Amartya Sen’s article in Indian Express, 13th February 2016, titled “Dissent and freedom in India” is very well-argued and balanced.
Sen rightly notes that we are too tolerant, to the extent tolerating intolerance. That we should be more determined and proactive in defending our freedom. He also rightly notes that neither Indian constitution nor Indian tradition, including Hindu tradition, can be blamed for this intolerance. The constitution gives Indians freedom to express and disagree. The Hindu tradition (he quotes the famous Nasadiya Sukta from Rig Veda, the ultimate in scepticism about God to my mind) according to him was “familiar with, and tolerant of, arguments about religious beliefs for more than 3,000 years”.
He blames the intolerance on, (1) small organised groups, (2) their “imagined entitlement of “not to be offended” (an alleged entitlement that does not seem to exist in this particular form in any other country)”, and (3) colonial era “British law, primarily Section 295(A)” which puts “on a pedestal … the sentiments of any religious group”. Then he suggests five strategic points to resist “unfreedom” being imposed on us, all of them are perfectly valid, very good and can be very effective if used with commitment and judgment.
In all these points one sees a clear mind of a Nobel Laureate and great intellectual. All these points are briefly but very well argued and make perfect sense. Actually they put the finger right on the ailing nerve.
And yet, something is deeply wrong with Sen’s article.
That wrong is not in what he says, not in what he argues for, not in the way he argues, not in his facts. That wrong lies in what Sen has left out unsaid, what he deliberately avoids, what he communicates without stating, an overall un-argued argument he makes effortlessly.
In his well-written 1200 word article Mr. Sen makes references to 9 examples of intolerant behaviour of small organised groups which imposed ‘unfreedom’ on the majority tolerant population. Seven of them are sound and justified examples, even if somewhat repetitive. One can question and debate only two of them. Court cases on MF Hussain and Wendy Doniger. They were court cases, and a citizen has the right to go to the court against something which s/he finds objectionable and illegal; it is for the courts to decide whether to uphold the appellant’s contention. In both these examples the cases were not pursued to the end. But he is partially right even here, as he blames Section 295(A) of IPC, on the basis of which such complaints become justiciable and in the light of which the outcomes might have gone in favour of the appellants.
What is wrong in the article is his careful choice of the examples. Out of nine examples only one example puts the blame of attacking freedom on a Muslim group—that of Satanic Verses. And even there it is put on the government of the day. All other examples are those of unjust restriction of freedom by Hindu groups.
Taslima Nasrn’s plight, attacks on Lokmat office in Maharashtra and subsequent unconditional apology of from the paper, Kamalesh Tiwari being in jail, having a prize of 51 lakh on his head announced by a UP cleric and continuing violent protest to hammer home the demand of death penalty for blasphemy, chopping of fingers of a Kerala professor for a question in examination paper that mentioned Muhammad; none of these are alluded to in his article. These are recent examples, if one goes little farther back than Satanic Verses one finds example of serious communal riots on making Muhammad a character in a Kannada story and a host of many more such cases.
Sen, therefore, is creating an impression that the threat to freedom and imposition of ‘unfreedom’ is from the small but organised Hindu groups. Actually, it might be alleged that he considers the examples of Muslim groups’ imposition of unfreedom primarily as out comes of attack on a religious minority; and therefore, just a reaction from the minority and not instances of imposing unfreedom.
As long as our tallest intellectual remain selective in siting instances of intolerance and keep focussing on one wrong doer, either condoning or ignoring the other, we will not be able to defend the freedom of speech, we will not be able to stem the tide of intolerance. Actually, we will be strengthening one intolerant group (the Hindu one) and encouraging the other (the Muslim one).
Some very wise intellectuals interpret this demand for mentioning and condemning both groups as ‘a balancing act’ of giving ‘equal blows’ to both groups; a demand for ‘if hit one, hit the other as well’. This is excessively moronic interpretation of this demand. It is not to balance your blows; but is a demand for commitment to always, by principle, call a spade a spade. Respecting the truth equally wherever and in whatever shape it is found; without considerations for political correctness or ideological commitments or your current political purposes. Because the truth filtered through these screens is no more a truth, it becomes a falsehood, it becomes what Harry Frankfurt calls “bullshit”.
Yes, this is a very high moral demand. Not easy to meet, even if you happen to be a great intellectual. But then freedom of expression is a very high moral principle; you cannot buy a diamond for dimes. If you are not prepared to pay the price of freedom in coins of truth and fairness you are condemned to forfeit it. The choice is yours.
It is important to say all this particularly in response to a well-argued and largely balanced article by a top level and much respected intellectual. As the value of valid and forceful arguments is likely to be reduced by simple omission which can be interpreted as a biased selection. And also, because the very potent strategic points listed in the article are likely to become operationalised in an imbalanced and unfair manner by the politically correct intellectuals.
In today’s climate it is easy to interpret what is written in the paragraphs above as a justification of what small organised Hindu groups are doing. Again, it would be a moronic interpretation. These groups rightly deserve condemnation and punishment as per the law; even if other groups committing similar crimes go scot-free, it does not justify leaving them scot-free as well. But such condemnation and one-sided punishment will not stop the intolerance. It will only create a mentality of unjustified victimhood in them and their resolve to perpetrate their heinous acts will only strengthen. To eradicate a malaise one has to give appropriate treatment to all infected by it; being selective leave the virus flourishing and it becomes resistant to your medication in due time.