When someone promises to beat you up if you don’t give them what they want, we call it a threat. Any police officer will know that it’s illegal. If you file a complaint and the policeman says “Just do what they want and you won’t get thrashed!”, you know that the police has forgotten its duty. No sane person in a civilized society will side with that policeman or the thugs doing the threatening. But apparently in India we have neither sane people, nor do we live in a civilized society.
To put it more accurately, neither the police nor the politicians realize that India is a free country. Or perhaps they have a more pervasive understanding of “freedom” than I do. In their eyes, it’s not freedom to live your life as you want, but the freedom to bully and intimidate. Amina Wadud is a well known Islamic scholar who was scheduled to give a talk on women’s issues in Islam. Predictably, some fringe groups threatened to agitate. The police instead of reassuring Madras University by promising to arrest anyone who broke the law, “warned” them that things could get ugly. As a result, the talk was cancelled and Amina Wadud was informed that she was no longer welcome to make a public address at that venue.
This is called the Heckler’s Veto
It’s nothing new. Civilized countries all across the world have formulated ways to deal with what is known as the ‘Hecker’s Veto”. Essentially it means that the government refuses to allow freedom of expression out of fear of someone else’s reaction. In essence giving in to blackmail by any thug who claims to be “offended” or whose “sentiments are hurt”. Instead of providing protection to people exercising their free speech rights, the government takes the lazy way out by banning it, in the process trampling all over the Constitution and its responsibility to the people.
But it’s so pervasive that we rarely even stop to think about it. Most of the time in India people side with the “offended ones”. On Internet forums all over the web you keep hearing “You don’t have the right to hurt someone’s sentiments!”. But “sentiment” is so poorly defined that anyone can literally take offence at anything. Whether it’s Sena thugs taking “offence” at girls posting on Facebook, or atheists being taken to court merely for expressing their view that god doesn’t exist.
You almost never hear them tell the hecklers “Look, you have the right to protest. You have the right to feel offended. You have the right to use your own Freedom of Expression to combat what you don’t like. Write books, draw comics, make speeches, sing songs, or create displays etc. But you have no right to stop others from speaking using threats of violence”. Why is this such a hard concept to understand? The solution to freedom of speech being “abused” is more freedom of speech.
In any case, the government needs to possess a monopoly on violence in strict accordance with the law. I don’t care what your provocation is, if you raise a hand against someone who hasn’t raised a hand against you, you should be thrown in jail – your sentiments and feelings be damned. No one cares about your feelings the moment you destroy property, or threaten someone. It’s as simple as that.
I won’t beat a dead horse by explaining how the 66A IT amendments are unconstitutional and wide open to abuse. I want some political party to stand up and publicly promise to repeal it. I’ve been skeptical about the BJP for the longest time, but let them promise this one thing and I’ll throw my support behind them. Or the UPA for that matter. Let them guarantee an India where the government promises to obey the law and follow the Constitution.