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Why The BJP’s Legal Notice To Ramachandra Guha Is Not A Blow To Free Speech

Guha accused the Sangh Parivar of being responsible for Gauri Lankesh’s murder. Should he not be held accountable?

21/09/2017 8:47 AM IST | Updated 21/09/2017 8:47 AM IST
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When veteran Kannada journalist Gauri Lankesh was shot dead by unknown assailants, it did not take long for a verdict of guilt (not accusations mind you, even the concept of a trial is alien to some demagogues) to be pronounced by somewith a presumptuous certainty, violating every concept of good sense and fair play. Never mind that the police investigation had barely started.

The BJP did what is an acceptable and constitutionally sanctioned mode of redress in a democracy: recourse to a court of law.

Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi sanctimoniously pontificated: "Anybody who speaks against ideology of BJP-RSS is pressured, beaten, attacked and even killed..." Even more damning than this knee-jerk response of a politician with fast-disappearing base was the direct and unequivocal accusation and pronouncement of the noted left historian and intellectual Ramachandra Guha. In a video interview (that leaves no room for denial), shortly after the incident with Smita Nair of Scroll.in, without mincing words he elucidated:

"It is very likely that her murderers came from the same Sangh Parivar from which the murderers of Dabholkar, Pansare and Kalburgi came."

No self-respecting individual or entity can be expected to respond to this outright slander with mute acceptance. Accordingly, the BJP did what is an acceptable and constitutionally-sanctioned mode of redress in a democracy: recourse to a court of law

However, the decision by the Karnataka BJP Yuva Morcha to issue a legal notice to the historian has unleashed a vociferous howl of protest from several quarters including scathing editorials in at least two major newspapers (see here and here).

But is this criticism valid? Can the BJP's move be interpreted as an assault on the freedom of speech and an attempt to muzzle dissent as its detractors claim?

The answer has to be a resoundingly in the negative as I will proceed to explain.

The two editorials try to mount a robust defence in favour of Guha in the guise of protecting free speech but end up tying themselves in knots.

The assertion that "Guha did not speculate on the agency of the RSS and BJP in the killing" is an audacious attempt to falsify information.

First, for all their posturing of self- righteous indignation and virtue signalling, these editorials appear to shy away from addressing directly the exact quote involved from the Scroll interview. In fact, the modus operandi employed is classically Machiavellian: deftly obfuscate the issue by shifting focus to less libellous sentiments expressed by Guha in a subsequent op-ed, as this editorial does:

"...the charge is also without merit and surely cannot stand in court. Guha only drew attention to a "climate of hate and suspicion" that has developed under the watch of the ruling dispensation. Thousands of people have voiced the same concern, and the party would turn itself into a laughing stock if it were to go after all of them, as the notice has threatened to do."

The same editorial then categorically states that "Guha did not speculate on the agency of the RSS and BJP in the killing." It goes on to say:

"On the contrary, he wrote that 'freelancers' may have been responsible, 'emboldened by politicians, ideologues and television anchors who demonise all critics of the ruling regime as anti-national'."

Another editorial avers:

"Guha does not pin blame for the murder on any one person or party. If general allegations are met with threats of defamation cases it has a chilling effect on free speech. If the bar for making an accusation is that the culprit be convicted in a court of law, that bar is too high to permit political discourse of any kind. Even if one grants that Guha was making an insinuation, it's worth noting that political discourse before any Indian election whatsoever is rife with myriad insinuations and unproven allegations, far more direct than Guha's."

Most of these arguments relate to Guha's op-ed in the Hindustan Times and while they may be valid in the context of that specific article, they come across as blatantly manipulative in the overall narrative.

[Guha's] is a loaded criminal charge, with an intent to malign, levelled against a specific entity in the context of a specific instance and must be called out.

The assertions that "Guha did not speculate on the agency of the RSS and BJP in the killing," and that "Guha does not pin blame for the murder on any one person or party," come across, to me, as attempts to falsify information.

Let me reiterate the key incriminating sentence to emphasise this. In the Scroll interview Guha clearly states:

"It is very likely that her murderers came from the same Sangh Parivar from which the murderers of Dabholkar, Pansare and Kalburgi came."

This cannot be wished away as a mere insinuation; it is a loaded criminal charge, with an intent to malign, levelled against a specific entity in the context of a specific instance and must be called out. This was the point in time when someone had to stand up and say enough is enough, and hence the libel case. The free ride sans accountability, sans decorum, is over.

Freedom of Speech is not an unbridled license to indulge in ranting and raving. It is an essential tenet of a democracy to refine the thought process for the betterment of society. It comes with moral responsibility and there must be a degree of accountability; without these safeguards, there is real danger of freedom of speech deteriorating into a purposeless and vindictive free for all.

This legal notice is not a crafty ploy to silence a trenchant critic by "taking up his time and distracting him from his calling." It is definitely not an attempt to undermine freedom of speech. In fact, it is a sincere bid to enforce some accountability and order in a debating platform gone awry.

[Guha] is duty bound to defend every word that he pens and must do so fervently and without hesitation or excuse when called upon to do so...

The contention that this legal notice would negatively impact the ruling party's and India's image abroad is a morally repugnant argument that strikes at the very core of our self-esteem. Our commitment to free speech is not a show piece that must be modulated to win anyone's approval. Unrestrained exchange of ideas is a defining and intrinsic trait of our traditional culture and current democracy that does not crave or require external validation. It is our prerogative to utilise this wisely according to the will of our people and the needs of the nation.

A simple scan of the Indian news media over the last month is ample and convincing proof that free speech in India under the BJP is live and vibrant as it has always been despite the high-decibel propaganda to the contrary. The number of articles, news reports and editorials spawned by the Gauri Lankesh murder is incredible. Most have been critical of the BJP, RSS and Hindutva. I could find barely a handful of articles (including my own) that attempted to counter the prevailing narrative.

Can there be anything more telling than this on the fate of free speech in our country?

Equally fragile is the claim that Guha's exalted stature must mute one's response to his controversial remarks for its potential impact on his "fraternity." On the contrary it is Guha who should exhibit more responsibility and restraint.

This legal confrontation must not be viewed negatively. It is an expression of our democracy and the supreme test of our commitment to free speech.

A public intellectual who writes in the national media must live up to a self-imposed ethical code of conduct: an intellectually honesty and conviction that is beyond reproach, for he carries the power to influence a large audience. Therefore, he is duty-bound to defend every word that he pens and must do so fervently and without hesitation or excuse when called upon to do so; stand up as a role model of honesty and integrity in a polarised climate that desperately needs one.

This legal confrontation must not be viewed negatively. It is an expression of our democracy and the supreme test of our commitment to free speech. Whatever the outcome, it will be a victory for free speech in its truest—and most accountable—form. That is something we all should celebrate.

The opinions expressed in this post are the personal views of the author. They do not necessarily reflect the views of HuffPost India. Any omissions or errors are the author's and HuffPost India does not assume any liability or responsibility for them.

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