It’s a two-way street

If I am to have the freedom to offend, then you must equally have the freedom to rebut – either on a similar platform or in a court of law. Namita Bhandare writes.

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Three parables from modern India. A man writes a book that offends some people enough to ban it and, for good measure, demand his head. Salman Rushdie goes underground, in time the fatwa is forgotten, he emerges from hiding and continues writing and travelling.

Then, a curious thing happens. He is invited, again, to attend the Jaipur Literature Festival. His name appears on the programme, again. Out pops seminary Darul Uloom Deoband demanding his visa be revoked (in fact, as Rushdie tweets, he does not require a visa). It is no coincidence that a state election where Muslims are a sizeable presence, is around the corner. It does not matter that most have not read the still-banned Satanic Verses. Yet, a Congress spokesman replies cautiously that the government is ‘considering’ the request; others hint at law and order problems and Rushdie cancels his visit.

The second parable: a man writes a column headlined ‘How to wipe out Islamic terror’. Subramanian Swamy says, “Muslims of India are being programmed by a slow reactive process to become radical and thus slide into suicide against Hindus.” The article causes a furore. Three months later, the Delhi Police’s Crime Branch charges the Janata Party president with spreading enmity between communities. Swamy, who has been leading the 2G charge against the UPA, gets anticipatory bail.

The third parable reached its end with the death of MF Husain, exiled from the land of his birth — and never allowed to return — allegedly for painting Hindu gods and goddesses that caused offence to some.

There is a common thread that runs through these: freedom of speech. Yet, if you were to go thro-ugh the chatter on social websites, newspaper columns and TV debates, the contradictions are apparent. Liberals who rush to Rushdie’s defence are squeamish about the rights of Swamy. Those who berate Husain for denigrating the Hindu pantheon are silent on cartoons that insult Islam. Creative freedom is not selective. The right to free expression, which includes the right to offend, applies equally to all. Moreover, laws function within a cultural context. American First Amendment principles, for instance, need not apply to India. We don’t uphold the right to pornography. We are mindful about inflaming communal passion and respecting religious sentiment. We even hold on to frequently archaic concepts of sedition under which people like Binayak Sen are arrested.

But the debate has become so vitiated that we are slipping down a dangerous slide, quietly allowing government to ban inconvenient books (Rohinton Mistry’s Such a Long Journey) or even just inconvenient movie scenes (Free Tibet banners in Rockstar). Contoured arguments are lost in the indignation of 140-character tweets as the banal replaces the complex. A suggestion that internet sites remove objectionable material is seen as censorship. But has anyone seen this material? Are we to let websites get away with content that includes images of pigs fornicating with religious figures?

Our Constitution grants freedom of expression but places restrictions on that freedom in the interests of public order. Our penal code prohibits hate speech. You can change laws, you can amend the Constitution. But as of now they exist and we need to follow them, or choose to break the law.

In most liberal societies, Britain for instance, free speech goes hand-in-hand with defamation. In India, apart from a recent judgement awarding Rs100 crore to Justice PB Sawant for an apparently honest mistake made by Times Now that led to cries of ‘censorship’ and ‘attempt to curtail media’, there is little real redressal.

If I am to have the freedom to offend, then you must equally have the freedom to rebut – either on a similar platform or in a court of law. Unfortunately what happens is that issues — Rushdie, Swamy, Husain — get hijacked by politics and politicians to pander to popular opinion. Instead of a reasoned debate, you end up with a ban. Instead of intellectual counterpoints, we frogmarch people into exile. Instead of accommodation, we ransack offices.

There’s another word for this and it’s not free speech. It’s anarchy.

Namita Bhandare is a Delhi-based writer
The views expressed by the author are personal

Don’t skirt the real issue

There must be zero tolerance for any attempt to justify crimes against women by blaming the victim herself. Namita Bhandare writes.

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So what was the 13-year-old girl from Lakhimpur wearing when she was raped and murdered in August last year? How provocatively dressed was the 77-year-old woman raped and beaten up in March in Delhi? And surely the two-year-old child who was raped by a 60-year-old man near Ludhiana in November must have had an unseemly display of diaper.

I have to ask because everyone from Andhra Pradesh DGP Dinesh Reddy to Bangalore University’s head of the committee against sexual harassment is doling out advice on how women should dress in order to prevent crimes against them. So, dear DGP, when I wear a sari how much midriff may I safely expose? As for you, Karnataka minister for women and child welfare CC Patil, what do you suggest I do with my beautiful nine-yard saris, which when I wear expose a certain amount of leg? And can KK Seethamma state precisely her acceptable sleeve length, neckline and height of heels?

The line that women who dress provocatively invite crime is stupid, irrelevant and dangerous. First who defines what is provocative? Is a sari more provocative than a pair of jeans? Second, assuming that women dress according to the diktats of the moral police, should we then surmise that women in burqas or full-sleeved salwar kameez will never get raped? Third, what do we make of the established statistic that most rapists are known to rape victims and that rape occurs to establish dominance rather than prove lust? Fourth, why stop at dress? Surely women who venture out of the homes for jobs or recreation are inviting trouble. Lock up your daughters, throw away the key. Will we now be safe?

There is no correlation between rape and what women wear. Yet, gender sensitisation is so abysmal that last year Delhi police commissioner BK Gupta blithely stated that women out alone at night should not blame faulty policing if they become victim to crime. So delusion is Gupta that he believes that compared to other big cities, Delhi is safe for women. In fact, the National Crime Records Bureau establishes Delhi as the city with the highest number of reported rapes. And a survey by Thomson Reuters’ Trustlaw Women, quoted by the Wall Street Journal, says India is the fourth most dangerous country for women.

When your average Pappu says ‘she asked for it’, you pin it down to ignorance. But when people who should know better — a lawmaker, a law-enforcer and someone who heads a sexual harassment panel in a leading university subscribe to this view, they should be sacked. It’s not enough for the minister to try and fall back on that old fig leaf: he was misquoted. It’s not enough for home minister P Chidambaram to say he doesn’t agree with the Andhra cop’s statement.

When people in authority seek to absolve themselves of responsibility, then dismissals are called for. There must be zero tolerance for any attempt to justify crimes against women by blaming the victim herself.

Women are already circumscribed by what they can or cannot wear. I certainly do not subscribe to the belief that to be modern, women need to dress a certain way. Blindly following the dictates of the glamour industry is as restrictive as being forced to adopt the hijab or white saris for widows. Certainly, I am appalled by the mindless Xeroxing of fashion trends, regardless of cultural suitability or occasion, by some younger girls (and boys) in urban India.

But to pretend that those choices have a direct correlation to crime is to limit the movement and freedom of women. What if I work for an airline and my job requires me to wear a skirt? What if my job requires me to keep long hours? Do we now throw away the freedoms we have struggled for because those in authority have failed in their duty to keep crime in check?

The tragedy of the absurd statements made last week about dress and crime is not that they were made. It is that there has not been enough outrage.

Namita Bhandare is a Delhi-based writer
The views expressed by the author are personal