Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Wendy Doniger, Jeyamohan and Arundhati Roy : A Primer on Free Speech

Jeyamohan, when he is not falling at the feet of his guru Ilayaraja and Arundhati Roy, when she is not cavorting with Maoists and raining vitriol over America, will do a segue way into defending, half heartedly, free speech.

Ideas on free speech, secularism, human rights and individual liberty are all very recent ideas. The US constitution, written toward the end of the 18th century, was probably the first to prohibit its own legislature from ever writing a law that will 'abridge' freedom of speech. The first amendment remains America's most cherished right in the bill of rights. Even today Britain has censors. Denying holocaust is a punishable crime in Germany.

Wendy Doniger (Source Wikipedia).
Indian constitution framers, unlike Americans at Philadelphia, retained a lot of archaic British laws especially those that gave untrammeled powers to the state because now the pigs were ruling (its a metaphor from 'Animal Farm'. Please.). Even today in India the local police station has to certify that a stage drama can be performed. A colonial era rule. The rules against free speech or loopholes to harass free speech practically mirrors colonial rule.

Free speech is not about allowing decent or agreeable or intelligent speech. Free speech is about allowing 'speech' without riders or caveats. If at all any caveat is to be used it is hate-speech and for that the threshold has to be a high bar. Britain had allowed Mullah's who preached with inflammatory rhetoric to continue preaching. Otherwise speech need not be intelligent or even decent.

A land mark case for free speech in India was the case of vernacular magazine Nakkeeran vs Tamil Nadu state. Nakkeeran had started publishing the auto-biography of a very sensational murder convict, Auto Shankar. Shankar had run brothels patronized by high officials. The officials sought to muzzle the magazine. Nakkeeran editor Rajagopal went to India Supreme Court. The Supreme Court in a landmark judgment upheld Rajagopal's right to publish the names. The judgment cites, surprisingly, landmark US cases on privacy. The series, lets remember, was just salacious, no public good came of it. Indians assume that high officials have salacious affairs. It was not news.

Larry Flynt, publisher of porn magazine 'Hustler', caused another landmark judgment in US. Flynt published a fictional story about evangelist Jerry Falwell portraying him as having sex with his mother in a barn. Falwell went to court. Larry Flynt went to US supreme court and won acquittal on free speech grounds. Free speech is not about defending what everyone will love. The reason that Flynt and Rajagopal need to be defended is because any abridgment of free speech in the name of morality or decency is a slippery slope and such excuses are more often than not abused to muzzle what somebody does not like.

Jeyamohan voiced a thinly veiled conspiracy theory that Christian West, that Wendy Doniger was born into, uses the tool of free speech to ridicule Hinduism and India. He forgot that American director Martin Scorsese made Nikos Kazantzakis's 'Last Temptation' into a movie with scenes of Christ having sex.

A New York City museum had an exhibit of a crucifix in a jar of urine. Art, said the artist. NYC Mayor Rudy Guiliani threatened to cut off city taxpayer dollars to the museum unless the exhibit was removed. Then he had to backdown in the face of a loud criticism. Oh there was also the case of a portrait of Madonna (Mary) with cow dung on her breast. A movie referred to crucifix as a sexual object. In 'Jesus Christ Superstar' Christ sings and lusts. British author Philip Pullman wrote a searing parody and a laugh riot in 'Good man Jesus and scoundrel Christ' to ridicule the 'established' church. The back cover succinctly said 'this is a novel'.

James Joyce's 'Ulysses' was banned in US but publisher Random House, in what could happen only in USA, arranged for a shipment and invited a lawsuit. Random House went to court and overturned the ban. Later D.H. Lawrence's 'Lady Chatterley's lover', 'Tropic of Cancer' and 'Fanny Hill' would have to face the court and be freed.

India has a long history of banning books or inconveniencing authors deemed bad. Nirad C. Chaudhuri invited ire over his 'Authobiography of an unknown Indian". Stanley Wolpert's 'Nine hours to Rama' remains banned in India along with Scorsese's 'Last temptations of Christ'.

