thoughts that went against the common beliefs of his period, and thus Socrates came to be regarded by modern writers as the ‘first prisoner of conscience’.

In the 17th century, an Italian physicist and astronomer devised an innovative theory which suggested that the earth revolved around the sun and rotated around its axis, contrary to the traditional belief. The fundamentalists did not spare either; he was charged of hurting religious sentiments, and sentenced to prison. 

A few decades later, his theory was adopted in the mainstream and to this day Galileo has been hailed as the “Father of Scientific Revolution”.  Dating back to the mid-19th century, an English biologist released a book by the name “Origin of Species” which explained a remarkable and an awe-inspiring theory of “Natural Selection”. The Biologist had penned down a theory on “Evolution of Mankind”, which didn’t go well with the western conservatives of his era. Thus, he had to seek state protection and forced to move into hideout, due to fear from faith based hardliners and protestant fundamentalists.

A few decades later, his theory was seriously narrated in all schools around the world, and today Darwin’s theory and his other findings have been widely acclaimed in academic circles, earning him the title of the most important biologist on Evolution of Mankind.

In the recent times, when the world has taken progressive steps in protecting the freedom of speech and expression, and most importantly the lives of artists, scientists and literary icons, India has remained sarcastically primitive. This has been portrayedin the recent times by the treatment presented to two iconic artistic geniuses of this era - Maqbool Fida Hussain and Salman Rushdie.

The Indian government, greedy of power, spineless in heart, timid in decision, fantastically coward and inexplicably corrupt has successfully created a vacuum for the rise of intolerance in the country.  It is the Indian government’s capitulation to the fundamentalist nutbags wandering with destructive weapons in the streets, which eventually resulted in blocking Salman Rushdie’s much-awaited presence at the Jaipur literary festival, for a talk on the topic “chutnification of English Language”.

The fundamentalists do not make an in-depth analysis on anything they do, and this proves on two hilarious cases. The first is that Salman Rushdie has made at least five visits to India, after the “Satanic Verses” episode in 1989. The second instance makes their case excessively pitiable, widely exposing their ignorance on world affairs.

Anyone in this planet, who has access to You tube, Facebook and English Dailies would have easily recognized the brutally fierce critic on faith and religion, The  Patriarch of Non- Belief,  the world-renowned biologist and author of ‘God Delusion’ Dr Richard Dawkins. Some of us were shockingly astonished, watching Professor Dawkins making vehement statements against religion to a literary crowd, flanked by the media at the same venue where Rushdie was supposed to have lectured!

Now, for heaven's sake, we shall not discuss Dawkins’s ‘God Delusion’, its nature and content, because the book is available at every book store in the country. Neverthless, the man who bashes organized faith and rubbishes its claims on a routine basis, is allowed to carry out his business as usual at the cost of a spectacularly creative novelist, and the street demonstrators are hardly aware of Dr Richard Dawkins' works, which would not only offend, but also intensify them.

Well, how to go about this part - pathetic and part - sinister case? It is the vindication that radicals and hardliners stretching their necks out from the safe nest of political parties or religious parties  - politics likes to blend with religion - are appallingly retarded. They have absolutely no right of any say on anything in a secular democracy. Because, a secular democracy, by definition, lays down the red carpet for the sane and civilized people, and rejects those who fail to qualify to its definition.

The same mobs that burned down and decimated M F Husain’s paintings and museums were involved carrying out angry demonstrations against Salman Rushdie’s visit. These hooligans and lynch mobs should not be isolated nor should they be patronized. instead they must be ridiculed, for their stupidity and lack of commonsense. They have not attempted in the least to understand Hussain’s art or Rushdie’s novel, and perhaps they could never have understood Rushdie’s novels, because they could not read out a word from them. The leaders of these bullying gangs are the only role models these impatient followers have. The leaders are enraged by the passages in the book, but their followers are frustrated because they are unable to read.

Why don’t the most important community on this planet, those of who believe in the powers of reason and science, or in other words the enlightened ones, organize a lynch mob, burn streets, vandalize public property and riot in fury? Why don’t these individuals retaliate with force, threatening people of serious consequences for offending their sensitivities? Why don’t such sadistic thoughts creep into their minds?

It should be noted that being a humanist in everyday life is not a cakewalk. Our sensitivities are hurt from the time we read through the front page of morning newspaper to the time we return home and find undeserving candidates seated on the debating panel on prime-time news-shows. The slangs they use, the ignorance they expose and the obscurantism they vomit deserves attention only from chimps wandering in African bushes.

