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Mitali Saran: Offence is the best form of defence of free speech

The murder of the Charlie Hebdo staff in France last week has ignited impassioned debates about freedom of expression across the world. In India, the subject is too often seen as the irrelevant preserve of a few whiny artist types who should get a real job, when it is, in fact, about the right to think, speak and act, about women’s rights and human rights, the right to non-violent protest, and the right to safety and life. It’s crucial to keep the discussion alive because, to slightly misquote Martin Niemöller, when they come for you, you’d better hope there’s somebody left to speak out for you.

If you accept that people thrive best when they are free – free to express themselves in the way they think, dress, work, love, eat, and worship – then you accept that more freedom is better than less, and that varying choices must co-exist. Freedom of expression is the conceptual emulsifier that holds together different, often adversarial, ways of being in what we proudly call an inclusive, pluralistic society.

How can you set boundaries on these choices? One man’s religion is another man’s delusion; one woman’s insult is another woman’s joke. The inclusive solution is to limit not freedom of expression, but physical violence and overt incitement to violence. There actually is a bright line one can draw – at one’s nose. That is, freedom of expression should stop short only of physical violence to person or property, and be backed by state protection. It should, thus, protect the gentlest, enlightened, reasonable, progressive expression, as well as the most bigoted, sexist, racist, xenophobic, tasteless expression, as long they are physically non-violent. Everyone is free to ignore, boycott, or loudly agree or disagree, and to non-violently try to build a different social consensus. You should be free to make rape jokes, or suggest that religion is for donkeys, without fear of physical harm, and everyone else should feel free to berate and shun you for it.

The loudest refrain after Charlie Hebdo has been: “They didn’t deserve to be killed, but they shouldn’t have drawn those cartoons.” If you believe the cartoonists didn’t deserve to die, there is no “but”. Either you believe that people deserve to be physically attacked for their opinions and tastes, or you do not. Belief and taste are endlessly arguable matters, and an entirely separate debate. When, earlier this week, French authorities cracked down on comedian Dieudonne M’bala M’bala on charges of “defending terrorism”, they only cut off their own nose to spite their face.

In India, consensus has lazily, and disastrously, come to accept violence as a valid form of expressing protest. We have lazily, and disastrously, decided that we cannot be held responsible for our actions when provoked. We have lazily, and disastrously, equated freedom with lack of offence. But it is precisely in offence – in non-violently offending and non-violently expressing offence – that freedom and pluralism manifest most sharply and wonderfully.

Religion everywhere is particularly hostile to perceived offence; it is less inclined to enjoy the comforts of its own certainties than to neurotically stamp out doubters and critics. No less an icon than Pope Francis, leader of one billion Catholics, said of Charlie Hebdo, that an insult “can expect a punch”, because “you cannot insult faith, you cannot provoke” – and here you thought only terrorists sound like that.

India internalised this view long ago, to the unforgivable detriment of our republic. We remain an inherently hierarchical, conformist society that hates to see a head stick out from the crowd. Administrations are both unwilling and unable to fulfil their constitutional obligation to protect those at risk of violence. The state finds greater benefit in ignoring individual rights rather in risking the disapproval of many, so we privilege the sentiments of the most violent sections of society over the rights of the non-violent individual offender.

Withholding state protection neatly makes self-censorship the most efficient check on freedom of expression. Beleaguered Tamil author Perumal Murugan recently committed symbolic authorial suicide by withdrawing his entire body of work after the district administration refused to back his novel One Part Woman, which offended his townspeople. And India’s dispiriting record on free speech is helped along by the occasional googly in the courts – the Supreme Court recently chided a film maker for portraying his point of view rather than all points of view.

Free speech absolutism is the only truly pluralistic form of freedom of expression. It does not presume to judge whose opinion is worthy, and whose isn’t – that is for citizens to decide using the same right. It says only that physical harm is never permissible. Placing “reasonable restrictions” on free speech merely creates an endless, pointless debate and much room for abuse.

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