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Ramachandra Guha’s half-cooked (fifty fifty) fears for India’s freedom of expression

Ramachandra Guha’s fear for India’s freedom of expression is half-cooked at best and practically non-existent at its worst, writes Dinesh Malhotra.

Speaking at the University of Melbourne’s Asia Link and Australia India Institute (AII) joint lecture “Eight Threats to Freedom of Expression in India”, Guha – eminent historian, biographer and cricket writer (their expression not mine but I certainly have no objections) said that ‘archaic and colonial laws’ still prevailed in India.

Guha listed eight threats to freedom of expression in India in the lecture series – Australia’s Role in World Series, but however, fell way short of any sensible argument or conclusion.

Although Guha said the Indian Penal Code was archaic; drafted in 1860 (under the British rule in India), his extrapolation had nothing historic about it. In Guha’s frail attempt to allure his boutique audience, he dwelt on Section 124(A) – Sedition law as the biggest culprit.

What Guha did not tell his audience is that there have been a number of legal challenges to the Sedition law and the Supreme Court of India has upheld it to be constitutional and thus valid.

In fact, most countries including Australia have sedition laws.

Guha’s complaint about Indian judicial system; was that aggrieved parties approach judiciary on trivial issues of being ‘affected’ by someone’s expression, which, he suggested curbs freedom of expression.

What Guha forgets is that the law – a valid instrument of the state exists, to be called in, by anyone ‘affected’. Guha is unfortunately, not even adept at mechanically manufacturing his log-bow argument.

Arguing against the rise of identity politics in India; wherein politicians are unable to accept criticism, Guha also encompassed behaviour of the police force that threatened free expression.

According to Guha, if someone does manage to seek judicial assistance successfully, police, in many cases would take no action, alluding to pusillanimity and complicity of politicians.

He however, did not advance any evidence that deliberately undermined free expression that had gone unpunished by Indian judiciary.

Dependence of media on advertising, government or corporate; Guha argued resulted in stifling expression in India.

He said that rise of careerist and idealistic writers, committing allegiance to a specific group, political or corporate interest were a threat to freedom of expression.

The reality is, careerist and idealistic writers make a choice.

If he was suggesting any solution against careerist writers, would that not be proselytising his treatises from his accomplished status?

Is he calling for curbing or controlling one’s chosen thoughts and expression? A clear contradiction to his own thesis!

The grief is that Guha’s list of Indian imperfections that he based his thesis on – are not ‘India’ typical, but by-products of capitalist settings of a government system, prevalent even in most developed countries.

All of Guha’s ‘threats’ – or typologies (as one in the audience labelled) are mere imperfections of a real state at work which is routinely ‘fixed’ – by people running it.

‘His’ eight points can be summed up into just two – imperfections of a working society and choices made by instruments in that working system.

Guha’s lecture was anything but intellectually stimulating, without much research on the subject; but some coffee-club thoughts cobbled together for presentation to a boutique audience.

Guha missed two very important points:

  1. Restrictions apply equally to expression as speech as well as expression as work including the work of art – MF Hussein’s expression; and
  2. Restrictions shall address concerns of the common man – not just limited to elitist academics or pseudo-intellectuals, who really self-serving, feign Voltairean skin.

Guha wailed that an artist like MF Hussein had to die in exile in Dubai; because Hindus sued him in at least 12 different Indian states, for painting their Goddess in the nude.

Guha told a Hindu member of the audience – opposed to that MF Hussein painting that, ‘he was the type of Hindus who behave like ‘Islamists’ adding that, that restricted freedom of expression.

While earlier, Guha had himself outlined that freedom of expression was not absolute, qualifying it with necessary restrictions, he added that being a Hindu himself, he was not offended by MF Hussein’s work.

By saying that, Guha like many other Indian ‘intellectuals’ was attempting to obscure the fact that MF Hussein had violated his freedom of expression by completely overlooking the restrictions imposed by law.

How he could expect to enforce his Voltairean ideology on all Hindus, is beyond any understanding.

Guha flaunted his beneficiary (of the West) status indirectly telling the audience that his ‘international reputation’, allowed him to freely express, while others can even be killed in India.

India’s misfortune is that many of its academic and educated elite, particularly those who communicate in English – thus automatically licensed to address their country’s intellectual concerns, to the West’s delight; whether they exist or not, thrive thus totally intoxicated.

In many cases, their superfluous ideas are more valuable in the ‘West’ than in their own country. One would struggle to name one Indian, who criticises India and its system; and is yet to be embraced by the West.

Finally Guha’s misrepresentation of Voltaire when he attributed the quote, “I don’t agree with what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it”, to him, was perhaps the evidence of intellectualism hard-pressed for time.

These words are not Voltaire’s. These words were coined by Evelyn Beatrice Hall in a 1906 biography attempting to sum up Voltaire’s thinking on free speech.

His lecture on his concerns for freedom of expression in India was flawed, without logical flow and Guha failed to defend his thesis.

The only upside for me was his observation that no interest groups in India had claimed ownership over Mahatma Gandhi and thus it was a safe subject to write on. Guha himself, has authored two books on Gandhi.

(Dinesh Malhotra is the founding editor of Bharat Times. He is also a qualified lawyer, admitted to practice.)

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