The fanatics and retarded extremists, who claim that they have the veto power to dictate terms to government and to national events - which they would find hard to pronounce - should be conveyed that they are not the only people to feel offended. Sometimes, we too are offended with absurd practices, undue hero-worship, irrational beliefs, and glorification of myths. The secularists and liberals in India are offended to the extreme, when women are beaten by drunken mobs for the crime of passing by a pub, or going out to a restaurant with male friends.

In some places of India’s coastal belt, the fundamentalists decide what attire a woman should wear, the way she should behave in a society and interfere in their personal relationships. But, curiously enough, we do not see artists, musicians, novelists, journalists and other faculty of arts parading on the streets with outrage and creating atmosphere of chaos. We have to put up with this madness and cruelty, and claim that our sensitivities are not hurt.

The right to freedom of expression is recognized as a human right under Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and recognized in international human rights law in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Article 19 of the ICCPR states that "everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference" and "everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice".

It is high time some of our politicians begin to understand the sanctity of free speech. Our government must lead the way for righteousness and not fall prey to the vices of the society. The sensitivities of masses are too high and too far to be tranquillized; it certainly won’t by banning visits of eminent artists and writers.

If this abnormal excitement and lunatic outrage for hurting sensitivities of foolish crackpots proceeds with thrust, well then, the chances of an encounter between the secularists and fundamentalists is high. The best thing our political leaders could do to calm down the hurt sentiments of intensified mobs is to play the world’s smallest violin. If that cannot easily soothe their hurt feelings, then they are on the verge of intimidating secular patience.

The swords may not be out at once, while the pen is still mightier than the sword. This reminds me of the great French Revolution of 1789, the ever-inspiring principles are still alive. The call for future sacraments of Secular Fundamentalism and Muscular Liberalism must be inscribed with utmost brutality to avoid further catastrophe.


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Jishad Habib, Saudi Arabia:
@ Arshad Bhai, Its the fact. what your saying is true. You have seen only the half picture, but beneath that, is a devil's arm. Why should women be forced to veil? Islam says its their choice. But, Saudi men don't regard it as a choice, but as a compulsion.
Look, these Arabs have 3 to 4 wives in total, some of them half their age. Now, is it necessary? Is there shortage of men in Saudi? the answer is no. therefore, this absurd practice of polygamy is taking advantage of the situation, right.

And, what about womens representation in leadership, Zero. Can they drive here? Absolutely no. At the same time, these Saudi men, venture into neighboring Bahrain, every Thursday evening in search of Liquor and women. Here, everything is Lip service, nothing in practical.
So My brother, why don't you, make a research on the nature of Saudi yourself.
Arshad Ahmed, Saudi Arabia:
women are prohibited from working - Jishad Habib

Blatant lies and trying to maligning the image of women in Saudi Arabia. If you are Saudi Arabia why you don't peep into the malls where women work. They have realized the importance of women and their contribution to the society.

There is a mall in Jeddah called Central Park and the kids amusement center is full of female operators. Why you to spread lies for some personal motives?
A. S. Mathew, USA :
Mr. JISHAD HABIB, S. ARABIA: What you have clearly mentioned is serious and that issue has been watched by people around the world.

How the women are mistreated around the world like slaves is too terrible to mention.

Human nature of controlling others for the fun of control can be changed only through education and openness of our mentality; above all by admitting the reality that all are created by the Creator equally.

Every woman has equal right with man to speak-drive-education-work-worship etc.

As we are living at the internet age, greater revolutions of understanding would be opend to people around the world, which will gradually shake the rigid societies everywhere in the world. Let us all hope and pray for a new day in that direction.
Jishad Habib, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia:
@ AS Mathew, USA I agree with you, that some people sow seeds of hatred to create bloodshed. But that is not Free Speech, it amounts to Hate Speech.Every one has the right to speak out their views in a free democratic society. and it is human right to do so. I live in Saudi, where it is impossible to breathe. and you will realise its importance the most.

Last month, two students were convicted for posting anti-govt slangs on facebook. their wherebouts are unknown. there is no free media, only state run television stations and newspapres exist. and Relegious establishment is very strong and decisive. every move of you is tracked.
Forget about reading a book, you cant speak openly to women here. women are prohibited from working and also not allowed to obtain a driving license.See what happens where relegious fundemntalists and extremists are in power. they demonstrate their might over fellow citizens.
Dinesh N, Belthangandy, Pune, India :
we have been witnessing, the rise and dominance of religious fundamentalist in mangalore city and Udupi. Both regions are well educated and call themselves cultured. Then why are these two regions most intolerant and sensitive, when it comes to religion.

these regions have been centres of communal riots and religious extremism in the country from last decade. Every day we see people carrying banners and shouting slogans against eachother. communal tensions are at the highest.

