Friday, August 10, 2007

Right to free speech?

Yesterday's attack on controversial Bangladeshi author Taslima Nasreen speaks volumes about the increasing intolerance in Indian society. We, as Indians, pat ourselves on the back about democratic tradition in our beloved homeland and pride ourselves on the inherent tolerance of the Indian people. But, where has that tolerance gone now? Ms. Nasreen was in Hyderabad to release the Telugu version of her new book Shodh, when activists of the All-India Majilis-E-Itihadul Muslimeen attacked the gathering. Not only is the attack worth condemning but the words of a local AIMIM MLA on CNN-IBN are simply outrageous. He claimed, in full view of television cameras, that the "punishment" meted out to Ms. Nasreen was insufficient and she should have been killed to teach a lesson to all other presumptuous Muslim women who dare to speak out against oppression. The new book Shodh explores the life of a woman wanting to break free and live life on her own terms.

The AIMIM claims that the book is anti-Islamic and that Taslima Nasreen is a kafir for daring to express herself. The attack against Ms. Nasreen is just one example of the growing intolerance in Indian society. In fact, the incident reminded me of the annual anti-Valentine's Day vandalism carried out by the Shiv Sena. It is not just religious fundamentalist groups who indulge in such acts. A few years ago, about 20 young couples were arrested by the Chennai City Police at a park in Anna Nagar, one of the posher areas of the city. When the parents of the arrested arrived, the police claimed to have arrested them for indecent exposure in public. Apparently, holding your boyfriend's hand in broad daylight is considered indecent exposure. As usual, the local Hindu Munnani activists and other fundamentalist outfits, both Hindu and Muslim, condemned the behaviour of the poor couples and blamed the decadence on the West.

All this brings us to one fundamental question. Since when is speaking your mind taboo in this country? Why should Ms. Nasreen be attacked simply because she chose to say out aloud what many of us think privately anyway? A more pertinent question would be why nobody does anything when such incidents occur? Everyone from the AP Chief Minister to the Prime Minister to the press condemns the attack on Ms. Nasreen, but the attackers were let off on bail almost as soon as they were arrested. Chances are the case will be forgotten over the next week. Why does nobody think it fit to arrest the man who practically called for Ms. Nasreen's assassination and slap a charge of inflammatory speech on him? All this makes me wonder whether the right to free speech is not merely a politically correct thing to accord in this country. Do we really have the right to free speech without fearing reprisal? I don't know.

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