In India free speech will find defenders depending on who is offended. Arun Shourie, who later joined BJP, was strident in his defense of Rushdie's freedom to write 'Satanic Verses'. Self styled secularists like N.Ram and A.G.Noorani defended, gladly, M.F.Husain's freedom to depict Hindu goddesses in the nude. Then the same duo stridently criticized Dutch newspaper Jyllands Posten for publishing cartoons of Prophet Muhamed which they said would hurt the sentiments of Muslims. Arundhati Roy was conspicuously absent during the cartoon controversy when half the world boiled.

Both Arundhati Roy and Jeyamohan offer half-hearted ham handed defense of Wendy Doniger. Neither defend free speech in totality. Roy, conveniently forgetting draconian Indian laws, scolds Penguin for buckling so quickly instead of going to Supreme court with their 'resources'. Poor Roy misses the irony of capitalism's comforts.

Jeyamohan's first blog on Doniger was a shameful exercise in logic. Saying the West has two approaches to India, one, respectful and two, supercilious ridicule of a civilization they don't understand. So saying he rips Western authors who, in his opinion, ridicule Hinduism  due to misunderstanding often with ulterior motive to destabilize India. He scolds them for 5 paragraphs conveniently forgetting the many, many Western authors and even colonial officials who respected India highly. In fact I'd say that Westerners have a healthy curiosity and great deal respect for India unlike what Indians have of, say, America. S.Ra, Nanjil and Jeyamohan displayed ignorance and prejudices about America during their visits here.

Finally on a grudging note Jeyamohan concedes that bans are ineffective and may actually serve to publicize the book. This by a man who was practically lynched in the internet for ridiculing two most loved cinema heroes of Tamils. Novelist Sujatha could read Jeyamohan's Vishnupuram because Sujatha felt that Jeyamohan was being uncharitably obscene about Hinduism. Though Jeyamohan had  the words against banning books in 'bold' it was buried too late into the article and did not sound sincere given the tone of the rest of the article.

Many have quoted Wendy Doniger's, less than flattering, passage about Bhagvad Gita. Little do many Indians outside Tamil Nadu know of K.Veeramani's "The other side of Gita". Veeramani and his mentor E.V.Ramasamy reveled in ridiculing Hinduism in the name of half baked ideas they called 'rationalism' but other than a few feeble attempts they always shied away from ridiculing Islam or Christianity. This hypocrisy does exist in India. But I am pained to see Hindu friends cite these and argue for an intolerant attitude. That does not behoove a great and open religion like Hinduism. I'd have to congratulate the people of Tamil Nadu for ignoring with maturity the antics of EVR.

'Economist' asked Germany to repeal its ban on holocaust denial which is a punishable crime there. 'Economist' reasoned that bigotry should be met with scholarship not censorship. Limping out of one of humanity's greatest racist massacre the ban had a meaning in the initial days of de-nazification and has no place today.

A more critical issue of free speech is the privileges of legislators and the judiciary. Indian constitution has strict limits on what can be reported about the happenings in legislatures. I remember a full page article by Arun Shourie, who often butted heads with MP's, titled 'Their privileges and our rights'. Famously Tamil Nadu Assembly speaker P.H.Pandian claimed he had sky-high powers and sent to jail a cartoonist for depicting MLA's as pickpockets and thieves.

Indian judiciary is very thin skinned when it comes to criticism. When US Supreme Court awarded the Presidency to Bush a newspaper column called the justices 'robed pirates'. It is common to see strident and harsh criticism of not just judgment but of justices too in US.

Dreaming of a free India Tagore wrote "Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high, into that heaven of freedom, let my country awake". I'd conclude with that oft attributed quoted which best defines defense of free speech: "I disagree with everything you say but I shall defend, to my death, your right to say so".


