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Be It Nahid Afrin, Bhansali Or Gurmehar, Govt Supports The Freedom Of Expression That Fits Its Agenda

Who cares about freedom of expression when you can hold the keys as the gatekeeper to freedom of expression?

17/03/2017 3:56 PM IST | Updated 17/03/2017 3:59 PM IST
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The greatest challenge faced by freedom of expression in India is not that there are attacks on it. It's that in the reaction to attacks there is so little principled defence of it.

When 16-year-old Nahid Afrin, Indian Idol runner-up, found herself facing a letter allegedly from 46 Muslim clerics "advising" her not to sing at a public event as it was "anti-Shariah" she found a lot of support. The Union Law minister Ravi Shankar Prasad tweeted in her favour.

Assam's new chief minister Sarbanand Sonowal called her and said all steps would be taken to ensure her security. Sonowal said in a statement "Such a ruling against practicing art and culture is unacceptable and is tantamount to infringement of one's freedom of cultural rights. Such a move cannot be tolerated in a civilized society."

Except it is tolerated. Over and over again as long as it's the right kind of "fatwa". The latest incident is still fresh in everyone's minds. The Shri Rashtriya Rajput Karni Sena assaulted Sanjay Leela Bhansali for what they thought might be in his Padmavati film and vandalized his sets and broke the mirrors in Chittogarh Fort. This weeks the sets in Kohlapur were vandalized again.

And rather than speak up in favour of "practicing art and culture", the Rajasthan Social Justice and Empowerment minister, Arun Chaturvedi, has said if Padmavati is released in his state, "it will be screened before members of Shri Rashtriya Rajput Karni Sena and other knowledgable members of society, from whom we will invite objections to the movie".

The greatest challenge faced by freedom of expression in India is not that there are attacks on it. It's that in the reaction to attacks there is so little principled defence of it.

Thus vandalism is rewarded. The Karni Sena can rough up a film director and break sets and instead of being punished are made a de factor censorship committee. All of this even after Bhansali's team clarified that there was no "objectionable scene" even in a dream sequence between Rani Padmavati and Allauddin Khilji. His accommodation was clearly interpreted as weakness by the Rajput Karni Sena and the minister's statement will only bolster their muscle power.

ANI

It turns out that the so-called "fatwa" was not a fatwa at all. Clerics have clarified it was an "appeal" not a fatwa and not about Afrin in particular. "Ours was just a humble appeal to the organisers not to hold the show since the venue is surrounded by mosques, madarsas and other religious institutions. Holding such a show at the venue will vitiate the atmosphere. Our appeal meant ill to no one and there was no political motive. A section of the media has wrongly projected our appeal as a fatwa," said Assam State Jamiat Ulema general secretary Maulana Abdur Rashid Qasimi.

The leaflet does not name Afrin but it's already been turned into a fatwa against Afrin in heated discussions on television talk shows. Even Taslima Nasreen, the victim of a real fatwa tweeted called it a "fatwa from 46 mullahs in Assam".

What both show however is that our interest in freedom of expression is scant. But we are always on the lookout to score political points in its name.

One could still argue that the "appeal" itself is problematic, that even if it's humble it can be intimidating to someone like Afrin. But one should also remember that the Karni Sena did not just "appeal", they roughed up Bhansali and vandalized the sets. These two incidents are not the same and let's not pretend they are.

What both show however is that our interest in freedom of expression is scant. But we are always on the lookout to score political points in its name. What each of these stories underscore is that these debates just descend into endless rounds of whataboutery that do little to shore up our freedom of expression.

We pay more attention to who said nothing than to anyone's right to say something. Did the "JNU freedom of speech brigade" speak up as vociferously for Afrin or not? On the other hand, did those rushing to the defence of Afrin also rush to defend Bhansali? These are pointless questions because until and unless we are able to stand up for both Afrin and Bhansali, the freedom of expression for all of us in India remains frail and vulnerable.

Until and unless we are able to stand up for both Afrin and Bhansali, the freedom of expression for all of us in India remains frail and vulnerable.

The government does not see the irony of Ravi Shankar Prasad tweeting in strong support of Afrin while his colleague Kiren Rijiju wondered who was polluting Gurmehar Kaur's mind for exercising her right to freedom of expression on social media. Rijiju had no words of condemnation for the BJP MP who compared her to Dawood Ibrahim.

It's not surprising that for the government there is only one kind of freedom of expression, the one that fits its agenda. And the BJP is not alone in this. The previous UPA government tried to force Facebook, Google and others to pre-screen content after they found derogatory content about Sonia Gandhi.

It all goes to show that freedom of expression in India is just a convenient political football. We have no interest in freedom of expression because the government, the Karni Senas, and the clerics' bodies all have far more clout by being cultural and moral policemen. Who cares about freedom of expression when you can hold the keys as the gatekeeper to freedom of expression?

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