Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Treat Ashish Nandy as if he were Aseem Trivedi….

Someone observing India from a distance is bound to be confused. What do we Indians really stand for? When Aseem Trivedi, the cartoonist, was arrested for trivializing the Indian flag and trashing the Constitution, we took this to be an attack on our freedom of speech. But now when Ashish Nandy made some innocuous comments – vastly misunderstood by the junta – we want to put him in jail? No one wants to protect his freedom of speech. What’s going on here????

To be fair, the intellectuals in both cases have taken a consistent stand. It’s the junta that’s behaving weirdly. The intellectuals in both cases have shown they are strongly pro-freedom-of-speech no matter who the person on the spot is. They wanted Aseem Trivedi released. They also want Ashish Nandy freed from this onerous Mayawati-demanded FIR. No, the problem is not with the intellectuals. The problem is with everyone else – the politicians and the junta.

In the Aseem Trivedi case, the movement had become political from the beginning. Aseem Trivedi was an Anna group member. Not surprising then that he became the rallying point for people against the UPA government. In private, many in the junta conceded that depicting the Indian Parliament as a toilet bowl (WC) and the Constitution as toilet roll was stretching freedom of speech a bit too far; and though the sedition charge was too far fetched, Aseem was surely guilty of abuse of freedom of speech. In public however, the junta sided strongly with him, simply because many of them were politically opposed to the UPA. Aseem Trivedi succeeded, and became a hero. As is typical with such quick-fire celebrities, Aseem was soon a part of Mumbai’s entertainment industry, featuring on the Big Boss show on Colors!

In the Ashish Nandy case, there was no political angle to begin with. In fact, no political party had even an inkling of what he was going to say. Ashish Nandy said something, which was expectedly not understood by most. Everything would have been fine; but the politicians suddenly smelled an opportunity.

For Mayawati, it became a case of asserting her dalit credentials; by pretending to protect her ilk from Nandy’s imagined attack. For Samajwadi Party also, it meant being seen on the right side of the OBCs. And likewise for the Congress, there were the SCs and STs. For the BJP, it was a question of not getting left behind. The party which cares mostly for Brahmins, and which should have actually welcomed Nandy’s statement, was compelled by competitive politics to issue statements of condemnation. The die had been cast against Nandy. He had stoked the big, bad world of politics. Ashish Nandy presented an opportunity (or a threat) to all political parties; Aseem Trivedi was an opportunity only to those opposed to the UPA. That’s why Ashish Nandy failed and became a villain; but Aseem Trivedi succeeded and became a hero.

Both cases relate to freedom of speech, but politics has ensured that we take contrarion positions on the two. We’ve known this for some time now. In India, viewpoints of political parties depend on whether they are in power or in opposition. When the BJP was ruling, it was pro-reform. When it is in opposition, it has suddenly become anti-reform. When it was in power, it did nothing about constructing the Ram temple; or even pushing the case aggressively in the courts. When it came to opposition, it changed tracks and embraced Hindutva and Ayodhya all over again. It’s the same with all political parties. Viewpoints of political parties are never based on principles; in fact, nothing about our political parties is based on principles. Everything is opportunity based. Politicans are correctly branded chameleons!

The fact is that the same principle should apply to Ashish Nandy as applied to Aseem Trivedi. Freedom of speech is paramount in a democracy. What is democracy without freedom of speech? One may disagree or agree with a viewpoint. And one may counter it fiercely with one’s own points of view. But at no point should this vital freedom be compromised or sacrificed. It may be about petty politics for our politicians; but for us as the people of this country, it is the oxygen we breathe every day. Take this freedom out, and India will soon become a China. In any case, there are several threats we face every day. We have Kamal Hasan’s film being attacked; many books being banned; and we have also seen one of India’s best known painters MF Hussain being compelled to quit India before he died. Let’s not make the mistake of adding Nandy to this list.

There will always be the question of where the line should be drawn. The restrictions ordained in Article 19(2) guide us there. In our own interest, we should be liberal to the point where it is no longer viable. Being too restrictive will hurt only us the people. The politicians will only be too happy to tether us down.

The real truth is that if ever there was a need for a mass movement at India Gate, it is now….for expressing support to Ashish Nandy. Let’s see what we, the ordinary people, can do for him. At the very minimum, we can create a virtual India Gate in the media. Media survives because of freedom of speech. It’s time our media shed its indifference and supported Ashish Nandy to the hilt. In the end, I want to refer to an excellent argument that Yogendra Yadav (oh, I so much don’t like calling him an Aam Aadmi Party leader) made the other day on TV. He said this to a fellow panelist who was demanding Nandy’s arrest “Even if you are arrested some day, I will fight for your freedom”. That is the only correct position on this subject….

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