Penguin India decided to withdraw from India its controversial book entitled ‘The Hindus : An Alternative History’ by Wendy Doniger. A hindu organization, ‘Shiksha Bachao Andolan’ was fighting a legal battle for its withdrawal with a law-suit in Saket District Court, New Delhi , running for the last three years. Penguin struck an out-of-court ‘agreement’ with the said organization on Feb. 4, 2014. The publication of the book had evoked widespread protests from sensitive individuals and organizations . It was felt that it offended Hindu religious sentiments. To quote Aseem Shukla :“Whether … a licentious foray into Hinduism studies is protected by free speech is not the question. Doniger can write and believe what she wishes. But Hindus are asking if publishers should bear responsibility for copious factual and interpretive errors. Now that the publishers have responded positively to Hindus’ objections by agreeing to destroy all the copies of the book , a section of thinkers has begun to air vociferous protest . The first such reaction, as I came across in the national media, is by Kenan Malik, with his article entitled “Changing Landscape of Free Speech”, published in The Hindu on Feb. 12, 2014. I feel like responding to the views expressed in this write-up.
Kenan begins with comparing the publisher’s withdrawal of Doniger’s book with the undeclared ban on Salman Rushdies books , especially ‘The Satanic Verses’, in India. The two cases cannot be equated with ease. I do have my disagreement about this. But more important, to my view,is the conclusion Sri Malik draws from the two cases he has cited. His final thesis emerging from this, is not acceptable in a civil society. He condemns the protest against both the books as he feels it impinges on the principle of free speech. He opines that the notion of giving offence is somehow misplaced as it presupposes that ‘certain beliefs are so important or valuable to certain people that they should be put beyond the possibility of being insulted, or caricatured, or even questioned’. From this premise stems his final opinion,which is virtually a clarion call :” Once we give up on the right to offend in the name of ‘tolerance’ or ‘respect’, we constrain our ability to challenge those in power, and therefore to challenge injustice”.
It is a dangerous misinterpretation of ‘freedom of speech’, both its import and scope .Malik seeks ,rather assumes, for the writer demolishing facts and faith, total immunity from protest. Any civil society runs on the mutual respect ant tolerance in the context of one another. If this basic finesse of civilization is demolished there is likely to be anarchy. Feelings and emotion have their cementing function. An ethnic group, a religious group, or a national group stays bound together only with common feelings and emotion. Culture, religion, language etc are the symbols of inter-personal affinity within grops. There may be some aberration in some of the beliefs of a particular ethnic or religious group, which need to be corrected only through healthy discourse. Religion, in particular, is prone to develop some absurdity in course of time, but the people practising it are emotionally attached to their belief. They need to be corrected in a civilized way. Offence can never be accepted as a mode of correction.
What Sri Malik advocates in the name of ‘freedom of speech’ is a bad prognosis for a civilized society. Being rational does not empower a writer to be offensive to those he thinks being irrational. Any attempt at correction of long-cherished belief or practice does sound unpleasant. But the degree of being unpleasant has to be carefully kept at the minimum so as not to injure one’s feelings. Sri Malik writes as if society has already given him the ‘right to offend’ , which he finds being blunted by the withdrawal of Doniger’s book. The fundamental principle and practice of Indian society has been mutual respect and tolerance for one and all. Sri Malik is hitting hard at the very base of India’s age old tradition of co-existence in a pluralistic society. The attitude shown by Malik is an alarming trend denoting utter irreverence to civility.
The final question — has the law or society given to anyone ‘the right to offend’ ? Malik’s is an absurd assumption if he believes in it, practises it, and seeks to retain and reinforce it. Nothing like this ‘right’ has ever existed in civilized human society. Contemporary writing for societal consumption may be broadly classified as– literary creations, historiographical writings, and commentaries on public platforms. Visual arts making symbolic suggestions on social issues are extended dimension of modes of expression . Of all these four modes of expression, only art and literature have traditionally been enjoying the the social responsibility of ‘correction of human follies’ through satire,cartoon, lampoon etc. In this role, art and literature are expected to follow the norms of civility to the extent that they do not offend the feelings of persons or groups under their scanner. However, if a realistic delineation of true event is done in art/literature, it does not purport to be offensive. Taslima Nasreen’s ‘Lajja’ and Salman Rushdie’s ‘The Satanic Verses’ fall in this category. Historiography has no social or academic license to indulge in twisting or misrepresenting the facts as they exist. Any such attempt is grossly irresponsible, and detrimental to establishing peace and harmony in social life. If a piece of history writing does this, it is offensive not only to the affected group concerned, but also to the basic ethics of human civilazation. Wendy Doniger’s ‘The Hindus : An Alternative History’ falls in this category. Commentaries written in media or delivered orally on public platforms, and visual arts, have absolutely no ‘right’ to offend. Their criticism needs to remain limited to positive irony and satire in so far as they don’t offend. Offence can never lead to correction of folly.
Kenan Malik’s dictum of ‘right to offend’ is intellectual phenomenon of anarchism. Of late, India is witnessing the rise of anarchical methods, first in social protest, and then in polity. Now a new dimension is sought to be added to it by calling for a similar mode in intellectual consideration and examination of critical issues of human civilization and culture.Kanchan Gupta rightly observes :“Our fraudulent Left-liberals, who dominate the commentariat and academic institutions, poisoning impressionable minds, are out in full force, doing what they do best: Maligning Hindus by propagating falsehood.” (http://t.co/Yy4gYfAUHC). Kenan Malik poses as a torch-bearer of vicious ‘penners syndicate’ of the leftists taking a cue from Maovian anarchism. One striking feature of this band of writers is that they always find only Hindus and Hinduism as convenient target to exercise their self-evolved ‘right to offence’. I don’t remember that any member of this fraternity ever rose in support of either Tasleema Nasreen or Salman Rushdie when they ‘offended’ a certain religious group. They never commented on Talibani style of protest against these writers . Does Malik approve of the ways these protesters adopted to aassault and insult them ? Now Hindus have earned victory in their lawful protest, Malik and his bretheren cannot digest it normally. Anarchy cannot have a place in Indian society. Malik’s advocacy of anarchy in writing is misplaced, untenable, and detestable. Right to offend never existed, exists, or shall exist in India.