- Umar Khalid should have been listened to at Ramjas College. He has a right to freedom of expression. The seminar should not have been canceled.
- Shazia Ilmi should not have been dropped from the speaker’s list at Jamia.
- Lipstick Under My Burkha should not have been banned by the Censor Board. In fact, there should be no Censor Board. If Hollywood can be responsible enough to self-censor, why not Indian cinema?
- Sanjay Leela Bhansali should not have been assaulted in Jaipur.
- Tarek Fatah should not have been heckled and attacked at Rekhta, and legal action should be taken against the Muslim organization that announced a 1 million Rupee award for his head.
- Going a few years back, Salman Rushdie should not have been stopped from speaking at Jaipur Literary Festival. In fact his book should be unbanned and he should be free to visit and speak anywhere in India.
- Taslima Nasreen should have no fears about returning to Kolkata, the city of joy.
Now this is a minuscule list of the examples of quelling of freedom of expression in India in recent times. I have picked diverse examples intentionally from across the political spectrum to let the readers assess if they will stand up against each of these cases of restriction of freedom of speech. So, here is the thing: if you do not stand against each case of suppression of freedom of speech, then you have no right to complain that freedom of speech is being restricted in the country. You can be standing up for your Right wing values, or for your Left wing values, but you cannot be standing up for freedom of speech, unless you respect everyone’s right to free speech.
What actually happened in Ramjas College late last week, and who is at fault, is really hard to judge if you were not actually at the scene, particularly with multiple sides making contradictory claims about the sequence of events. However, I would like to go over three videos and express my opinion. Later in this article, I would like to propose how India needs to take a page out of the West’s playbook regarding freedom of speech, particularly the 1st Amendment to the US Constitution.
Video 1: Newslaundry report from Ramjas
This video very effectively documents multiple student statements and testimonies accusing ABVP “goons” of inflicting violence upon the students. It is hard to tell if the video is giving all students a voice, but it goes without saying that the violence perpetrated is regrettable and unacceptable, and so is the suppression of speech and cancellation of the seminar.
However, there is just one more thing I have to say about this video:
Starting at 3:03 minutes Sanjay Kumar, reportedly a DU faculty member, questions why “they” have a problem with the word “Azadi”. I think I have an answer for Sanjay Kumar. I believe this word has been chosen by the Left deliberately to provoke and troll the so called “nationalists”. The screams of azadi remind one of the secessionist slogans raised in Kashmir. “Hum kya chahite, Azaadi” is a typically Kashmiri slogan and makes sense only when raised in a Kashmiri accent — हम क्या चाहिते, आज़ादी. This blogger is a migrant from Kashmir and cannot disassociate the word from the terror the screams for azadi in Kashmir’s streets meant for minority community in the valley. You can justify all you want that you are asking for independence from oppression, poverty, blah-blah, but words acquire meanings, and this word is inalienably linked to Kashmir’s clarion call for separation from India, primarily based on religious differences. Now you can be fully in favor of Kashmir’s azadi from India and I am fine with that, but if that is not what your intention is, then don’t yell “azadi azadi” without a context. A word like “swatantrata” may be a mouthful and I wouldn’t want to burden the poor English medium educated slogan shouters with such a heavy word, but even the word “freedom” may be enough to meet your needs. Point is, the dictionary gives you several other ways of pronouncing your hatred of oppression and poverty — unless your intention is to troll and provoke.
Or, on the positive side, if the word is extensively used in Delhi and rest of the country, it may acquire a new meaning and no longer be so closely linked to Kashmir’s secessionist demand.
Video 2: Newslaundry’s Facebook Live Interview with ABVP Leaders:
This interview of DUSU vice president Priyanka Chhawri and former DUSU president Satender Awana is a very good example of what not to do from a news organization’s point of view. The interviewer is ill prepared. He tries to be critical of ABVP but ends up getting bullied into accepting their point of view on several issues. The student leaders try un-convincingly to assert that the trouble makers were all on AISA side, but their other arguments about the Left’s treatment of right wingers in Kerala, some media outlets’ one-sided anti-ABVP coverage, AISA leader’s untrue tweets about section 144, were driven home well, even though Awana’s aggressive attitude is off-putting. The participating trio in this video seems to be going over some videos of the incidents but the viewers are given no clue about what the three were watching and what they are trying to prove. At one point, Awana turns the laptop screen towards the camera, but there is no way the viewers can see anything. Very unprofessional presentation.
