After the arrest of a comedian in Indore the other day, Indian liberals are asking their favourite question all over again. Why do Hindus these days have no chill? Why can’t they just take a joke? And what about free speech?
Funny that the question of free speech never comes up when other religions are involved. In 2012, Catholic organizations had demanded the resignation of censor board Chief because they had approved a movie showing a Catholic priest in poor light. They had also demanded a permanent representative from the community to sit on the censor board to avoid such incidents in the future.
Just think about it. A movie should be censored because it showed a Catholic priest in poor light? The scheming Hindu priest is a Bollywood staple. Without it, an entire genre of movies and their plots would come to an end. Why not the same standards for everyone in public discourse?
I know what liberals are going to say. Don’t do “whataboutism.” In any case, two wrongs would not make a right. Let us examine this further with an illustrative example.
Let me ask you this question: Is it ‘wrong’ to buy a shirt that is made in the UK?
Of course not. But imagine this conversation between a British imperialist and an Indian subject back in 1921:
Indian : I want to stop you from selling shirts in India.
Brit: That’s so unfair. It is against the idea of free trade.
Indian: But you don’t let me negotiate trade terms with you, set our own tariffs and trade with whoever we want.
Brit: Now, now, that is a completely separate issue. Don’t do whataboutism.
Everyone can see the problem here. Indeed, free speech is just like free trade. It has to be a two-way street to have any value. When you close both streets, it becomes like Communism. When you allow only one-way traffic, it becomes like colonialism.
I cannot speak for all Hindus, but I do know why more and more Hindus are getting angry about slights to Hindu gods. It is because they have figured out by now that free speech in India is not set up for the free exchange of ideas. We all know the consequences of mocking any religion other than Hinduism. For a certain religion, the consequences can be so terrifying that I dare not even name that religion in this article. Whether left-wing or right-wing, we all know which one it is.
This double standard has been out there in the open for decades. And you can’t hide it any more. “One-sided free speech” feels like bullying because it is bullying. One-sided free speech is like one-sided free trade. It is not a form of free trade at all. It is colonialism.
So when it comes to the matter of alleged comedians insulting Hindu gods, free speech is not even on the table. It would be great if we had free speech, but we have never had it. The only question here is whether Hindus will continue to put up with the bullying.
The Indian state provides a legal route to address such grievances. You can get people into trouble for “hurting religious sentiments.” For 70 years, the privileged religious groups have used these provisions to insulate themselves from all forms of criticism. Now, more and more Hindus want to use this provision of law. Who can blame them?