AAP MLA Amantullah Khan called for the beheading of Yati Narsinghanand Saraswati on Twitter due to alleged critical remarks the latter made against prophet Muhammad. At the time of writing this, the tweet had still not been deleted despite the platform’s pompous boasts of stern action against incitement to violence.
At the same time, there’s a conspicuous silence among journalists in the mainstream media regarding the violent threat that was issued. Whether we agree with Yati’s comments or not is irrelevant, incitement to violence is not acceptable under any circumstances. When it is an elected representative engaging in the same, it is even more troubling.
The episode, once again, brings to the fore the troubling aspects of Indian liberalism. Liberalism in India, unlike in the West, has been the strongest advocate for censorship, not free expression. Liberal icon Jawaharlal Nehru was the one who was responsible for enacting a law that all but ended free speech rights in India.
Thus, India is in a unique situation where free speech icons traditionally have been non-liberals. Yati Narsinghanand Saraswati may not endorse absolute free speech rights himself but the concerted incitement of violence against him for exercising his free speech rights has, nonetheless, turned him into an icon for the same.
Something similar had happened with Kamlesh Tiwari as well. Tragically, he had to pay with his life for his comments critical of Prophet Muhammad. On that occasion as well, liberals were hesitant to condemn the murder unequivocally and instead chose to downplay the threat of violent Islamic extremism.
Even when Kamlesh Tiwari was alive, he was jailed for the same comments. And he was imprisoned by a party that has complete support from liberals.
All of this just reveals that advocates for free speech rights are a microscopic minority in the political spectrum of India. There is an unspoken agreement across the political spectrum that absolute free speech rights is not conducive to the cultural realities of the country.
Liberals in India swear to have a commitment towards free speech rights but their conduct leaves little room for doubt that by free speech rights, they mean only the freedom to denigrate and insult Hindu Gods and Goddesses while censoring criticism of minority religions.
Hindutvavadis, on the other hand, have only now begun to have a say in the corridors of power but they recognise that absolute free speech has no major support in the country. But even so, they never advocate violence against people for speech alone.
In India, we have constitutional safeguards and limits to freedom of expression and it is these tools that Hindutvavadis use to combat speech they do not agree with. Liberals demonise Hindus for utilising the constitutional tools made available to them by liberals themselves while they justify the use of mob violence and terrorism by Islamic extremists to oppose speech they do not like. It is quite the spectacle indeed.
Thus, it has always been the case that icons of free speech in India have traditionally come from the Hindu spectrum of politics. Even prior to the advent of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah in national politics, it was the likes of Arun Shourie and Sita Ram Goel who led the fight for free speech rights.
Sita Ram Goel had trouble finding publishers for his book where he documented extensively the threats of Islamic extremist and the atrocities committed against Hindu Samaj. ‘The Calcutta Quran Petition’ remains one of the greatest contribution towards free speech in India. Until his last day, he remained strong in his commitment towards his ideals and yet, never did he receive an ounce of support from liberals in the matter.
Arun Shourie, too, was sidelined and demonised for his commitment towards the same. He wrote blistering critiques of liberal heroes and remained at the forefront of Hindutva discourse. But it was only after he jumped ship politically did he receive recognition for his contribution to public discourse.
It is truly a testament of the nature of Indian liberalism that there has truly never been an occasion where they have unequivocally supported free speech for anyone. When the Charlie Hebdo massacre happened, when the world united to condemn the violence against cartoonists, Indian liberals were at the forefront of victim blaming because the cartoons mocked the prophet of Islam.
Again, more recently, when Samuel Paty was beheaded in France, Indian liberals only paid lip service to prevalent sentiments but were extremely quick to return to the familiar trope of Muslim victimhood.
It is undeniable that Hindutvavadis may use caustic words to oppose speech they do not like, and use constitutional tools for the same purpose, but there has never been an instance where they have advocated the use of violence to achieve their end.
It is for this reason that those who have become the symbol for free speech rights in India have never been from the liberal end of the political spectrum. There is shrewd political reasoning behind the same as well.
Liberals truly believe that ‘Hindu majoritarianism’ is a bigger threat to liberalism in India than Islamic extremism. Rahul Gandhi captured it perfectly when he said that ‘Hindu extremists’ are a bigger threat than Jihadists. Therefore, in order to oppose Hindu centric politics, liberals made a deal with the devil.
Thus, we have a situation where liberals remain silent on Islamist atrocities on free speech while being careful not to offend Islamic sensibilities. At the same time, they use every opportunity they can to insult Hindu sentiments.
When the plank was abandoned by liberals wholesale, it was only natural that it would fall upon the Hindutva faction to carry it afloat. And thus, after all these years, we have Kamlesh Tiwari and Yati Narsinghanand who have becomes symbols of free speech rights in the country.