i wrote this, for the dna on the 5th of Feb
In the last 10 days, two very different incidents have taken place that have serious implications on freedom. The first is the hounding of Shireen Dalvi, the editor of the Mumbai edition of the Urdu daily, Awadhnama. She published a Charlie Hebdo cartoon on the front page of her paper in the context of a story. As expected, there was furore and outrage – much of it not reported because it took place in Urdu language. Since then multiple police cases have been filed, the Mumbai edition of the paper has been shut, and Dalvi is on the run, escaping the multitude of FIRs filed against her. This is one more statistic of expression being stifled and truth being suppressed. Journalists in India have been trained by the law of the land to avoid content that could lead to ‘communal disharmony’. Invariably, this means that when they report riots, the story will be couched in sanitised terms such as ‘two communities clashed over a religious procession in place x’. From a news point, it tells you nothing. From a legal point of view, it keeps you safe. But, the point is that if journalists are supposed to record the first draft of history, they cannot do so by sanitising those things that offend people. Ultimately, if the profession has to be the watchdog, it cannot be told that there are things you cannot bark at. Explaining issues to people in context is a vital part of journalism. Dalvi has paid the price for doing her job. The Right to be Offended seems to have, once again, triumphed over the right to know and the freedom to express without fear.
The second incident, which has got tremendous media attention, is the case of AIB. One would be wary of using the full form of AIB in a family newspaper, but all those who have seen or heard of the group know what it means. The group of comedians put up a live show called AIB Roast, where their friends, Bollywood celebrities, turned up to display their sense of humour while being ‘insulted’. The show was a ticketed one, which means that only people interested in that genre of humour purchased it. And, those who did, claimed that they enjoyed it. The show was edited (a two-hour live show edited to 50-odd minutes) and was put up on YouTube, where again people who were interested, watched it. Given the nature of the show, and the platforms it was available on, there was little or no chance that people who are not interested in that kind of humour would view it. But, this is India. People will read books that they aren’t interested in with the purpose of protesting; they will watch films they don’t like with the purpose of getting them banned; and they will watch a show whose humour they hate, to call for a ban. And, that is exactly what happened. The producers have withdrawn the show from YouTube. The Right to be Offended has triumphed once again, over the right to free expression.
The question now arises, what offends people and can you legislate offense? A few days ago, in a case regarding the application of the draconian section 66A to ‘gross offense’,Supreme Court justices J Chelameswar and Rohinton F Nariman made a very crucial observation: “What is grossly offensive to you, may not be grossly offensive to me and it is a vague term.” It is this vague term of causing ‘offense’ and ‘hurting sentiments’ that stands in the way of our freedoms. So rather than rail against this ‘gross offense’ and ‘hurting sentiments’, this author thought she would list at least 5 issues that cause her deep offense, and that hurt her religious and constitutional sentiments, and asks the readers of this column to do the same.
a) Children living in the street, facing grave dangers and losing their childhood, causes me great offense, and deeply hurts my sentiments. Sixty eight years after Independence, children should have a decent present and a good future. And, I would like all those responsible to be banned — politicians, administrators, local goons — and to pay the price of this, just the way Shireen Dalvi and the rest are paying.
b) People throwing garbage, spitting on the street, and dumping industrial waste in water sources seriously offend me. I believe that nature, land, rivers, mountains are all sacred spaces, and this consistent, deliberate pollution is hurting my religious sentiments and causing me great pain. Could we ban all those who indulge in such behaviour?
c) Sound Pollution is my pet bugbear. I believe in worshipping in silence, where I can contemplate the nature of the Universe and seek guidance from it, in peace. When loudspeakers blare bad music, sermons, satsangs etc, not only am I forced to consume religious content I don’t want to consume, but also, the out-of-tune renditions offend my ears. This not just violates my right to practise my religion (of one) in my own way, it also impacts my musical sensibilities. Who can I file a FIR against for gross offense?
d) People who tell women what to wear and how to behave. I am fundamentally offended by patriarchal behaviour. It is none of anyone’s business. Women are not their chattel. Not even women in their family. What do you do about the offense caused by people who want to deprive almost 50% of the population of their rights?
e) Discrimination offends me. It doesn’t matter if it is gender based, religion based, caste based – it simply offends the daylights out of me. Religion tells me that all are equal in the eyes of God. The Constitution tells me all are equal in the eyes of the law. How do you deal with people who impinge on both rights? How do you deal with the offense caused?
If we go down this logical path, there won’t be anything left to ban, because everything would be banned. Welcome to a sterile world – where there is no humour, no offense, no freedom, no opinion, no comment, no fiction, no poetry. Sounds a bit like the moon. Not conducive for life, living and civilisation.