Freedom of speech, Kamal Haasan, Ashis Nandy

The freedom to say what you think is always under threat. There will always be people who would give up freedom for temporary security (for ten points, complete the saying this sentence alludes to). Two stories interest me from the last week or so.

Kamal Haasan has made some movie that talks about fundamentalist Islamic terrorism in Afghanistan. And the good people of Chennai are up in arms because it hurts their sentiments. Or something. The Madras High Court, true to form, has thrown free speech under the bus, and then reversed direction a few times to make sure free speech is well and truly dead. The backlash on the streets, such as it was, against this movie may or may not have had something to do with things other than hurt sentiments, but the court’s ruling itself presumably had no reason other than that, I guess, free speech can go to hell.

Kamal Haasan insists, indeed pleads, that the movie has nothing at all derogatory about muslims. It is a movie that deals with terrorism, and specifically with al Qaeda. Not mentioning the religion and ideology of the terrorists would be silly. Demands that the movie be banned because it does mention the religion of the terrorist are insane and should be laughed out of any self-respecting democracy. Instead we have the honourable high court of Madras to save us. From something.

The other story is that of Ashis Nandy and his comments at the Jaipur Literary Festival. Depending on whom you ask, Nandy’s statements were the nuanced and humane insight, into a problem that’s millennia old, of an intellectual giant. [People saying this include Yogendra Yadav, here; Harsh Sethi, here; Shiv Vishwanathan, here]. Or the comments were the mad rambling of an upper-caste loon who has made a career of “repackaging elite prejudice as counter-intuitive insight and paradoxical wisdom.” [People saying this include S. Anand, here; The Round Table, here; and K. Satyanarayana, here].

Nandy is one of India’s foremost sociologists and is no stranger to controversy. He was the first person to call Narendra Modi an archetypal fascist. He has also come under some flak of late for supporting, with caveats, the RSS’ statement that rapes happen in India, not in Bharat. At the Jaipur Literary Festival, Ashis Nandy was asked something about corruption and responded with a statement about how corruption is more complicated than what you might think at first blush. And all hell has apparently broken loose.

…which is good! Nandy is an academic making an argument about the dynamics of caste and corruption. Nothing he says is going to change anything for the oppressed Dalit. In fact, people who do work for the emancipation of Dalits in this country are precisely the people who disagree vehemently with Nandy. However, what S. Anand does say is that whatever else may be true about the 70 year old Nandy, he does not deserve to be hounded by the police or go to jail.

There is a law in India that criminalises the (verbal) abuse of Dalits. The purpose of the law, the spirit in which the law was written, is to stop the systematic disenfranchisement of Dalits, not to shut down academic debate. Whatever you think about Nandy’s understanding of corruption and caste, whether or not you think he was being disingenuous or merely trying to be provocative, jailing academics for academic (in every sense of the word) opinions about their field of study has no part in a democracy. None.

My own opinion of what Nandy said a) doesn’t matter — I am no expert on caste or corruption in India, but b) will be the subject of my next blog post; for what, after all, is the point of having a blog if one won’t pontificate once in a while?