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India: Watch What You Say

Ramesh Sharma/India Today Group/Getty Images
Dalit activists protesting against ­controversial remarks by the sociologist Ashis Nandy at the Jaipur literary festival, January 2013

Shock! Outrage! A local leader marches to the festival grounds at the Diggi Palace to protest. Media madness. Nandy is charged under the Prevention of Atrocities Act, no less. Other legal complaints rain down, not merely upon his head but also on those of the Indian producers of the festival, Sanjoy Roy and Sheuli Sethi. These complaints even result in a (soon overturned) order that they must not leave the city of Jaipur until the matter is resolved. In her argument to the High Court of Rajasthan, their lawyer calls this a claim of Vicarious Liability. Indeed. Imagine that Peter Florence, chief organizer of the UK’s largest literary festival, in the Welsh border town of Hay-on-Wye, were to be held responsible for every word said by every speaker on every panel at that Jaipur-in-the-Mud. Why, the Hitchens brothers alone—the late Christopher and the still very much with us Peter—would have got him locked up for years.

While Nandy’s remark was provocative, the context puts it in an entirely different light. As one can see clearly from the video and transcript, he is responding to a comment by Tarun Tejpal, a brave pioneer of Indian investigative journalism. Tejpal describes corruption as “probably a great class equalizer” for the poor. The Indian rich, he says, have built a system that protects their own privileged position. If you come “from the wrong side of the tracks,” as “roughly a billion people in this country would,” you can only get out of the dust by breaking “not God’s rules…[such as] you shall not kill anybody, you shall not rape anybody, you shall not oppress anybody” but “men’s rules…rules of examinations, taxations, privileges.” And then he mentions the name of one of the country’s most famous business leaders, the late Dhirubai Ambani. If Ambani had not subverted a few man-made rules, says Tejpal, he “would have still been filling petrol in a pump in Doha.”

It is in response to this rather moving comment that Nandy, himself well known for his sustained, humane engagement for India’s underprivileged, adds that “it is a fact that most of the corrupt” come from those castes, tribes, and classes. Which, given that they together comprise more than half the country’s population, seems statistically unsurprising. And he prefaces his comment by saying that this is “the most important part of the story which will shock you and it will be a very undignified and, how should I put it, almost vulgar statement on my part.”

So there they are, two Indian intellectuals speaking freely, overstating as one does to make a point, about an issue of vital importance to the future of their country. For which, burning oil and brimstone are then poured on Nandy’s and the organizers’ heads. As the Indian novelist Manu Joseph wryly observes: “I am from a country that is desperate to be offended.” But that brilliant generalization itself needs to be unpacked.


The problem, it seems to me—subject to correction by those who know far more about India than I do—is that the country has at least three important features of its current system that actively encourage people to take offense in the name of some community or other.

Its almost entirely unregulated, often sensationalist television, press, and online platforms are engaged in furious commercial competition for eyeballs and online clicks. “If it bleeds, it leads,” says an old saw of American journalism. “If it feeds offense, it sells” may be the Indian equivalent.

The legal incentives for manufacturing and exploiting offense are another story. In crudest summary, what seems to have happened is that British colonial-era legislation, designed (to put the point with Nandyesque provocativeness) to “keep the natives quiet” by allowing the police and courts to go after anyone who says anything possibly offensive to any other caste, religion, class, or group, has actually been reinforced and extended—rather than pruned back—in the free, sovereign, democratic Republic of India.

A statement by the Jaipur police commissioner, made as controversy was looming over the festival, takes this logic to its absurd conclusion. “We’ll provide one hundred armed police personnel,” he said, according to a report in the Hindustan Times, “but organisers have been asked to ensure that no one’s feelings are hurt.” As I could not resist pointing out during a subsequent festival panel, a big tent in which “no one’s feelings are hurt” is one in which no one can say anything much—let alone risk intellectual provocation, irony, or, heaven forbid, satire.

Viewed in the kindest possible light, this legal system might be seen as a contemporary version of that generosity of spirit toward other sects, and self-restraint in talking about them, prescribed more than 2,200 years ago by King Ashoka. Seen from another point of view, it is an extreme version of multiculturalism (everyone “respects,” i.e., shuts up about, everyone else’s taboos). Regarded most critically, it can be described, with a nod to the Soviet Union’s “socialism in one country,” as a kind of colonialism in one country.

