AIB and Indu Sarkar controversies: Why freedom of expression is important

By Salman Anees Soz
The last week was eventful for those keeping track of the debate on freedom of expression in India. The movie Indu Sarkar gained a degree of fame because an event related to its launch was disrupted, apparently by some members of the Congress party, of which I am a part. Before that, the Mumbai police filed a case of defamation and obscenity against the comedy group All India Bakchod (AIB) for applying a Snapchat dog filter to a photo of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Unsurprisingly, many who were furious with AIB for its portrayal of Prime Minister Modi were vociferously supportive of the freedom of expression of Madhur Bhandarkar, the filmmaker behind Indu Sarkar. Many who supported AIB’s freedom of expression were relatively subdued in speaking up for Bhandarkar. I am unsurprised because we have seen this movie before. In India, freedom of expression is mostly about whose freedom is being violated. Selective outrage is the norm.
Let us do some plain-speaking. Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses upset most Indian Muslims as did Kamlesh Tiwari’s toxic comments about Prophet Mohammad. In a similar vein, Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History was banned, MF Husain was hounded out over paintings of goddesses and the RSS and the BJP sought a ban on Perumal Murugan’s Mathorubhagan.
In India, as in most countries, freedom of expression is not unfettered. However, beyond legal restrictions, we conspire to further restrict each other’s freedoms. Surely, a book or a painting about religious figures is not going to doom the great religions of the world. I am reasonably confident that the legacy of one of India’s greatest leaders is not about to be fundamentally undermined by a movie that most people would have likely ignored in the absence of its recent publicity. This should not mean that people can’t protest what they don’t like. Of course they can. It is their democratic right. But we must encourage peaceful dissent and stand against threats, intimidation and violence.
Globally, the debate around free expression is ongoing and complicated. I personally prefer a maximalist position on free expression with rare restrictions such as those for incitement to violence. However, I do recognize that at this time most Indians may not agree to such a standard. A Pew Survey from 2015 clubbed India with countries like Russia, Turkey and Pakistan as being “less supportive” of free expression. But, what we must watch for is the trajectory of free expression in India. Will we have more of it or less?
I believe there is much scope for progressively removing restrictions on free expression. Freedom of expression is not just about protecting offensive speech. More importantly, it is about the free flow of ideas, debates and inquiry that leads to inventions, discovery and progress. Crucially, it is also about protecting us from those in government who may want to restrict our freedoms. So, if citizens restrict each other’s freedom of expression, we are in effect weakening our democracy and paving the way for authoritarianism. Who wants that?
(Salman Anees Soz, formerly with the World Bank, is a national media panelist of the Indian National Congress.)

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