THE RIGHT TO OFFEND
Unless we agree that freedom of expression must include the right to offend, our society will continue to routinely bow to bigots and punish artists
By Anna MM Vetticad
January has been tough on lovers of the arts. As the first month of the new year draws to a close, fans worldwide are still mourning the loss of David Bowie, Alan Rickman and Glenn Frey in quick succession. These legends were admired in India too, but we here have our own personal losses to mourn: among them, Rajesh Vivek, Mrinalini Sarabhai, Kalpana, and — the most heartbreaking of them all — the death of common sense and a sense of humour.
Though the connection is not obvious, Mumbai-based comedian Kiku Sharda’s recent arrest came to mind as I read a moving tribute to Rickman in The Guardian. It cited this quote from the late thespian: “Actors are agents of change. A film, a piece of theatre, a piece of music, or a book can make a difference. It can change the world.”
Contrast this with Sharda’s obsequious apologies to those offended by his mimicry of the Dera Sacha Sauda (DSS) chief, a man who calls himself Saint Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh Ji Insan. DSS has been variously described as a spiritual organisation, a cult and a racket. Insan co-directed, wrote and starred in a horrendous ode to himself called MSG: The Messenger in 2015. MSG2 too came out last year. It is while lampooning these lampoon-worthy films and Insan that Sharda allegedly caused “outrage” to “religious feelings” (quote marks indicate the language of the IPC’s Section 295A).
We have long been a nation of nutcases in the matter of freedom of expression. What makes Sharda’s arrest arguably the final nail in the coffin of free speech is the sub-abysmal quality of the entity he derided.
Seriously, anyone who has seen the MSG films could be forgiven for assuming that the ‘Saint’ was begging to be mocked by comedians, cartoonists, critics and the citizenry at large. How else is one to react to a ‘guru’ who encases his stocky frame in multiple multi-coloured, sequined, flashy, body-hair-baring outfits on screen? How is one to respond when he sings the words, ‘Without you any other, never never…/ Forever you are my heartbeat/ Another name is beat my heart, never never’?
The argument parroted in all such cases is that freedom of expression cannot extend to the right to “hurt religious feelings”. But what does that phrase mean? Who, for instance, decides a legitimate measure of “hurt”?
Earlier this month, I was on a television debate about the Sabarimala shrine’s practice of keeping out women in the 10-50 age group. A representative of the holy place held that opponents of the tradition are trampling upon religious freedom. The same point was made this week about women’s protests against being barred from the Shani Shingnapur temple in Maharashtra’s Ahmednagar district. The “hurting religious sentiments” contention in the Kiku Sharda-‘Saint’ Insan incident could well be extended to feminists criticising Sabarimala and Shani Shingnapur. Question: does my freedom of expression end where your freedom of religion begins?
Please note that this column is not advocating free speech absolutism. Clearly, civilised discourse requires reasonable restrictions. Since this debate is being dragged down the gutter of low intellect by right-wingers, it is best to spell out the exceptions in black and white: critiques are fine, abuse is not, so you may say “X indulges in sensationalist journalism” but not “Journalist X is a ****ing bitch who should be raped” (this is a sample from Twitter); deliberate falsehoods are unacceptable; so is rumour-mongering (of the kind we saw when mischievous SMSes were circulated in 2012 about possible violent attacks by Muslims against people from the North-east in south India as revenge for the killings of Muslims in Myanmar and Assam); also not allowed should be clearly identifiable threats of violence or calls to violence.
Beyond this, anyone objecting to the words of others should feel free to spread awareness about their objections through all available non-violent means. Write a blog, hold a seminar, sit on dharna in protest.
As a society we constantly bow to bigots and snub artists because we cannot agree on a point that should have been a given by now in 21st century India: that freedom of expression must include the right to offend. Because “offend”, “hurt”, “feelings”, “religious sentiments” and other such cliches are intangibles that can be put to dangerous use to stifle all inconvenient debate
If as liberals we do not dig our heels in on this matter, we will routinely find ourselves in situations like the present one, where a comedian is arrested for ridiculing one of the worst Hindi films in history, simply because the hero happens to be a guru to some.
We are already a society in which the Alan Rickmans among us — actors, directors, writers and other creative people who do not take lightly their power to influence — are abused, threatened, even killed when they act as “agents of change”.
You may be tempted to see this as a misplaced comparison since Kiku Sharda is no Alan Rickman, no Aamir Khan, Shah Rukh Khan, Salman Rushdie, MM Kalburgi or Govind Pansare either, and his show on ‘Saint’ Insan can by no yardstick be considered high art. It does not matter, because the mindset that seeks to suppress them all is the same: an attitude that certain issues, institutions and people are holy cows.
Freedom of expression has to include the right to diss all holy cows.
(Anna M.M. Vetticad is the author of The Adventures of an Intrepid Film Critic. Twitter: @annavetticad)
(This column was published in The Hindu Businessline on January 30, 2016)
Photo captions: (1) Kiku Sharda (2) & (3) Poster and still from the MSG films
(2) & (3) https://www.facebook.com/MSGTheFilm/
Previous instalment of Film Fatale: She, He, Them and Us