Yet whatever interpretation of the intentions you adopt, the effect is clearly not that intended. As the political scientist Pratap Bhanu Mehta observes:

If you can incite violence, or show that you are deeply offended, you will have your way. Indian laws are not protecting us against offensive speech; they are inciting us to produce it, and in turn provoking bans.

Then there are the politics—which in India are those of a hugely diverse democracy. So, yes, there are elections coming up this December in the state of Rajasthan, to which Jaipur belongs, and yes, all those people whom Nandy allegedly insulted have votes. Here, as those Facebook students also found to their cost in the state of Maharashtra, the laws enable—and media given to instant hysteria encourage—sectarian leaders of all stripes to magnify and exploit all kinds of difference for their own political advantage. This is “identity politics” gone wild.

Thus what seems most characteristic for India is neither a struggle for freedom of expression from an oppressive state (in this sense, the speech foundations of democracy are not threatened, although “sedition” clauses of colonial origin are sometimes abused), nor a never-ending argument about the right laws and policies for a federal state with which one strongly and positively identifies (the life’s work of Ronald Dworkin in relation to the United States), but rather a competition to bend the state and laws to your own sectarian, and, in the broadest sense, political ends, while complaining loudly when others do the same.

“But what business is it of yours?” a defensive Indian official might object. Clearly, there is a fine line between arguing for the liberal values in which one believes, and sounding like—or at least, being received as—a liberal neo-imperialist, trying to impose his “Western” values on other peoples. For obvious reasons, that line could be especially fine when one speaks as an Englishman in India. (Shortly after I left India, the British prime minister went to Amritsar, and rightly expressed our national shame at the criminal massacre of an unarmed crowd there in 1919.) But I felt far more political and cultural resistance to an Englishman’s advocacy of free expression when I visited China and Egypt last year than I ever did in India.

There are, moreover, answers to the question “what business is it of yours?” One answer is that our countries have signed up to international human rights agreements, in this case most relevantly Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which mandate us to engage in an international conversation on these questions. More practically, a combination of mass migration and the Internet (increasingly carried on mobile devices) simply compels us to have such a conversation. That man squatting on his haunches in Prasad Road, New Delhi, may have been texting his cousin in London. His cousin in London may have been following, on the Internet or satellite TV, Hindi-language outrage at something said in Jaipur by a London-based writer of South Asian origin. And so on.

Emphatically and self-evidently, it must be for the Indians to decide what should be the rules and norms in their own country. But what might a liberal internationalist reasonably hope for the evolution of public speech in India? Realistically, this will not be a neo-Voltairian public sphere, as in France, with its strong notion of laïcité, described by Martha Nussbaum as “the establishment of nonreligion.” Some Indian liberals themselves look for progress toward a neo-Lockean public sphere, as in the United States: a secular state, but generous space in the public square for the expression, competition, and unlimited criticism of all creeds and none. (Yes, I know some atheists would dispute this as a description of today’s American reality, but take it, for the purposes of this discussion, as an ideal type.)

Is there perhaps a third variant, which one might call neo-Ashokan? The American historian Paul Starr has sharply characterized the French neo-Voltairian variant as freedom against religion, and the American neo-Lockean as freedom toward religion. An Indian neo-Ashokan version might be described as freedom with religion. This is not for a moment to suggest that there would not be an equal place for secular humanists, whose voices are still heard loud and clear in India’s public debates. But one has only to read those Edicts of Ashoka (carefully acknowledging all the difficulties in interpreting such an ancient text) to see that there is a centuries-old authentic Indian tradition of recognizing the rites and group identities of others. A tradition, to be sure, many times honored only in the breach, through fanaticism, intolerance, and bloodshed, ancient, modern, and contemporary, but nonetheless what the Indian scholar Rajeev Bhargava calls an available “conceptual resource.”

Is it too much to envisage a creative renewal and adaptation of that tradition, with a generous admixture of essential elements of modern liberalism, to produce a distinctively Indian public sphere, different from, yet not fundamentally incompatible with, the neo-Voltairian and neo-Lockean ones? Or, in the light of the experiences I have just described, is the very question hopelessly naive? Perhaps it is. But still, as the Germans say, man darf fragen: one may ask.

—A second article will look at Thailand and Burma.

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