Overall, this was a one sided video. I am wondering how it would have looked if multiple sides were brought in to debate. I’m sure there would have been fireworks! For all the complaints being made about suppression of speech, it seems not letting others speak is not a Left or Right thing, but an Indian thing. This is evident from any “debate” you see on television, or even if you are trying to have a debate with anybody in person. Every participant is bent upon making the dialogue into a monologue.
Several times in this video Satender Awana criticizes JNU’s Shehla Rashid for bringing a stone to the NDTV studio as if that was proof that she was attacked with it. Shehla may have actually been attacked with that stone, but just bringing it to the studio was not proof of her being attacked with it. Also watch this video from NDTV that shows how Miss Rashid shuts and shouts down RSS’s Rakesh Sinha, and how the anchor Nidhi Razdan watches helplessly. You will get a chuckle out of this.
What is important is that the Left needs to get off its high moral horse. Whenever and wherever they can, they suppress dissent equally vehemently, and equally violently. Be it Kerala, be it West Bengal, be it JNU, or be it Jamia, or be it Cuba, China or erstwhile Eastern Bloc. I’m tired of Right wing social media posts as much as I am tired of Leftists’ grandstanding that pretty much tells you, “If you are not with us; if you are not calling Modi a fascist and a murderer, you are a part of the problem.” It is this haughty attitude of the Left that drives people into the laps of Modis and Trumps. Communism is not the greatest thing since sliced bread and if it was, it would have had more representation in the country’s legislative bodies. “But the voters are stupid bigots!”, you say. Well, say that at your own peril.
Video 3: Ravish Kumar – Ramjas College in NDTV
This video is a very important one for several reasons. It brings together several planned participants of the canceled Ramjas seminar and presents to the viewers what they “would have said” at the seminar. Now there is no way of knowing if the participants (read: Umar Khalid) would have stuck to this script, but this video proves two things. One, there was apparently nothing explosive or anti-national that was planned. Two, suppression of speech does not help the suppressors of speech. On the contrary, the suppressed usually gets a wider and more interested audience after that, whether it is a canceled seminar or a banned film. Take Kanhaiya Kumar. I have seen several of his speech videos and I don’t find anything inspiring or of substance in his speeches; it is mostly rhetoric, or jumlas (to use the Left’s terminology). However, owing to what happened in JNU last year, he is now a household name in India, for better or for worse. If he had not been to Tihar, nobody would have heard his name outside JNU. Umar Khalid seems to talk much more sense in comparison, although I am not convinced from his speech that he did not raise anti-India slogans.
Let us talk about the limits freedom of speech can go to in the West, particularly in my adopted country the United States. So, there is this thing called the First Amendment. It reads as follows:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
Most people, when they talk about “my first amendment rights” talk about their freedom of speech. Here are some examples of exercise of freedom of speech that would be hard to exercise in India, and are guaranteed in the US:
1. People can burn the US flag, or criticize or burn a religious book, without being prosecuted.
2. Country’s leaders can be mocked and criticized on the mainstream media much more vehemently.
3. I think the most egregious example of protection of freedom of speech is the fact that a hated organization like Westboro Baptist Church can protest in front of soldier’s funerals and jewish community centers and profess their hatred.
In spite of the above, there are cases of controversial speakers being prevented from speaking at Universities by student groups. However, in general, the point I am trying to make is that free speech is important and no amount of slogan shouting and speech giving can weaken a nation, unless you ban that speech and widen its reach. No amount of criticism of religion, religious books, or religious figures should be able to weaken a religion. Let us counter speech with speech, not with violence. Remember, people have rights, ideas do not.