Frontiers to freedom

Is humour for one offensive to another? Is fun at one’s expense mirth for another? When does humour transgress limits to become a slight? Are we touchy when we are made fun of but can’t hold back a smile when another is being mocked? These were questions that  were bounced off in a debate on television yesterday. The context was a PIL (public interest litigation) by a Sikh group in the Supreme Court of India against the infamous ‘Sardarji’ jokes that stereotype male members of the Sikh community as being dim-witted.

The Americans for their English (‘Americans haven’t spoken English in ages’, Prof. Henry Higgins, immortalised on screen by Rex Harrison, famously said), the British for their accent (when attempting to speak in Indian languages, for instance), the Germans for their love of ‘organization’ and their lack of humour (see the delightful ‘Those Magnificent Men and their Flying Machines’) and Indians for their love of loudness – in everything from speech to honking on the road to colourful attire – are all stereotypes that humorists unapologetically milk to the hilt.

While artists of all genres (from stand-up comedians to actors, writers, painters and media-persons) are unanimous that they have the freedom to spoof whoever they wish, they stop short of political incorrectness. Certain communities (of which the brahmin community is not one) and certain religious adherents (of which the Hindu affiliates are not one) are sacrosanct, their sensibilities and sensitivities are not to be trifled with.  As for the rest the said actors, litterateurs et al refuse to be held responsible for thin-skinned audiences.

Can there be frontiers to freedom? Should there be? Wouldn’t talk of ‘limits’ to freedom become oxymoronic? Perhaps, an answer can be found in this ‘Fool’s Prattle’. Says D V Gundappa in his classic work of philosophy for the layperson, Mankuthimmana Kagga:

The roving bird responds to the call of its nest, the ambling cow lets the rope on its neck hold it back. What is life if not bound by any value?

Self-restraint and allowing oneself to be restrained by societal norms are limits that make freedom a happy choice for all and not just the ones who claim their right to it. To be civil is not to be unfree!

The #IndianScientificCommunity and their irrational fears

I have reproduced in this post the text of a recent online petition of the Indian scientists protesting what they term “the climate of intolerance” in the country.  My questions to them are indented, in red, in-line.

The scientific community is deeply concerned with the climate of intolerance, and the ways in which science and reason are being eroded in the country.

Apart from the stray comments of people in power, is there any evidence that science and reason are being eroded in the country?  Indeed, the question is: is the tradition and practice of Science in our country so vulnerable that it can allow unreason to prevail? 

It is the same climate of intolerance, and rejection of reason that has led to the lynching in Dadri of Mohammad Akhlaq Saifi and the assassinations of Prof Kalburgi, Dr Narendra Dabholkar and Shri Govind Pansare. All three fought against superstition and obscurantism to build a scientific temper in our society. Prof Kalburgi was a renowned scholar and an authority on the Vachana literature associated with the 12th-century reformer Basava, who opposed institutionalised religion, caste and gender discrimination. Similarly, Dr Dabholkar and Shri Pansare promoted scientific temper through their fight against superstition and blind faith.

It is important, firstly, to delink the lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq Saifi from the assassinations of the rationalists.  The first, a crime against an individual, is inhumane in its conception and execution.  The other three crimes appear to have been executed against a belief system that is at odds with that of the perpetrators of the crime.  However, it is important to bear in mind that the criminals are yet to be brought to book and their motivations, exposed.  Till such time that this is done, who is responsible for these crimes can only be conjecture born of gut feeling.  It is also important, in this context, to recall that a recent news reported the finding of the dead body of one of the suspects alleged to have killed Prof. Kalburgi: the former had himself been killed under mysterious circumstances, which now has further complicated the investigation.

The Indian Constitution in Article 51 A (h) demands, as a part of the fundamental duties of the citizens, that we ‘…develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform’. Unfortunately, what we are witnessing instead is the active promotion of irrational and sectarian thought by important functionaries of the government.

Once again, this claim is not borne out by sufficient evidence.  A few stray comments do not warrant the overarching comment that “we are witnessing the active promotion of irrational and sectarian thought” almost as a matter of state policy. 

More importantly, though not germane to this discussion, since ‘humanism’ has been cited as a guiding spirit behind the action of the scientists, why are the victims of Bhopal not deserving of this compassion? Why has Indian academia not take any significant step to argue the case of the thousands of ordinary people who suffered and continue to suffer the consequences of the worst man-made tragedy independent India has witnessed?

The Indian civilisation is a truly plural one. We have always had many practices and communities that have allowed space for each other; we celebrate the festivals and anniversaries of all faiths. This unity and peace has now been disturbed by a rash of bigoted acts, attacks on minorities and Dalits, which show no signs of abating.

The pluralism continues to be felt on the streets, in the markets, in every means of public transport, and in every place where masses gather to either have their opium or their caffeine and nicotine.  To superimpose a drawing room or conference room perspective of conflict on to the society at large and claim that “unity and peace has now been disturbed by a rash of bigoted acts” speaks of the disconnect of the intelligentsia with the real India.

