Free speech is like free trade. It doesn’t work unless we can all freely engage in it. One sided free speech, which we currently have in India, is not a kind of free speech at all. It is like the British saying that we must open our market to their goods but have no right to trade with anyone else. Just like colonialism is not a form of free trade, one sided free speech is not a form of free speech.
The debate has erupted again today. In the last few days, a number of people have expressed their anger over apparently Hinduphobic content in a certain web series. Now, the government has summoned top executives of the concerned web platform. All reactions are going to be on expected lines. ‘Liberals’ will scream murder of free speech and rising intolerance. Those on the other side will say it is about time the government did something against a continuing assault on Hindu sentiments.
And then there is of course the nagging irony. The uproar against one web series often ends up giving it more publicity than it would have otherwise got. This in turn creates an incentive for making even more of such content. Both sides know about this. Liberals, while screaming murder of free speech, are secretly thrilled about this prospect. The Hindu right, though encouraged by this show of government intent, must be worried on the inside.
So let me lay out either case. One for the government getting involved and enforcing all our laws against hurting religious and community sentiments. Perhaps creating new ones or extending the reach of existing laws to new forms of media, such as OTT platforms. The other, a case for getting rid of all these pesky laws and letting people say whatever they want.
As much as I would have liked it to be, neither of these arguments is about free speech. Like I said, we have one sided free speech in this country, which is more like colonialism. The question is what are we going to do about this. A principled stand on free speech in India is pointless. It would be like Indian subjects, with no right to vote, debating India’s foreign policy while still under British rule. Therefore, instead of principle, I will make my case around two practicalities of this country.
Practicality #1 : Popular culture already mocks and belittles Hindus in every possible way. So what do we have to gain by keeping censorship laws anyway?
I have often wondered. What would happen tomorrow if India got rid of every single law that inhibits freedom of expression? More specifically, why should Hindus care? I am not saying Hindus should stop caring about insults to Hindu sentiments. I am asking Hindus which new insult you are worried about if these laws go away tomorrow. Have they spared us any insult as yet?
Did they show Lord Shiva as a thief and charlatan, being chased down by an actor who also happens to be a devout member of another faith? You bet! Do they show every single saffron clad Hindu spiritual leader as a criminal and rapist? Of course they do. Have they labeled every single Hindu custom as patriarchal, sexist, racist and xenophobic? Yes, they have. They already declared that the Bhagavad Gita rationalizes mass slaughter. They already said that Gandhi is a super villain who invented Hinduism in order to perpetuate oppression. And they already blamed Swami Vivekananda’s masculine posture for the infamous Dec 2012 gangrape in Delhi. Have you forgotten?
They have blamed Hindus for having rasam, lighting diyas and wearing sarees. They already blamed “Hindu supremacists” for the riot on Capitol Hill in Washington DC. And they even included that in the official syllabus at Rutgers University. They already said that Hindus are lesser citizens of India because we have no choice. Unlike citizens of the peaceful religion, who chose to stay here, thus doing us a favor. They are already asking: many Hindus get cremated after death, rather than get buried. So what right do we have to this land?
They are rubbing it in our faces every single day. On every channel, in every newspaper. On every internet platform. They are raising an entire generation of woke youth to hate Hindus.
So which new humiliation do you fear? Clearly, our existing laws are not protecting Hindu sentiments. We might as well legislate them out of existence.
The only communities in India who should like censorship laws are those who already enjoy immunity from criticism. The laws are working for them, not us. When some woke comedian makes a joke on them by mistake, they rush to apologize the next day. The film censor board falls over backwards to accommodate their concerns. Most media and content creators already pre-censor themselves, almost to absurd lengths. If a person from a ‘secular’ religion commits a crime, they report it as “Delhi man” did so and so. If anything bad happens in say Varanasi, no matter how unrelated to religion, they report it as something happened in “temple town.”
But then, there is practicality #2.
Practicality #2 : Groups that enjoy immunity from criticism do not need censorship laws. They enforce censorship by raw street power.
The typical Hindu right wing argument goes something like this. Why would they show a Hindu deity doing this or that? Would they dare to do this to a god from a ‘secular’ religion?
The operative word in that sentence is “dare.” Why do they pick on Hindus and not others. They may well hate Hindus and that plays a role. But the biggest reason is fear. They wouldn’t dare to pick on another religion because that would be too dangerous.
Content creators don’t stay away from picking on other communities because they fear lawsuits or court cases. They stay away because they fear raw street power.
And let me be the first to say I am very happy that Hindus don’t have raw street power. I hope they never get any. Violence is out of question and always should be.
So what options do we have? They will always keep picking on us because it is safe and easy. Well, believe it or not, our only option is to vigorously apply those same censorship laws, however ineffective they may be. You never know. It might irritate them just a little. It might give them a bit of pause before unnecessarily picking on Hindus.
The equation is like this. Maybe 50% of them are rabid Hindu haters. They will continue insulting us no matter what. But the other 50% who are picking on us simply because it is easy? They might be irritated enough that they move on to something else. So we get a 50% reduction. Which is better than no reduction at all.
Feeling helpless? Think of the censorship laws like Gabbar Singh. Only one person can save us from the clutches of Gabbar Singh. That’s Gabbar himself.
Want to break out of this helplessness? There is only one way. Learn the language of wokeness. Learn to present one thousand years of Hindu suffering in the only language that the world understands. It’s not weakness to complain these days. It is being practical. The world today is run by crybabies, so be the best crybaby you possibly can.