All are equal, but some are more equal than others. At least when it comes to the right to freedom of expression. A journalist working with a local daily in Bangalore was thrown behind bars for allegedly making hate speech against Prophet Mohammad and Tipu Sultan. And there is thundering silence from the self-proclaimed champions of liberty, free speech, and modernity.
There are no angry editorials, no statement by the Editors’ Guild, no protest meeting at the Press Club of India, nothing by the Not In My Name crowd. Santhosh Thammaiah was arrested and later released on bail, but this has not agitated the Left-liberal grandees. This is not the first time that their doublespeak has been exposed. When the saffron groups indulge in vandalism, they cry themselves hoarse, quote John Stuart Mill, and demand that the rule of law be upheld. But when pro-Hindutva activists are at the receiving end, our intellectuals prefer to remain silent.
Consider the case of M.F. Husain’s paintings about nude Hindu goddesses. In September 2008, the Supreme Court called his controversial painting, titled Bharat Mata, a “work of art.” The apex court’s support for Husain was indeed a fillip to the cause of freedom in our country. The court’s stand was intended to discourage testy people and publicity seekers who cry about ‘hurt sentiments’ and want to restrict the realm of creativity.
The petitioner’s argument, that the depiction of a nude woman as Mother India hurt the sentiments of every sane citizen, did not cut any ice with the apex court bench, comprising the then chief justice K.G. Balakrishnan and justices P. Sathasivam and J.M. Panchal. The bench asked: “Does the sentiment of the petitioner get scandalized by the large number of photographs of erotic sculptures which are in circulation?’ It explained that the sculptures like those of Khajuraho and Konark are not considered offensive; so, Husain’s painting ‘is an art like the sculptures. None gets scandalized looking at the sculptures.”
In May 2008, justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul of the Delhi High Court had pronounced a similar verdict: “It is very unfortunate that the works of any artist today who have tried to play around with nudity have come under scrutiny. They have to face the music, making them think twice before exhibiting their work. Criminal justice system should not be used as an easy recourse to ventilate against a creative art.”
Justice Kaul indeed supported the freedom of expression: “In real democracy the dissenter must feel at home and ought not to be nervously looking over his shoulder fearing captivity or bodily harm or economic and social sanctions for his unconventional or critical views. There should be freedom for the thought we hate. Freedom of speech has no meaning if there is no freedom after speech. The reality of democracy is to be measured by the extent of freedom and accommodation it extends.”
Very valid points. He concluded the judgment on a high note, full of optimism: “I have penned this judgment with the fervent hope that it is a prologue to a broader thinking and greater tolerance for the creative field.” The Supreme Court vindicated his line of thinking. This delighted Husain who said, “At last, the dignity of the Indian contemporary art has been upheld by the Supreme Court as expected.”
His liberal cheerleaders in India were also jubilant at the discomfiture of the saffron brigade which has been inveighing against the artist, and also when Justice Kaul supported Husain. Author (and later Congress leader) Shashi Tharoor, for instance, wrote two articles in The Times of India in which he quoted Justice Kaul’s judgment at length. He hailed the ruling as “a remarkable charter for artistic freedom in India.” The two articles ran to about 2,000 words, but not once was the name of Taslima Nasreen or Salman Rushdie mentioned. Nor was there any mention of the Danish cartoonist who had made a cartoon of Prophet Mohammad and who was being hounded by Islamists.
This selective championing of the freedom of expression is obnoxious and hypocritical. Why didn’t liberals make their campaign to safeguard the freedom of expression more comprehensive? Why didn’t they also take up the cause of other creative people who were hounded by the jihadists? Why didn’t they stand up for the ‘dignity’ of Taslima Nasreen, Rushdie, and the Danish cartoonist?
There are others as well who have suffered for ‘hurting the sentiments’ of Muslims. For example, in February 2006 Alok Tomar, editor of a Delhi-based Hindi magazine, was arrested for publishing one of the Danish cartoons of Prophet Mohammed. He had to pay Rs 50,000 and provide a personal surety for release. Neither Tharoor nor others took up his cause. As far as I know, no judge of the Delhi High Court or of the Supreme Court came to his rescue. There were no protests, candlelight marches, or symposia in Tomar’s support. Was it just because his tormentors were Muslims?
There is a great deal of doublespeak on the issue of freedom of expression. The chattering classes blockquote this freedom when Hindu sensitivities are concerned, but when the Muslims start screaming, they remain silent. Freedom of expression has become a tool to settles scores with the Hindu nationalists. Even common Hindus have noticed this duplicity; unfortunately, they have started paying attention to the arguments of the Shiv Sena and the Bajrang Dal. It seems that Muslim unreasonableness is spawning Hindu intransigence.
The recent legal action against the Bangalore-based journalist again highlights the duplicity of liberals.