Vadodara and our crippled freedom

I am dismayed, angry, heartbroken, and positively blue in the face. I am talking about the Vadodara incident, of course. But I am not surprised. I am not surprised that freedom (artistic and otherwise) was curtailed in such a disgusting, dramatic show of bluster. That legal machinery was used to do it. That the Vice Chancellor of a reputed university would choose to support goons rather than the Dean and the students. I am not surprised because this is, after all, a country where sex education is banned because it is considered immoral. Where ministers want to keep women at home after 8 pm because this is in keeping with our ‘culture’. And Vadodara is in a state where just a few years ago, people were killed for just being something (let alone, saying anything).

I am not surprised because this is a country where Article 19 of the Constitution, which talks about freedom of speech, lays a thick blanket of conditions on this freedom. The conditions include “the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence”.

Given the number of elements, it would be hard to create art that is not violative. What we have is a crippled freedom. You are free to speak — only as long as you offend nobody. In a country of a billion people, that means you have to cover a lot of bases. You may as well shut up.

Freedom is the cornerstone of democracy. Scratch the surface of our democracy and it falls away easily. All it takes is an upcoming election. A whim. A mood. A slow day for the saffron brigade. Anything will do really.

Art and politics have always had a complex, mostly conflicted, relationship. Even in the United States, despite the First Amendment, Giuliani went purple in the face when something upset his delicate religious sensibilities. The difference is two-fold. Firstly, he used more sophisticated methods of bullying such as threatening to withdraw funding. Secondly, the Brooklyn Museum of Art had legal recourse. They went to court — and won.

This sort of clarity can hardly be expected from our courts. A few days ago, the Supreme Court ruled that the government has the power to ban or forfeit any publication that endangers public order even if it means restricting the freedom of expression guaranteed by the Constitution. This was in relation to the banning of a novel on 12th century saint Basaveshwara. “If forfeiture is called for in the public interest it must without a doubt have pre-eminence over any individual interest,” said the judges.

Why should the individual right to freedom of expression be subordinate to some concept of a vast, homogeneous “public”? What is “public interest”? What does “endangering it” mean? Who decides? Usually, some old fart of a judge who has his own prejudiced views about those hydra-headed monsters — morality and culture — and probably has little understanding or appreciation of art.

Art, and other forms of creative expression, spawn new thoughts. It is in their nature to be provocative. Provocative stuff is most likely to offend somebody or the other. Art cannot survive in an atmosphere where one has to constantly look over one’s shoulder, fearful of offending someone. We may as well ban creative thought altogether.

The truth is that as long as antiquated notions like “morality” and “decency” continue to be part of legal parlance, there can be no progress, there can be no freedom in any real sense and art will continue to be at the mercy of anyone who cares to object. We need to seek a revisitation of what these terms mean, how or why they are relevant to the law, and whether we need laws that are based on ancient and false assumptions in a country that is hurtling to catch up with the rest of the world in other ways.

Before I move on, let me point you to Zig Zackly who has exhaustive updates on the subject and Space Bar’s lovely idea. More controversial art here, here and here.


Filed under Culture, Media

5 responses to “Vadodara and our crippled freedom

  1. Sunrayz

    Hi N- I want to share a few thoughts but didn’t want to do it in the comments section. Could you send me an email at randomback at gmail dot com? Thanks!

  2. Nithya

    It really is awful. I wasn’t half as comprehesnive on my post but similarly it enraged me enough immly to write about it. I think you hit the nail on the head – the lack of reliable legal recourse. There are all sorts of injustices all over the world – curtailing freedom of expression is on top of the list for India. But if those sparring cannot rely on a fair and just judicial system, it really is the end of the road.

    It seems that as citizens, we just can’t win. Either the law is antiquated or even if there’s a fighting chance, we’re trapped in the web of bureaucracy and corrpution so that we’re likely to give up thefight.

    You of course are an exception.

  3. Sunil

    I had to hop by to see what you had to say about this. And to put it directly, I disagree but I know I have to be more descriptive than that. I’ve just learnt about it and shall gather my thoughts into a possible post.

    Before I go wanted to ask you , what makes you say that morality and decency are antiquated notions? And art need not be protected as long as it is art , but when it starts flirting dangerously with pornography it has to cautioned. If not even abuse is expression of speech needing protection. Mind you Im not approving of what’s happened but merely objecting this Grande notion of democracy being expression of speech and other blaady blahs. As I said I shall try to write about it.

    And kindly do not mind, not to be disrespectful at all in any manner or mode but this phrase actually made me chortle; country that is hurtling to catch up with the rest of the world. What exactly is a country we are talking about? A few million software engineers, copy editors, media-men typing their thoughts into the black hole of internet ?

  4. Sunil

    Am not soft peddling it here but merely making sure that I stand by my words. Here it is:


  5. N

    sunrayz: Done!

    nithya: I hate the fact that our constitution takes ages to catch up with certain things.

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