Free Speech Should Have a Wild Run


Patriotism; often the first refuge of a scoundrel 

Following is  a talk on Free Speech I gave at Kamla Nehru College, Feb 2016

(Published first in DailyO)

Sadly there is nothing original, I can say about free expression which has not already been said before more eloquently and knowledgeably by others. But to paraphrase Arundhati Roy, from her essay End of Imagination;  one should be prepared to grovel, to humiliate oneself abjectly, because in the circumstances, silence would be indefensible. So we should speak out our second hand lines in this sad second hand play but lets not forget that the stakes we’re playing for are huge. Our fatigue and our shame could mean the end of us.

Roy was of course talking about the Nuclear Bombs but I assure you, the stakes for free speech are much much bigger than that.

Let me take you back in time. I think nothing more outrageous, blasphemous or more ’seditious’ if you will , has ever be said than what Charles Darwin declared in this book The Origin of Species. That we humans- share our ancestry with the apes was such a shocking thing to suggest, that many of us, so many years later, still have trouble reconciling with the idea.

But if we were to do a simple DNA test of a human and a chimpanzee, it would reveal that our DNA is 98.4 percent alike. What’s more, in terms of the DNA, the chimpanzee is more closer to us than it is to the gorilla or the baboon. But somehow we find it easier to believe, without any shred of evidence, that there were aeroplanes, nuclear bombs and plastic surgery in Vedic times.

Three centuries before Darwin, Galileo backed the Copernicus theory that it was the earth that revolved around the sun than the other way around, causing major consternation.

What these two men were saying back then, was far more offensive than what is there in the Satanic Verses , in M.F Hussain’s paintings, in Charlie Hebdo cartoons or in the so called anti-India slogans that were allegedly shouted in JNU last week. These two men were calling into question the very fundamental notions of man’s ideas about himself and his place in the world. They were striking at the very core of human ego.

In an era, where you turned to religion for all answers and where thinkers like Aristotle, who dominated the intellectual space for over a millennium, promoting geocentricism and the view that the sole purpose of other animals was to serve man, the theories of Darwin and Galileo were indeed astounding.

But for the first time in the human history these two men backed by scientific evidence, suggested that man had no exalted place on earth any more than the rat, the mosquito, the penguin or the donkey . That we snapped into being not in six quick days but are a result of millions of years of evolution from the time when we were single-cellular primitive creatures that multiplied in the chemical stew almost 3.5 billion years ago.

They showed that not only did our kind not have any special place in the scheme of things but that even our planet was pretty ordinary and that it was but a ‘’mote of dust suspended on a sunbeam’’, as astronomer Carl Sagan famously put it.

The findings of both Darwin and Galileo pitted them directly against the Church and they were quickly denounced as heretical. They were both robbed of their freedom to propagate their views more openly. Today we know how much they both have contributed to the advancement of science and by extension our understanding of ourselves.

Free speech has never had free run. There has always been and perhaps will always be an effort to muzzle, whip and reign it into submission. I guess its in our cavemanish nature to settle with the status quo and resist the new.

I came here prepared to talk about how free speech should be unfettered and without any limits. But as you have seen in the recent events in JNU, free speech has its hazards. An insecure and non-performing government is always wary of any dissent.

I believe that supporting free speech with boundaries is like trying to   mark out a territory for the sea waves in the sand. The waves have their own cadence and rhythm. They have their moods and they swing with the tides. King Canute learnt this a long time ago. I wonder if our politicians ever will.

There is no place more fitting than the educational institutions where free speech should have a wild run. Because we come to educational institutions not only to learn but also to unlearn and slough off the skin of indoctrination which we are trussed into right at our birth. We come to educational institutions not only to find answers but to fill us with questions. We come to educational institutions not only to listen but also to debate and dissent.

