Free speech for hooligans: Why Shobhaa De matters

Discussion in 'Politics & Society' started by Singh, Aug 7, 2013.

  1. Singh

    Singh Phat Cat Administrator

    Feb 23, 2009
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    “Maharashtra and Mumbai??? Why not? Mumbai has always fancied itself as an independent entity, anyway. This game has countless possibilities,” tweeted columnist Shobhaa De.

    By any standard of political discourse, the comment was unremarkable, and yet it touched off a political furore that is, in one word, shocking. Over recent years, we’ve witnessed innumerable acts of intimidation aimed at silencing a variety of targets, be it intellectuals like Salman Rushdie, Amartya Sen or Ashis Nandy, Facebook updates of ordinary citizens, or the work of artists such as Balbir Krishna. But the uncontrolled rhetoric employed against De — which included attacks on her personal life and threats to her life — is unprecedented and marks a new low in our political discourse.

    This isn’t just another anti-free speech incident, and here are 5 reasons why.
    Shobhaa De. AFP.

    Shobhaa De. AFP.

    One, forget dissent or opinion, even a casual tweet is no longer permitted. “There is an attempt to suppress free thinking and stifle debate,” said De about the backlash. “An attempt to browbeat dissent which needs to be fought back.” But her comment was hardly a conscious act of dissent looking to provoke the powers-that-be.

    Free speech had appeared to hit rock bottom with the Amartya Sen fiasco, when Dr. Sen was hauled over the coals for having the temerity to voice a preference in leadership. Barely weeks later, we have sunk even lower in our race to the bottom. Shobhaa De was not expressing an opinion or a preference with regard to Mumbai, Maharashtra or, god forbid, Narendra Modi. She was just making a stray observation, and not a radical one at that – city states are hardly a new concept, and the prospect of an independent Mumbai, while remote, has been raised by others. Yet 40 party goons assembled outside her door to intimidate her into apologizing.

    “This lady will not back down,” De told NDTV. Good for her but it doesn’t change the bleak revelation offered by her travails: In India today, all it takes is a stray remark to make you a free speech martyr. Where we once ran into trouble for books, art, cartoons, and scholarly research, we can now be crucified for a tweet.

    Two, free speech is not a matter of principle but political expedience. In the short span of 140 characters, Shobhaa De has managed to do the near impossible – unite our fractious political parties in common cause. The Maharashtra Nirvan Sena, Congress, Shiv Sena, BJP, NCP are each trying to outdo the other in their attacks. Even warring cousins Uddhav Thackeray and Raj Thackeray have found a common enemy that transcends familial rancour. “Such comments are unacceptable,” said chief minister Prithviraj Chauhan, unwilling to be left out of the outrage-fest.

    Their collective indignation reveals the naked lack of regard for the freedom of speech across the political spectrum. Politicians will indeed defend someone’s right to speak — as some did with regards to Amartya Sen — but only when it suits their ends. In Indian politics, the only principle that matters is power.

    Three, there is no such thing as safe speech. The freedom to be routinely offended has long trumped freedom of expression in a country where the right to take offence is pretty much enshrined as a hallowed right. But we had at least some knowledge of where the free speech minefields lay: Religion. Caste. Mahatma Gandhi’s sex life. Now everything is sacred, and no speech is safe. A single comment on Twitter can be deemed a criminal act — all it takes is a couple of politicians who decide it is so.

    Many politicians are calling for more than just an apology. Even as he expressed his support for the “freedom of speech” BJP’s Ashish Shelar called for the state to “initiate action against her.” Shiv Sena spokesman Sanjay Raut declared, “This cannot be tolerated. The state government should step in and punish her for this provocative statement.”

    This is no longer about a nanny state trying to preserve communal peace by shushing its citizens. This is a hooligan political class bludgeoning anyone who speaks out of line — a constantly shifting, arbitrary lakshman rekha we are expected to abide.