The Author is right in saying that most of them cannot read, but here are the people who are well educated, but intellectually illiterate. they brainwash uneducated and lower-class people, for their own benefits.

what India requires is intellectual education, not just school education. Our media should be in the forefront defending free speech and expression. Vernacular media in Dakshina Kannada and Udupi have terribly failed in creating an awareness of tolerance and grooming reason in the society.

the Political class, business class and the media have grouped themselves under one umbrella, and they are protecting eachother. If media fails to create bridge between fundamentalist and secularist and people of different communities. a society is bound to fail. the best case is Pakistan.
A. S. Mathew, USA :
Every human being has the right to speak their mind loudly. If they speak against the age old man-made traditions of slavery,
religious exploitation of the gullible
believers etc , then the outspoken person may be attacked. But as long as that person is speaking for the
betterment of the society, he or she shouldn't stop.

On the other hand, some people use their personal liberty of expression to sow the seeds to create bloodshed in the society.
If their fundamental right is misused to create death and bloodshed, that has to be blocked.

Koni Prakash Naik, Kundapur, Oman:
Very well written article and really thought provoking. Hope to see more articles on varied subjects.

Most of the time it is those illiterate people having faint knowledge about the other side of the reality are provoked by the politicians and so called fundamentalists to revolt on such issues making it sensitive.

A country can progress in totality (from all spheres) only when these fundamentalists co-operate with an open mind. At the same time those artistic or literary geniuses should bear in mind that their creations / thoughts are impartial. Not everything is tailor made and goodie goodie in this world. Sweet and bitter are part of any combination.

Jishad Habib, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia:
Its a very funny to notice, that Dawkins was allowed, and Rushdie was blocked. the fundamentalists are nuts and brainless. they dont read english dailies, because they are illiterate, they only listen to the tunes of their leaders. its a fantastic allegory and taunt at the religious extremists in India.

I want to encourage the author to write a book on this.
Navin Mendonca, Mangalore, India :
Free Speech & expression is most important liberty on earth. Being myself a Catholic preacher I endorse it and am against censorship. Its a marvellous essay by Chris Dsouza. we both had few debates on this earlier, some of his ideas are nasty, and some are remarkable.

I would like to add, a following quote by John stuart Mill, An influential advocate of freedom of speech, Mill objected to censorship. He says: "I choose, by preference the cases which are least favourable to me – In which the argument against freedom of opinion, both on truth and that of utility, is considered the strongest.
Let the opinions impugned be the belief of God and in a future state, or any of the commonly received doctrines of morality.

But I must be permitted to observe that it is not the feeling sure of a doctrine (be it what it may) which I call an assumption of infallibility. It is the undertaking to decide that question for others, without allowing them to hear what can be said on the contrary side.

And I denounce and reprobate this pretension not the less if it is put forth on the side of my most solemn convictions. However, positive anyone's persuasion may be, not only of the faculty but of the pernicious consequences, but (to adopt expressions which I altogether condemn) the immorality and impiety of opinion. – yet if, in pursuance of that private judgement, though backed by the public judgement of his country or contemporaries, he prevents the opinion from being heard in its defence, he assumes infallibility.

And so far from the assumption being less objectionable or less dangerous because the opinion is called immoral or impious, this is the case of all others in which it is most fatal.”
Manzoor Ullal, mangalore, India :
Magnificent article, there is absolutely no explanation to determine the madness of these goons, who want to drive out MF hussain and salman rushdie. If these goons feel offended, let them bang their head to nearest wall or tie a rope to their necks!!! why should they threaten them of murder. And govt z playing double game.
Mrs. Asha Pravin, Dubai, UAE:
A very well written article. Expecting many more daring & thoughtful articles from you in near future. Good luck!
Imran Mirza, Doha, Qatar:
Brilliant Essay, A daring one, arranged with engaging language. A wonderful taunt at the fundamentalists and religious nuts around the country, who say that they are the only one's to be offended!!!
Drona, India :
Da Vinci code was a famous book too.
Narendra, India :
Well expressed.
Total Comments: 14   Showing: 1-14

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