There is nothing wrong in saying Pakistan Zindabad or India Zindabad or Japan Zindabad. What we should we be worried about is cultivating hate weather its for India, or Pakistan or anyone else. If indeed there was hate speech at JNU there should be a deepening of dialogue not suppression.

You don’t’ become an anti-national by shouting a few slogans anymore than you become a patriot by disrupting Gulam Ali’s concerts or digging cricket pitches.  Giving tickets to people with criminal backgrounds is anti-national, failing to deliver on election promises is anti- national, evading paying your taxes is anti-national, demanding a bribe is anti-national, sending in the police to an educational institution to arrest students is anti-national.

What is a nation? By itself it’s just a notion, an abstraction, a myth just like the idea of God. And like all myths the myth of a nation was created to organize people. Unfortunately the idea of God and nation leads to such chauvinism that human history is full of bloodshed on their account. Therefore when an abstraction is exalted at the expense  individuals, we should be really worried.

You must have read recently about scientists finally discovering the existence of gravitational waves. It was one of the most remarkable scientific achievements of our times. New discoveries and new horizons lie waiting for us if we allow free thoughts to flourish, no matter how uncomfortable. Who knows how many Darwins and Galileos are out there amongst us waiting to come up with something that will shatter our cozy faith in the things we hold dear. Are we ready to welcome them or are we plain scared?

3 Responses to “Free Speech Should Have a Wild Run”

  1. Ushamrita says:

    Sanjay, you’ve taken a lovely, measured stance on what has transpired of late. Indeed, education, at its core, should seek to open up, not suppress. Voices of dissent are as welcome as voices of solidarity in a healthy democracy. As for the presence of ‘boundaries’ in matters of free speech, there ideally should be none, but that is an ideal case scenario. We live in a “rough approximation” of an ideal world. Therefore, all we say, do, think, believe, etc., etc., are, at best, rough approximations of what should be, or is, ideal. Therefore, in the absence of an ideal scenario, and working with rough approximations, one can, at most, expect a degree of sense in even the mindless protests done by over-enthusiastic students. I mean which ‘educated’ youth, in their right minds, would say things to incite feelings of hate/hostility? You have a problem with how the country functions? Sure thing, speak up, make your point heard, but have a sense of decorum when expressing yourself. Self-censorship/regulation is an art, or should we say science, a lot of us are yet to learn even the basics of. So, dear students, before shooting off with tirades & saying imbecilic things, bear in mind you have a basic education in the English language (along with a few more), and the brain to articulate coherently. Honestly, we expect the Government to shut up & allow small incidents such as the JNU incident to pass by under the garb of “allowing dissent through the fundamental right to free speech”, and then, we, the same ones, lambast the Government when a mountain is created out of a molehill. Is our consistent behaviour guaranteed? Or can inconsistent behaviour pass off as another constitutional freedom we are guaranteed? Agreed, the charge of sedition against a student leader is an extreme step, and definitely we, as a collective should speak up against it, and we are doing that. However, to allow a free run to students to talk in a reckless, unruly fashion saying it is their fundamental right to do so? When was the Fundamental Right to Free Speech ever an ‘absolute’ right? You have the right, but this right is relative to many more parameters such as time, place, situation, and such like. An ideal world is the only scenario in which one can expect an absolute measurement of life. Unfortunately, for the imitation of the ideal world we currently inhabit, relativity is a way of life we had better accept. For that’s the single realisation that will enable us to be rational thinkers, citizens of a healthy democracy who make the effort to truly educate themselves & therefore, build informed opinions & tolerant temperaments. Long way off, but this incident must serve as an important lesson to learn from.

  2. Ushamrita says:

    And, if free speech should have a free run, lets begin with the comments section of blogs. 😉 The day we can deregulate/un-moderate the comments section of our personal or official blogs, that’s the day when “free speech” in the absolute sense would have truly arrived on Planet Earth!! 😀

  3. Levi Gennett says:

    It is also necessary that there must be a reasonable nexus between the restriction imposed and the achievement of public order. In

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