    Four, this is no country for women. In the wake of the Delhi gang rape, politicians lined up to make pious remarks about the importance of assuring the safety of Indian women. The Congress party, under fire for mishandling anti-rape protests, led the charge with party president Sonia Gandhi penning an angry letter to Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde, demanding he “sensitise police to the danger our daughters, sisters, mothers face every day.” Months later, at the chintan shivir in Jaipur, Gandhi told the party rank and file, “We cannot tolerate the shameful social mindsets that lead to unspeakable atrocities on women and children. In the last few weeks, some public figures have come out with truly shocking statements reflective of these completely unacceptable attitudes.”

    But she hasn’t said a word about the shameful mindset of Congressman Nitesh Rane who tweeted: “Rather than twitter, Shoba De shud say the same thing on the streets of Mumbai openly after which she won’t be left with any ‘shoba’ forever.” Pressed on this unabashed threat, Rane refused to back down, telling NDTV, “How else do we show our anger if not in the language of intimidation?”

    Safety is a fundamental right of every woman, as Mrs Gandhi insists, but only if she ‘behaves’. Coming on the heels of Digvijaya Singh’s “tunch maal” remark, it shows that the Nirbhaya tragedy has barely dented the sexist norms of our discourse about women. We now live in a nation where it is unacceptable to make a stray remark about an independent Mumbai, but entirely okay to openly threaten to assault a woman.

    Five, free speech is for politicians. “Shobhaa De should be made to just shut up,” said Rane. Shiv Sena party spokesman Sanjay Raut threateningly growled, “If they cannot respect Maharashtra, we shall teach them how to do so.”

    In other words, the rest of us should shut up and while politicians say exactly what they want, without restraint or consequences.

    “I am absolutely astonished by this reaction,” responded a defiant De, “There is no question of an apology for a tweet that is harmless, that is innocent. At no point have I suggested that Mumbai should be separated from Maharashtra.” While the sight of 40 Shiv Sena goons assembled outside the De residence may not have cowed its occupant, it sends a chilling message to the rest of us. If an innocent tweet on a political subject can incur such wrath, better to adhere to that classic Disney edict, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all.”

    We’ve regressed a long way from the time when MF Husain was drummed out of this country for painting nude Indian gods. No artist would attempt such provocation in ‘new India’, and certainly no gallery or museum would be foolish enough to exhibit him. Each incident of censorship has taught us a new lesson in the virtue of discretion. We know now, thanks to Ashis Nandy, not to spontaneously riff on a litfest panel. Amartya Sen taught us not to express a preference in our Prime Minister. If Shaheen Dhada made clear the perils of speaking freely on our personal Facebook page, Shobhaa De has revealed the hazards of casual conversation on Twitter. Each instance of censorship pulls the gag ever tighter.

    This then is what passes for free speech in India: The babel of loud, ugly voices telling us to ‘just shut up.’

    Free speech for hooligans: Why Shobhaa De matters — — Readability
  3. dhananjay1

    dhananjay1 Regular Member

    Mar 10, 2013
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    "attacks on her personal life and threats to her life" :rofl: Needless exaggeration for a wannabe "free speech" crusaders. The free speechers only open their mouth when they are sure that it won't cause any real danger and would only provide comfortable controversy. I don't see any free speechers whining when a bunch of Islamist thugs desecrated the national monuments. They all wet their collective pants before speaking anything about a real "controversial" topic like Islam, because they know it would put there life in real danger, but they are seen parading like self proclaimed soldiers when it comes to topic where they know there would be no real danger.
    parijataka, VIP and anoop_mig25 like this.
  4. JBH22

    JBH22 Senior Member Senior Member

    Jul 29, 2010
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    if we have to rely on Shobha de for such serious issues then indeed the benchmark has fallen way low.
  5. anoop_mig25

    anoop_mig25 Senior Member Senior Member

    Aug 17, 2009
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    Why was thread open in first place

    By the way i like raj comment "Not easy as getting divorced"

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