The writers have shown the way with their protests. We scientists now join our voices to theirs, to assert that the Indian people will not accept such attacks on reason, science and our plural culture. We reject the destructive narrow view of India that seeks to dictate what people will wear, think, eat and who they will love.

Once again, a few stray incidents are being blown out of proportion to make it seem as if there is a war against right-thinking individuals by right-wing individuals or groups.  What people should wear, think, eat and love have always been subjects of debate.  Lumping them together as is done here only seems to be a tactic to give an impression of a crisis where no such thing exists.

Consider this: when someone asks the masses to question superstition is it not as much about telling people how to think and what to practice?  When an unwritten dress code exists in each of our public and private spaces, in institutions, at events and gatherings are we not already outsourcing our sartorial sense? As for eating: sciences of health, medicine and nutrition have more or less taken over our kitchen, and public policies in this regard are impacted by multiple agencies.  Midday meal programmes in schools that includes eggs and milk or ragi porridge and biscuits are definitely not tailored to individual tastes or cultural practices!

We appeal to all other sections of society to raise their voice against the assault on reason and scientific temper we are witnessing in India today.

“Assault on reason and scientific temper”, once again, is a hyperbolic sentiment.  It is, in fact, a reiteration of an unsubstantiated claim already made several times over in the scientific community’s rather short letter. Redundancy does not add value to a claim.  And repeating a claim does not make it any more true than what it is worth.

The views expressed in the statement are individual and do not reflect views of the institution a signatory is affiliated to.

I find this disclaimer hypocritical: Courage of conviction demands that the individuals de-link their names from their positions.  Unless an individual feels that in order to draw attention to one’s views it is necessary to use their institutional affiliation as a crutch!

When words lose their meaning, and meanings their import

What does it mean to have the right to #FreedomOfExpression?  Is it simply to say whatever comes into your head? Is it to flirt with the scurrilous to ensure your media outfit gets all the ears and eyeballs?  Or is it to simply follow the flock so that you may not get left behind trying to tread a path less trodden?

No doubt it is important to question a policeman’s public rage at his daughter’s personal choice of spouse.  But as a father, was he given the media space to freely express his opinion about why he considers the choice of partner less wise?  When students having a party at a bar or getting intimate in a park are bashed up the media is right to call the vigilantes retrograde.  But the media should not shy away from using their right to also ask where the line should be drawn, especially when a young life is lost because a juvenile drove a car into a tree in the wee morning hours, killing the minor girl he was with.   A thali can be considered as much a regressive hangover of a patriarchal conservative society as a burqa.  Equally, the agents of choice are the individuals concerned and their voices have the right to be heard undiluted by scepticism.

The right to freedom of expression – whether on social or other media – should not be more for some than for others. The right to express freely on some topics is not more, and, equally, it is not less so if you take certain positions.

Censorship and Debate: a lesson from ancient India

Censorship may not be all bad.  Problem is, it doesn’t work.  True, all minds are not cultivated to the same degree, trained sufficiently or mature enough to approach with suspicion, question before absorbing the import of what is being said, or to suspect intrigue.    But you cannot even censor your own kids: they will find ways to use the words, read the literature, and do the acts you prohibit.  So, where does that leave larger entities that try to clamp down on free speech, thought and expression?

Western systems, since millennia, appear to have considered it prudent to censor thought: Plato, in Republic, goes into some detail about what young minds should be exposed to, and Rousseau’s Emile is premised on this.  But in India, what has come to be called ‘Hindu’ philosophy preferred healthy debate to censorship, which is one of the reasons it  keeps giving rise to breakaway cults and heterodoxies that become strong, individual congregations in their own right.

Nyaya, a precursor of Western Logic, for instance, is among the earliest systematised schools of thought rooted in the ‘Hindu’ philosophy.  It predates the Christian era and was the fountainhead of several treatises on Tarka, which may be loosely translated as reflective analysis or argument.  Tarka, an important scholarly enterprise of ancient India, which was honed as both a science and an art, was instrumental in establishing the claims of one philosopher or philosophy over another, often in an assembly of scholars, laypersons and aristocrats.  The written word was also used to powerful effect at transformational change by following the norms of scientific debate.

Contemporary Indian polity – by which term I mean the nation and its various organs from government to media to the public at large – would do well to reclaim this ancient Indian tradition of logical reasoning and healthy debate to counter what are perceived as deviant opinions rather than try to cow down discomfiting strains of thought with censorship.  Rather than ban a book, film or play, write a book, produce a film or stage a play with an alternative viewpoint.   Don’t take the easy way out and just try to wish away what you don’t like or want with a blanket ban.  The atheist streams have had their space in Indian society: from Carvaka-s of ancient India to Dravidian movements of contemporary times.  No one banned them.  They did not gather steam or drifted away from their moorings because the larger sections of Indian society found greater meaning in non-atheist thought.   If you want your view to prevail, you will take the trouble to give it the contours of reason and substance.