Although the last two Parliament sessions have been a washout for the most important bills, but one bill got passed by stealth and did not get much media-coverage as it should have got. It was, the SC/ST act, and it has significant consequences for Freedom of Speech in India. I will quote from the article:
“The new offences added to the act under the Bill include garlanding with footwear, compelling to dispose or carry human or animal carcasses, or do manual scavenging, abusing SCs or STs by caste name in public, attempting to promote feelings of ill-will against SCs or STs or disrespecting any deceased person held in high esteem, and imposing or threatening a social or economic boycott.”
Although the law can be thought of being in good spirit, i.e., prevent criticism of Ambedkar or Kanshi Ram; but criticism by one person can be seen as disrespect by another. Its all slippery slope from here. Right now the government is throwing people behind bars for calling Mohammed gay due to the threat to social harmony, as shown in the arrest of Kamlesh Tiwari. We see this law would be used as a template to bring other similar laws to further stifle criticism of any form by extension to other communities and groups. India is a basket case when it comes to FoS. Curbing of free speech is one of the only few times when all parties in India come together.
FoS for one might be hate speech for another. It is a very subjective issue and it leads to only two outcomes – either we have free speech or we don’t. Even in case of free speech, people have the chance to go to court and file defamation cases, if they feel their reputation have been falsely maligned. So, in that sense the right is not absolute as character-assassination is not allowed and has economic penalty. But it cannot and should not apply to historical figures, i.e., dead (SC/ST) leaders or prophets. These guys should be open to ridicule as that allows free scrutiny of their actions and put history in right perspective.
Now coming to the question, why is it esp. important for Hindus to demand absolute freedom of speech in India and more so, for its interaction with Islam. It will allow people to engage in criticism of Islam which has only been done in closed quarters till now. We already have a hate speech law and we should not be surprised if it gets further modified in the future using the above law as a rough template, i.e., putting anyone in jail for criticizing the prophet. Those who have read history carefully will know that Islam has been critical of FoS for a very long time. The genesis of current hate speech law lies in the riots that followed post publishing of ‘Rangeela Rasool’ by Arya Samaj in 1927 and subsequent killing of the book’s publisher. The colonial British govt. then obliged the muslims by enacting section 295(A) and putting further restrictions on free speech. The current demands for death of Kamlesh Tiwari can be understood better in this historical backdrop.
But why Hindus should stand for FoS? It has been part of our culture to debate and no individual or even the Gods have been free from our criticism. Also, it forms the core of any modern society and allows bad ideas to be debated and booted out. This same FoS is the most important weapon in anyone’s arsenal to expose Islam. Islam is based on absolutes and thus any substantial criticism of the prophet or Quran will bring down the whole religion like a pack of cards. This is the reason that Islam fears FoS more than anything else and has inbuilt mechanism to deal with transgressions. For eg. death for apostasy and ridiculing Mohammed.
Moreover, FoS provides Hindus with one more advantage in the context of the western onslaught (refer to the national bestseller & eye-opener book ‘Breaking India‘ to know better)-challenging some claims. It has been an old Indian tradition to debate and discuss (as already mentioned), keep the useful, weed out the useless. When we forcefully close the lid on something deemed offensive, though we may feel jubilant, we foolishly also give our ‘offender’ the upper hand; s/he then claims victimhood and thus attention, while we then get labelled with those choicest of funny terms like ‘intolerant’, ‘fascists’, etc. The goal should be to challenge claims which are found preposterous, and demolish them with solid proofs and arguments, thereby also exposing the deviousness behind such attempts. The contemporary times galore of instances of this kind. Use the same weapon of FoS to counter & quash subversive designs this way.
So, should Hindus take offence when Hussain draws naked paintings of Hindu Goddesses? Or take it as a passing rite under Freedom of Speech? We think that Hindus should let it pass as a random event as one painting is not going to define Hinduism nor it will undermine the whole society. In fact it only exposes the vile minds of people who engage in such acts. But this should only be allowed when there is absolute FoS, and not under a regime where all faux-passes against Hinduism are given a free pass while a single valid criticism against Islam is censored. Since Islam has more to lose from FoS, you should not be surprised if you see few muslims supporting ban on cow slaughter in exchange for ban on discussions regarding regressive practices in Islam. Does this mean, Hindus should reach a compromise and support such measures? Well, you would not find any Hindus today who would support Sati or quote Manu Smriti on how to run the society. This implies Hindus are not stuck in the past and are happy to correct their historical mistakes. So, Hindus are not bound to extend their support to people who are still clinging to 7th century handbook and help suppress Freedom of Speech in this country.
To summarize, laws are not formed in a vacuum and set precedents for future laws. Hindus should be careful against all such small give-aways which will be used as a template to curb FoS in the future. Also, since FoS is the best weapon to expose the shallowness of Islam, it should be used as the first defence against fanatics.