1. Arundhati Roy's letter to Penguin India http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/Wendy-Donigers-book-You-must-tell-us-what-terrified-you-Arundhati-Roy-writes-to-Penguin-India/articleshow/30306451.cms
2. Jeyamohan's first blog on Wendy Doniger http://www.jeyamohan.in/?p=46489
3. Hustler Magazine Vs Jerry Falwell http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hustler_Magazine_v._Falwell
4. James Joyce's Ulysses http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_v._One_Book_Called_Ulysses
5. Nakkeeran Rajagopal Vs State of Tamil Nadu  - This is a compelling read. The entire judgment is here - http://www.indiankanoon.org/doc/501107/


prabhu said...

compendium of breaches!! great work... there were some around BORI's research on Shivaji's pedigree, ban on Me Godse Boltoi..you could also include.. apolotical ones like the TN-govt/kodambakkam nexus..that muzzled a thina-mani (Or thanthi not sure) scribe from reporting the dark side/casting-couch at kodambakkam..which he was capturing thru a biography.. something that continues to this day...

Arjun said...

Curious what the reaction in your country would be like if an Indian academic who possibly never set foot in the U.S. wrote a book titled "The Americans" with exclusive focus on the native American genocide, slavery, Hiroshima, Gulf war, Afghanistan and Iraq invasions, their role in installing puppet dictators all over the world and fomenting regime changes, with a final chapter on School shootings, pornography, the sex industry, obesity and America's carbon footprint. Sure it would be welcomed by other champions of free speech like yourself?

Arjun said...

Another thing is, since you are, for all practical purposes, a self-proclaimed, happily settled resident of the land of the free, why continue to dwell so much on India's admittedly many failings and mediocrities (not saying you do only that, I have read some other very interesting articles in your blog too)? It is time you started channeling your formidable intellect and cynicism towards hypocrisies of your adopted land, methinks. Such as how they along with the E.U. are conniving to create unrest in Ukraine RIGHT NOW, or how they almost went to war with Syria last year. Can one expect a post on this from you or will the next entry be yet another silly rant on NRI Desis who refuse to shed their baggage or Ilayaraja's arrogance and Jeyamohan's antics?

P.S, I don't mean to be sarcastic, at least I don't MEAN to, but your preoccupation with flogging dead Indian horses is a bit amusing.

Raja M said...

Before I make my main point, I want to state this clearly. I am for free speech. I also think that the best rebuke of a book is an intellectually honest rebuttal of the ideas advanced by the book. Many books are routinely banned by censors in school boards, and libraries across the US (1). Now, on to your main diatribe.

The gist of your post is this: “Jeyamohan, and Arundhati Roy do not offer a full throated defense (offer half-hearted and hamhanded defense) of free speech, and you are going to educate them (and us) with this primer on free speech”.

Come on! Really? What is the issue of free speech here? No body stopped Penguin from publishing this book. The book was not banned in India. Penguin decided to can the book for their own reasons. Arundhati Roy rightfully called them out for being spineless. It was a business decision by Penguin India. That’s it. The outfit that filed a law suit against Penguin has the right to file a law suit. Doesn’t it?

It looks like, unless Jeyamohan, and Roy and others, channel their inner “Aravindan”, you will assume the role of educating the rest of us with your primer on “free speech”, and illuminate us with your erudition.

By the way, what are your thoughts about what Dr. Donegar actually wrote in the book? What are legal tenets between the broad powers assumed by the Indian Penal Code (Section 295A) in dealing with such cases versus the slight restriction of free speech by the hate crime laws in the US? How should the Indian law be changed. Is it possible to do so? These might be substantive questions to discuss in this regard, but might require some serious effort, and may not offer a juicy target as Jeyamohan, or Roy, as strawmen (or women)!

iYogiBear said...

Arjun - With your post you are actually proving the author right. It is his prerogative to write on/criticize anything in the universe. If he is highlighting issues about our nation, it is his inviolable right, no doubts about it.
He is not wrong. We are far from perfect as a nation. We are infact a third world or an underdeveloped nation. We have to improve on a lot of thing. Such posts help if taken in the right spirit.